On being candle wax – Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-end #Advent2017

Sunday marked the Christian ‘new year’, or Advent as we prefer to call it. It was also my second trip to preach and celebrate Holy Communion at St. Barnabas Darby Green. I may have used candles in my illustrations; including tapers there were technically four of them (Two Ronnies sketch here, if you really must). The opening of the audio version of the sermon refers to the incumbent, Rev’d Lerys Campbell, who has a snazzy, home made, Advent stole with four candles, to which he can add a flame each week of Advent… I’m not jealous, honest!

It’s strange how God speaks through us; personally, on reflection, I thought this illustration poor, and the sermon disjointed, but still it appeared to speak to people. Always humbling.

 

Hopefully at some point in our lives, we’ve all held a candle. I mean the real deal (picking up one, and lighting it), not a flame of unrequited love 😉

If we’ve held a Christingle candle, taken part in a candlelit Carol or Candlemas Service, or become a Godparent and held a child’s baptism candle, the chances are we’ve watched the wax melt, and discovered that as it trickles down the candle, it can trickle through the slits of the candle holder onto the back of our hands. Very often the nature of the service means we can do little about it, except perhaps blow the candle out prematurely if it becomes too painful. We’ll also know that as the wax cools, it mounds itself to the shape of our hands, so that when we flex afterwards, it cracks and peels off.

Many of us are well used to the symbolism of a candle flame representing Jesus, ‘the light who is coming into the world’; the season of Advent at the start of the new Christian year brings that symbolism sharply into focus.

A candle flame comes from a burning wick, something that is capable of burning with little or no wax, as we find with our church tapers (light taper, let it flame); the light burns large & faster almost that wick is consumed (blow it out).

Of course at home, we quite possibly use fat pillar candles to create a romantic or relaxing effect (light a pillar candle, leave it to burn), and with them the quantity of wax and the time it takes to melt, slows the rate of burn, helping the candle to last longer. Indeed there is often spare wax that isn’t burnt away, and the flame sinks to be hidden in a tunnel, until we come along with a sharp knife to carve it away, a job done most easily when the candle has just been extinguished and the wax is soft.

We focus so much on the light, and give little thought to the wax, it’s role or purpose, the symbolism we can usefully assign to it. So this morning I want to suggest that WE are the wax that is being melted by the candle flame of Christ ‘the light of the world’, when we let the Holy Spirit burn through us, melting us, moulding and changing us.

This first Sunday in Advent we are focusing on hope, the light of hope that exists in the darkness of our lives, the things we do wrong, the mistakes we make, the ‘hopeless’ scenarios of our existence that pertain to the terminal illness of a loved one, or uncertainty over a job, or welfare payments. What we are looking for is hope in a God of new beginnings, who is faithful to his promise that he will be with us in such darkness, and in his ultimate desire to create a new heaven and a new earth, in which are right with him, or as we might say, righteous.

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning, are full of reminders of the mistakes the world, and often we God’s people, have made or are in danger of making.

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    “Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?”
  • In Is 64:6, Israel, was recognised by God’s prophets as being like a soiled and dirty cloth that has hardened dry, and which can no longer be used. And it is likened to a faded autumn leaf that is easily blown away. Both the cloth and the leaf have become brittle, hard and useless, like the dribbles of wax we pick off a candle, or our hand, when they’ve gone cold (pick some off a ‘pre-dribbled’ candle). Are we so soiled by the world we’ve become brittle and useless?
  • In Mark 13:35-36, Jesus’ hearers are reminded that as servants of God, they need to stay awake, to recognise when it is that their master is coming. In both passages there is a sense of distance between God’s people and his eternal presence, a hidden-ness that Israel saw as God turning his face from them. If we keep the wax base of a candle away from the taper’s flame, it remains hard, and cannot be melted to mold itself to a candle holder (demonstrate – see above). Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?
  • Even when Jesus quotes from Daniel 7 in reference to himself as the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds’, it is a reference not so much to the hoped-for Second Coming when God will draw heaven and earth together as one in his presence, but to Jesus’s own ‘coming’ to God after his suffering, in his resurrection and ascension. It is also about God’s judgement on the spiritual system that had corrupted Israel’s worship both in the Temple and the voices of it’s religious leaders. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, is in large part the consequence of these things that Jesus is anticipating in Mark 13. Like the extraneous wax in a pillar candle too large for the wick around which it is built, have we or the organisations of our world, built a pride and arrogance into our lifestyles, businesses and political structures such that they hide the Christ-light of the Christians within them, and thus need tearing down? (Carve a lump out the pillar candle.)

