Follow the Star to Bethlehem

How do we re-orient ourselves to God? 
A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24 and John 1.6-8,19-28

John the Baptist

On the third Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist is our central figure. During the four Sundays in Advent, we start with the patriarchs, followed by the prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary, the Mother of God on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Together with these figures, we journey towards Christmas; towards the celebration of God coming to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Advent is a time of preparing ourselves once more for Christmas, but also reflecting on how ready we are to receive God in our lives, and indeed, how ready the world is to bring in the Kingdom of God.

When I was catching up with some reading, I came across two articles. The first one was trying to find an explanation why politics seems to be so incredibly volatile at the moment, and another explaining the current state of the Church of England, with its declining numbers.

Thinking about these two topics in the light of Advent, and especially our readings today, it made me wonder if in some ways we’re actually journeying in the wrong direction, instead of towards receiving God in our midst? And if so, what would it take for me, for us, to reorient ourselves and, metaphorically, to start following the star towards Bethlehem?

I am sure that I am not the only person who is surprised, if not worried about the current political volatility, the unpredictability of not only elections and referenda, but also of the constantly changing political climate. One day Theresa May is one of the most popular Prime Ministers in a long time, and the next day she has lost her majority in parliament, having run in an election against Jeremy Corbyn, who himself not that long ago was almost irrelevant in Labour politics. Why do people seem to change their minds so completely, and so suddenly?

One reason that is suggested, is the nature of instant communication and gratification, which is so much part of our daily life. Whatever we want, if it’s not through Waitrose or John Lewis, we can get it through Amazon Prime within 24 hours. No need to plan ahead, no need wait. And so it is with communication. Whatever I’d like to say to whomever, I can do instantly through email, text or Whatsapp.

How different it was in the time of Isaiah and John the Baptist. News travelled much slower, communities were much smaller and more coherent. The world was a very different place. Despite the fact that most of us live longer, healthier and, in many ways, have a much easier and better life, I think there is still something that has got lost on the way.

And that something is maybe our ability to wait; our ability to be dependent: dependent on one another and our realisation that we are dependent on God. In our independence, in our individuality, we lose something of the defining characteristic of what it means to be human, that is, living in relationship. People have gone before us, others will come after us, and many walk alongside us. And, indeed, God does all of this at the same time. Our dependence on each other and on God is not a burden, but in fact one of our greatest gifts. I think that if we would be more aware of this, we would be less volatile: if we are more grounded in our identity given in relationship, we have less need to react instantly to what happens around us, because we trust in who we are.

This thought, brings us to the second question: how can we reorient ourselves towards receiving God in our lives? As I have already suggested, a large part of it is being patient and learning to see that God is already among us: what we are waiting for is already a reality. But what does that mean in practice?

To suggest an answer to that question, I’d like to use the other article I read as an illustration. It speaks about the attitude of the Church of England towards numerical growth and it suggests two possibilities:  panic or denial. Panic: it’s bad, and we need to do something now; or denial: statistics don’t mean that much, the Church is not about numerical growth, but about spiritual depth and presence in a community, ultimately trusting that the Church is the body of Christ, and that somehow ‘God will sort it out’.

I have to say that I’m leaning towards the latter attitude, although I see the risk of becoming complacent. In any case, in the light of today’s readings, maybe one of the most important lessons to take away is that the Christian life is more about being than it is about doing: doing will follow the being if we live a life of integrity.

We read in the prophet Isaiah saying: ‘the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour’. And we read about John the Baptist in those famous words in John’s Gospel that he ‘came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.’

Our task, our doing, so to speak, is to bear witness. That is what we are doing here this morning, but that is also what we are doing every moment of our lives: we bear witness of who we are, and as we do that, we bear witness of our Creator. As we use our gifts, we acknowledge the Giver: it is not about us, it is about the one who stands among us, whom many do not know, again in the words of John’s Gospel.

And I think that realisation, that it is not about us, brings all these thoughts together: we are here to live our lives, not for ourselves, but as a witness. Whether it’s politics, the email or text we sent, our attitude to being church, it is not about us, but our relationship with others, and through that, our witness to Christ.

Next week it is already Christmas Eve, when we celebrate how God showed his love for us by wanting to live among us. How do we show our love for him towards another? How do we reflect that love in our own love and kindness?

I would like to suggest that the words from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians – also set for today – give us a good starting point: ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ Rejoice, pray and give thanks: not a bad beginning to reorient ourselves towards God, to follow the star to Bethlehem.

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