With this sermon we return to the Revised Common Lectionary (Year C)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
It’s been said that good Christian preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We are approaching Christmas, with its tidings of comfort and joy. But for Christians, Advent comes before Christmas. And Advent is an unsettling time of year.
Just as we are getting ready for the consumerist, nostalgic, hedonist winter celebration which we still call ‘Christmas’, the church’s Advent scripture readings give us characters like Jeremiah and John the Baptist. John, for Christians, is the last of the prophets- the final messenger of the Christ who is to come. But John and the Old Testament prophets speak, not of a Christmas card baby in a manger, but of something starker, more difficult, unsettling. They speak of judgement, the end of the time, they give us a call to turn from our sins and repent. John speaks in images of destruction- bad trees cut down, bad wheat separated from the good, bad fruit and wasted grain thrown into the fire. Images of judgement. Uncomfortable images.
John the Baptist is seen, by the Church, as the last of the prophets. We see him as the last in a long line of people who proclaimed that the Messiah would come. Jeremiah says that the unjust kings of his day be replaced by a true successor to King David- a king who ‘will do what is right and just throughout the land’. For the promise, the hope of the Jewish people was that the coming of the Messiah would bring justice.
Therefore the prophets didn’t just look to the future. They also spoke about the present. They held the people of their own day to the standards of the Messianic future. They pointed out the difference between what God wanted for the world, and what the world was actually like. And so a major part of their message was to challenge everyone, from rulers downwards, to make changes in their personal and social lives so that justice would be done- for the poor, for the outcast, for the stranger, for the widow and the orphan.
In Luke’s Gospel they people hear what he has to say about the coming Messiah, and then they think, ‘If he is a prophet, he must have an ethical message for us. If he is a prophet, then he must want us to change our lives. Because that’s what prophets are like’:
The people asked [John], “What are we to do, then?”
He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it.”
Some tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what are we to do?”
“Don’t collect more than is legal,” he told them.
Some soldiers also asked him, “What about us? What are we to do?”
He said to them, “Don’t take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely. Be content with your pay.”
Generosity to others, honesty with money, integrity in our employment- that’s how John challenges his listeners to live. And it’s good for us, at this time of year, to hear that message from John- for it is a message which equally applies to you and me.
The Gospel is comfort and challenge. But at this time of year, the Season of Advent emphasizes the challenge part of the Gospel. It reminds us that Christ will not only come at Christmas, but also that he will again come in power. And it reminds us that Jesus was also a prophet. It reminds us that there is prophetic power to the Christian message- a challenge to change our hearts, and to change our society, for the sake of the coming Kingdom of God. And that, frankly, can be uncomfortable.
Jeremiah, like many of the prophets, did not have a happy time as a preacher, for preached a challenging and uncomfortable message. He was sure that God would bring judgement on the people of his generation, for they had strayed so far from God’s law. John the Baptist may have been initially popular, but we was also notorious. It was his own generation he meant when he said that they would be cut down and burned like trees bearing bad fruit. He referred to religious leaders as ‘snakes’. He ended up on prison, and lost his head, because he insulted King Herod. Both were preachers who made people uncomfortable. They afflicted the comfortable.
Prophecy is uncomfortable because it challenges the status quo. Prophets remind us we need to change. Prophecy, by definition, ought to challenge, cajole, to trouble us, to get us wondering what we can change, to ask the question the people asked John, ‘What are we to do, then?’ The answer to that question is often troubling, controversial, uncomfortable- because what prophecy calls us to do might well not be what we are comfortable doing.
And Jesus stands in that prophetic tradition. He is, among other things, a prophet. And if you want proof of that, look no further than the prayer he taught his followers. A prayer that was much in the news last week.
Last week, a cinema chain decided last week not to show an advert featuring the Lord’s Prayer on the basis that it might be offensive. Many people thought, ‘How can the Lord’s Prayer be offensive? How can something which is recited Sunday by Sunday in churches, which is said daily by Christians across the world- how can that be offensive?’
But maybe, in a way it is offensive. It offends the norms of our society. For when the disciples asked Jesus the prophet to teach them how to pray, he gave them a radical, prophetic prayer. Because people who lived out this prayer are people who are different from the norm. Every line of it reminds us of just how different God’s way is to human ways. Every line challenges our common perceptions. Every line contains uncomfortable truths. It truly afflicts the comfortable, and comforts the afflicted.
Jesus’ prayer begins- ‘Our Father’. Calling God by this word- Father- reminds us that God is not distant, uninvolved, but that God loves us like a parent. God is ‘in heaven’- a reminder that there is more to the world than just what we can see- there is another dimension of reality, and that it what we have to do with when we speak of God. And the phrase ‘Hallowed be thy name’- ‘may your name be sacred’- reminds us that we ought to be in awe of God. Hallowing the name of God is a way of speaking if the holiness of God- which means that nothing else can stand alongside God.