These illustrations are a reminder instead that God’s people down the ages have had an uncanny habit of making themselves blind to God’s presence, to God’s will for their lives, to God’s purposes in the world. It was not God that turned away, despite his judgement on Israel’s sins, but their sin, and the sin of their leaders that created a barrier between them and God. If we’re honest, we do it too; hopelessness is not an absence of God, but an absence of our ability to see God. That’s why we need the light; it’s why the world needed, and still needs, Jesus.

As Isaiah explains, the hope we crave is in God’s faithfulness despite we continue to do to make him feel distant, and blame him for the wrongs we encounter in the world. The prophet’s petition is ‘Do not be exceedingly angry with us Lord, do not remember our sins, our iniquities” (Is 64:9).

  • Instead we are to remember, that the God of Israel did awesome deeds throughout their history that they didn’t expect (Is 42:3), not least in their Exodus out of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, their coming to the promised land. It is important to recount what God has already done in our lives too, for there in his faithfulness is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember that our creator God who brought Jesus into the world to release us from our sins, is the same creator God who brings new life to the fig (Mark 13:28) and other trees each spring. It is important to see the new beginnings of God in creation and in our lives and treasure them, for there is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember, that God meets with each of us who seeks to do right, and who remembers that God’s ways (Is 64:5) are frequently not the ways of the world. It is important that we are obedient to God’s teachings, his healing touch, his justice, which we recognise in Jesus; for in them is the light of hope.

As we go though Advent, perhaps with a candle burning at home each day (show and light our Advent candle from home), as well as on our wreath here each Sunday (point to the church Advent candle), let us consider that if we are the wax of a candle, we need to be in the right proximity to the light of Christ, so that we are heated, molded, melted and changed in such a positive way that in his name, we become clear beacons of light and hope in the world.

Thanks to Grahart who’s blogging his way through Advent with the AdventBookClub2017 and Magdalen Smith’s ‘Unearthly Beauty’ for the photos, and to Liz our lovely prayerful local florist who is selling up to retire at Christmas, and from whom I got the instant prop-table!

 

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Doing the right thing – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end Romans 7:15-25

Printer issues!
Printer issues! (Right on cue as I post the sermon on the blog, the laptop can’t see the printer – and Graham’s at the cricket!!)

Doing the right thing doesn’t involve un-necessary guilt.

I have a constant and irritating problem, and it involves a computer. Well, to be precise my laptop and our printer. Quite regularly the former will not talk to the latter, in fact frequently my laptop can’t even see the printer. Over the months we’ve had the current equipment configuration, Graham has patiently shown me a whole raft of things that may be the source of the trouble, because it’s never quite the same thing twice. But I’ve a poor memory for tech stuff, and you can bet your bottom dollar that when he’s frantic to meet a marking or report deadline, it will be the moment I simply can’t make them talk to each other whatever I try, with a deadline of my own to meet. I feel guilty interrupting him to get him to fix it, he gets grumpy solving the latest glitch, and I feel more guilty still. Then some time later, problem solved and deadlines met, he gets guilty that he got grumpy. We both feel that we can’t seem to do anything right.

It can be the same with the ordering of church life. Those who have been called to and accepted positions of ministry and authority from those around them can, if they are not careful, live with a constant sense of guilt that they are able neither to fulfil the preferences and desires of every person in every pew, nor bring immediately to fruition every sensible and spirit-filled practice that prayer and prophesy lay on their hearts. We get grumpy, and we feel even more guilty. We think there is no good in us, and we can’t seem to do anything right.

Likewise, when we first hear and read this mornings scriptures, it would be very easy to be left with the feeling that we can’t do anything right.

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he’s dwelling on the fact that however much he, or historically the people of Israel, are aware through the Law (the Ten Commandments) that guides how they should live and what the right things to do are, they fail. The Law has in fact been there to show them just how wrong they are, time, and time and time again. From the Old Testament we know that each time Israel has been rescued by God, from starvation, slavery, and exile, it’s not long before they’ve forgotten the faithfulness of God, and they’ve wandered off to place their faith in idols and other gods, only to call on the name of the Lord once again when things turn sour and difficult. We are rightly challenged that we’re pretty good at doing the same thing, and surprised that St. Paul sees himself as being as guilty as any other Jew of his time, or any other man or woman of our time.

In fact, there’s almost a sense of relief for us, in the slightly tortured, guilt ridden words of St. Paul; relief that we’re not the only ones who may spend quiet hours wandering in our heads around the inside of our lives, our motives, our lack of faith, our inability to give enough of ourselves to others, or do the right thing. He may have been externalising his own thought processes to talk to fellow Jews living in Rome, but he couldn’t have highlighted his own failings and humanity better; or ours.

Our Gospel from Matthew this morning also seems to start by suggesting we can’t do anything right. In a conversation that has come out of John the Baptist enquiring from prison as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah, we find Jesus pointing out that their combined ministries have shown the Jews of their time to once again be a fickle generation. Both have been refused a hearing because they are uncomfortable to listen to, and failed to conform to the stereotypes of the current zeitgeist. Nothing changes. People still have a strong tendency of making a song and dance about their own populist agenda, refusing to consider an alternative focus or reason for their endeavours, and forgetting the love and faithfulness of God. We just can’t do anything right.

Or can we? Are we in fact making our things just way too difficult for ourselves, dwelling on our repeated failings, living with a misplaced guilt that suggests that we’re not achieving the right things, and the fact that we have sinned and constantly fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and all he has called us to be?

It is all very well admitting defeat when we can’t fix the computer, being honest about our failure to be always patient or loving towards our family and our neighbours, or knowing we’ve simply run out of our own ability to give because of our own health issues, but if we forget that under the new covenant we don’t encounter God in a list of rules and regulations but in the grace that revealed his love for us through Jesus Christ our Lord, we’re making our burdens heavier than they need be.

Living with a constant sense of guilt is not a cross that we are called to bear. Yes, we recognise that following the example of Christ can lead us through a narrow gate to a hard road (Matthew 7:14), and that we must take up the cross of whatever ministry we are called to fulfil in Jesus name, because not to makes us unworthy to call ourselves Christians (Matthew 10:38). But that road and cross should not include a load of un-necessary guilt.

Jesus, the gentle, prayerful priest in the second part of our Gospel this morning (Matthew 11:25-30), reminds us that we are called to learn from him, to be his disciples, not just in the things that we focus on doing in his name, but through knowing ourselves loved by God through having Jesus present with us on the journey.

The invitation to discipleship is about more than learning or knowledge, computers or even the ordering of church life; it is the adoption of a way of life that is expressed in terms of doing and being something in relation to Jesus. Jesus grounds the invitation in his own relationship with his Father (Matthew 11:27). The proper ordering of our relationship to Father and Son (we know the one through the other) can be deemed “light” and “easy” because an improper relationship to them surely makes for a much harder and more restless life! We ask ourselves what is our relationship with Jesus showing us, and if we forget the ongoing love, grace and forgiveness of the cross and resurrection, we’re missing something vital.

We do not rest in the presence of an absent master, but in Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). Doing the right thing requires us to remember why it is we gather around the table as the body of Christ, each individual, each called, each receiving the body and blood of Christ not simply in bread and wine, but in the sense of knowing ourselves to be chosen, forgiven and loved as God’s own children. That is what makes our burdens light, and lets us rest. Knowing ourselves, and those around us, as loved and forgiven, all made in God’s image and called as individuals but yet part of this corporate body, can dispel the load of un-necessary guilt. Yes, we are then called to practice that which we know ourselves to have received in Jesus, and that is what makes the road a hard one. Of course we will at times fail to meet his ideals and ours, but Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all, for all people and for all our fallings-short. The right thing to do is to remember that we can always and continually return, lay our failings and our guilt at the foot of his cross, repent, receive and turn with a lighter load, to serve him afresh.

“Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:25)

 

Does God want to change your mind? Matthew 1:18-end and Isaiah 7:10-16

 

Here’s my sermon for the BCP services I led or contributed to at All Saints, Odiham on Sunday. The voice just about held out, and hopefully the 8am congregation weren’t too upset that I stopped the service briefly to check out the source of the noise of running water that some of us could hear… it turned out to be a radiator behind the high altar gurgling air, but then they have just have just had their heating overhauled massively!

Have you ever changed your mind?

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Stop and think. Is God trying to get you to stop and think about something?  Does he want you to change your mind?  (This is one of the wonderful range of Christmas Trees on display in All Saints Church, Odiham last weekend. Thanks to Graham for the photograph, and acting as chauffeur to help me through the day.)

Or had it changed for you?

That ‘still small voice’ might sometimes be of calm, but God has a habit changing our plans, and whilst it might be accompanied by a sense of peace that he’s in control, it won’t necessarily make life easier.