If you did hear the Lord’s Prayer during the cinema adverts, you’d be reminded that all those other things you are supposed to worship, all those consumer goods you’ll see in the ads which are supposed to make us happy, beautiful, popular- these are, to use good Old Testament prophets’ language- idols. These things that we worship are the false gods are really as nothing compared to the holy God in heaven who allows us to call him Father.
Having established who it is we are praying to- the one and only true God, before whom nothing else is holy- we then, in the Lord’s Prayer, bring to God our intercessions. Many people think that praying is asking God to do something for us- help me find a car park space, let my team win this football match. But the first things we ask God in the Lord’s Prayer is ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is heaven’. Christians are to pray, not firstly for ourselves, but for God’s will to be done. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you’ as we sing, using words of Jesus from elsewhere in the Gospels. This is a complete reversal of our contemporary values- in Christian prayer, we don’t put ourselves first. We put the Kingdom first. In Christian prayer, we seek, not what we would like, but the will of God.
And when we do pray for ourselves, it’s for our needs, and not our desires. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’- we ask God to give us, not what we want, but what we need. Our daily bread, not a Mercedes Benz. Enough to live on, not great wealth. Is this not also a prophetic word in the midst of the consumerist splurge that is the run-up to Christmas?
And in case we think that a Christian life is all about duty, all about striving to be good and perfect, in case we find ourselves on a guilt-trip because we can’t possibly live up the high expectations of this prophetic prayer, the next line of the prayer helps us deal with another kind of need. In a society which causes people to feel bad about the shape of their body, or to feel second-class because they don’t have the right brands, the Christian Gospel offers spiritual wholeness. For at the heart of the Gospel is forgiveness.
Jesus tells us that we can ask God to forgive us our sins. Sin is a foreign concept to many people today. But sin is simple to understand in the terms of prophetic faith. Sin is the gap between what we achieve and what God calls us to. The gap between the world as it is, and the world of the Messianic future. We can never quite bridge that gap, no matter what we do. But our God is a God of grace. God freely offers us, without condition, forgiveness when we ask for it. And here we are asking it, in the Lord’s prayer: ‘Forgive us our sins’. Forgive us when we, as individuals, fail to measure up. Forgive us our hypocrisy, forgive us our lack of integrity, forgive us our greed, forgive us our unjustified pride. And help us, dear Lord, to do that most difficult thing in all, something we find hard to do but which he must if our relationships with others are to thrive. Help us to forgive those who sin against us.
Mostly, our culture thinks that we humans can do everything for ourselves. Atheists kid themselves into thinking that there’s enough goodwill in the world to ensure that we solve all our problems by ourselves. They fondly imagine that we can achieve world peace, end hunger, get rid of poverty through our own efforts. Humanity can do it for themselves. You’d think that a quick look at the history books would relieve them of that delusion, but there you are.
Again, the Lord’s Prayer takes a prophetic view: we cannot defeat evil without God’s help. Christians realise that we need to pray, ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’. We need God us the right way, we need God to help us find the right path in a world full of temptation and evil. Here we admit that we cannot do it without God’s help.
This is a prayer for people who want to be part of the Kingdom. People trying to align ourselves with God’s will on earth. People trying to live lives of simplicity and generosity. People trying to live only on what they need. People trying to seek God’s forgiveness, and people who know that they need to forgive others. People with humility to realise that they cannot do it on their own, and who therefore see the necessity of prayer, in a world of temptation and evil.
In the cinema, the Lord’s prayer could have been a really good advert for Christianity, for the way of Jesus the prophet. For it indicates what a Christian way of life ought to be- a life of simplicity, a life of generosity, a life lived in the joy of forgiveness and in the light of the coming Kingdom. Above all, a life of prayer- for this is a prayer which assures us of God’s help for those who live in God’s ways.
Today we gather around the Lord’s Table, we will say, as we do Sunday by Sunday, or even every day, the Lord’s Prayer. Just as the Prayer points us to the future, so this Table points to the time when all will come from east and west and north and south to share the banquet in the Kingdom to come. We will share bread and wine, just as Jesus and John the Baptist and the prophets before them taught that sharing with one another is a basic requirement for a world of justice and peace. It’s great that we all gather together today around the Lord’s Table, for Communion is the Advent meal. Today we look forward to the kingdom the prophets proclaimed, the kingdom for which Christ taught us to pray. And before we eat and drink, we will pray, with Christians everywhere, the prayer Jesus taught us- a prophetic prayer, which looks to the coming of the Kingdom, and helps us learn how we can prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo
After sermon: offering