Believe me, I know what I’m talking about: 10 years ago, Peter (the LLM taking the Matins service I preached at) was my Old Testament tutor and I was in my first year studying to be a Reader! God you see had other ideas [point to clerical collar]… it just took me another five years to listen properly, give in to them and do as God wanted!!

Mary’s fiancé Joseph, bless him, didn’t have five years. God had to make the message clear and change Joseph’s mind; overnight.

Ahaz? Well God tried to make him listen through the prophet Isaiah, but with less success. The importance of Ahaz’s story is the battle between faith and unbelief, and whilst there would be a faithful remnant in Israel with whom God would dwell and become incarnate in Jesus, it would be no thanks to Ahaz.

As Christians, we would like to think, or perhaps we would like others to think, that we are aware enough of God being with us, that we can hear his promptings, and respond to them. We’d possibly prefer it if God hadn’t got some unforeseen and imminent parenting role in mind, though for some it would be a welcome miracle. But it’s not always easy either to listen, or believe that God is talking to us, especially when the circumstances or instructions seem impossibly bizarre or difficult.

Ahaz is threatened and afraid of an invading Assyrian army when we meet him in Isaiah 7. If he remains neutral he protects God’s people, if he doesn’t, he won’t. Indecision is worse still. After the failure of one encounter between the prophet Isaiah and Ahaz, God is now metaphorically jumping up and down, waving his arms around and shouting, “pick me, pick me… ask me, I’ll show you what to do!”. But in the feigned piety of his unwillingness to test the Lord, Ahaz puts the lie to any sense of faith-filled readiness to be guided out of the situation by God. He’d rather seek mortals who will make his problem their own.

Joseph is likewise a troubled man, and has given much thought to how he should respond to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. She has obviously explained to him the story of Gabriel’s visit, for Joseph sees no question of any unfaithfulness. Instead he sees this work of the Holy Spirit as none of his concern, and has resolved out of kindness not to open Mary to inaccurate ridicule and disgrace but leave her quietly to her own and God’s, devices.

Yet, Jesus was to be Joseph’s concern, to be welcomed into Joseph’s lineage, life and home. This was not someone else’s problem, a buck to be passed, but it takes a direct message from God to get the point across to Joseph. God is making himself present in humanity in a similar way to that which he has throughout Israel’s history; by acting unexpectedly to make tangible his powerful love and grace. The name Emmanuel, does not denote a quiet and unassuming presence, and thus, just for starters, God requires both Mary AND Joseph to have their lives turned upside down!

We are not Ahaz, or Joseph. But we do have battles of our own, or encounter unexpected situations among our families and friends. We do have to make difficult decisions about what we should do, whether that be to respond to a call to ministry [smile], or about the ongoing care of a loved one, or anything else. We do look at the decisions made by organisations in which we have an interest, and sometimes think we know better. We do forget to listen for God, not realising that he is leaping up and down trying to attract our attention, or speaking to us in our dreams, trying to show us the way forward.

In Joseph’s dream the angel says the child that Joseph will have joint responsibility for raising is to have a further, more common name than the overtly explanatory Emmanuel ‘God with us’. Jesus is a shortened form of the Hebrew name Joshua, common in that era because the Jews were hoping for a national liberator. But this Jesus was not being born to liberate Israel from the oppression of others, but from their own unfaithfulness to God, their ability to limit his power in their own lives. “You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” Joseph is told. For as we will be reminded in the coming days from Isaiah 53:5 he will be pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities. Theirs, and ours.

If we want to find our way out of a tricky situation, or find our thoughts invaded by an unwelcome army of concerns, how often do we seek other people who we can persuade to agree with us, buy us time, or get us out of trouble? Or how much do we rely on our own judgement of what we are capable of coping with, and leave others to go it alone with the difficult situations they find themselves in? Perhaps it’s not about changing other people’s minds… but about changing ours?

Our sins, those that Jesus came to save us from, are often not the obvious crimes which we might well associate with the Ten Commandments and think ourselves well distanced from, but perhaps more closely linked to an inability to listen to God, who in Jesus the sin bearer is also the guide actively seeking to show us our way forward. Ours, not anyone else’s.

If we believe in the divinity as well as the humanity of Christ, we have to believe in his sovereign power to speak to us. If we believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Emmanuel is still with us seeking to liberate us from our sin, it may be necessary to change OUR minds, OUR thoughts on the best way forward, OUR plans, so that they are in line with GOD’s mind, GOD’s way forward, and GOD’s plans.