Sermon: Preparing for Christ’s coming using the Jesus Prayer, Advent Sunday 2015 at Fordingbridge and Sandleheath.

If you are sitting comfortably I will begin, for this morning I may be a little longer than I usually am. And that’s my subject – time. Does it rule your life? Do you get up at a set time, have your lunch at a set time my grandma did, lunch at 12, tea at 4, go to bed at a set time? Are you always on time, hours early or that person that sneaks in every week at precisely 5 minutes late? Do you keep your clocks 5 minutes early to avoid being late? Do you have a calendar that you write all the events in your life in or a diary you carry with you. Of course keeping up with everything is now very simple. I haven’t worn a watch for years except for the fake $10 Rolex I wear with my dinner jacket when I need to dress to impress but which loses 10 minutes in every hour. I carry my time around with me on my phone as well as my diary although since Gary arrived I have also used a calendar as a back-up for church matters which he kindly supplies although more often than not I forget to update it or I put something so cryptic I can’t remember what it signifies and I end up emailing or texting him for a translation.

Some of you know that we have a caravan on the east coast which my parents originally owned. My mother filled it with clocks and every time we used it the first thing I did was to collect them all up and put them in a cupboard because quite honestly I didn’t want to be ruled by regulated time when I was relaxing. That’s not to say I don’t like clocks, I love them and we have three I particularly cherish, one which was my father’s, he had very few possessions that were his alone, he had owned the clock before he was married. It sits in our conservatory unwound but a reminder. We also have a cuckoo clock which hangs in the hall which I wind every morning and depending on the weather it gains or losses in equal measure and has to be hung at an angle otherwise it stops. The cuckoo remains off until the grandchildren arrive when we spend every half hour dashing to see the cuckoo appear, and we have a grandfather clock which belonged to my grandparents and was made in Sleaford, where they lived by Nathaniel Shaw. It always loses despite attempts to alter the regulator. And there is a similar clock in the cottage we use in Pembrokeshire which I wind as soon as I arrive because the tick relaxes me. As you might have guessed these clocks mean rather more to me than their function which in all three cases is somewhat wanting.

I wonder who it was that decide we needed to chop the cycle of day and night into 24 equal parts and then chop those into 60 equal parts and those again into 60 equal parts which of course we now chop into hundredths and thousandths. Why did it become important for us to identify certain parts of the day, and why did we decide that the hour and the half hour would signify the start times of many events in our life rather than just doing them when it pleased us?

Well we couldn’t live our lives without measuring time now could we? How would we know to be at the station at the time the train is supposed to be there even though usually it isn’t? How could we all congregate here or in a cinema so we could all watch the film or start the service at the same time, how could the family meet around the table to eat food together at the point it is ready?

But is time something much bigger than knowing when something is happening?

Many faiths believe that time is cyclical, that it consists of a series of repeating ages. In our tradition of Judaic Christianity we believe in linear time from the creation of the earth to the end of time. Of course we have no idea when that will be, it could be later today, in which case I hope it is after the Strictly results because I want to know who has been evicted, or of course it could be millennia away.

When Jesus was on earth telling the time was rather simpler. In the Gospel we are given the fig tree to consider. People only needed to look at the fig tree to know what season it was, in bud, spring, in full leaf, summer, ripe fruit, autumn and then looking dead during winter. They knew when to plant by reference to the activity of plants and the position of the sun in the sky.

Jesus appears to suggest that when he returns the weather will be turned on its head, the seas will roar and strange things will happen to the sun, moon and stars.

So maybe despite the recent rainy spell I will get to see Strictly this evening as the sun seems to still be where it should be in the sky.

Jesus talks about time simply in terms of being ready. He doesn’t say to us, you are ok as long as you write “prepare for the end of time” in your calendar for 5th June 2023, he says, you have to be constantly ready because I’m not going to tell you when I’m coming back. Being able to measure time isn’t going to help you, you need to be ready now.

Well we do measure time to give our lives order, and today is New Year’s Day so Happy New Year. No my calendar isn’t a month out, today is the first day of our new Christian Year, Advent Sunday, Advent translated from the Latin meaning “coming”. The next 4 weeks are about preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord, the birth of the Saviour of the World. At Advent and in Lent we prepare, we prepare for life and we prepare for death and new life in the cross and resurrection. These are times which we limit by the calendar so we know when they begin and end but in reality they are just passages of space for us to get ready. It’s a shame that in this coming season we have allowed ourselves to be overcome by the hype of Christmas, the adverts that began several weeks ago, the cards that have been in the shops since September and even in in the hallowed space of Winchester Cathedral Close the Christmas Market was open last week with incessant piped carols already playing, maybe I’m being cynical but is the Cathedral cashing in on our materialist approach allowing it to overshadow the very festival it stands to celebrate? Why do we attach so much more time and effort to getting ready for a massive outpouring of excess than we do to be in a place to meet Jesus when he comes, either symbolically at Christmas as a baby or for that second time he tells us will happen? Verse 34 of the Gospel “Don’t let yourselves become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and with the worries of this life”.

I know many will view my actions as bah-humbug, as evidenced by my Christmas headwear, but when everyone starts decorating the office with baubles and bits of tinsel I always refuse to join in, not just because I’m a killjoy, but because for the next four weeks we need to focus on getting ready, being in the right place and not being distracted.  It’s a time to reflect, a time to take stock and see who we really are and whether we are coming up short in the eyes of God.

I am very privileged to be able to spend quite a bit of time with Bishop Jonathan because we sit on several committees together and over the years we have become firm friends. Jonathan has a very elastic attitude to time, so much so we have started to tell him everything begins half an hour before it really does so he will only be a bit late, but it is because he is more concerned about what happens in the time he has, than the time itself that makes him the godly man he is. Several weeks ago now I wasn’t very well and he found out. His diary is madness personified, it is always packed, but somehow he found out I was ill and the next morning the doorbell rang and there he was. I remember saying to him, “surely you should be somewhere else” and he said to me “brother” this is where I need to be”. He spent far too long chatting to me seemingly completely unworried about all the other things he should have been doing. He had brought a book with him called “Living The Jesus Prayer” by Irma Zaleski. It is only 63 pages long and many of them are only half full as it has 62 very short chapters. I don’t think he will mind me telling you that he told me that he finds prayer really hard – two minutes in and he is thinking about tomorrow, next week, getting the car serviced, anything but what he is supposed to be doing. He firmly believes that much of our private prayer time should be listening not talking, so he has this simple mantra. First he stays quiet for just a few moments and the he says “Come Holy Spirit, Come Holy Spirit, Come Holy Spirit” and after another short pause he starts to use the Jesus prayer which is simply “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner,” which he repeats over and over until his mind is clear of all the distractions. Zaleski has one chapter about meeting God alone and she says this, we say “have mercy on me” not “on us” because we have to make our own individual peace with God, find our own relationship with Christ, meet him face to face. No one can do it for us. Somebody can bring us to Jesus but we must meet him ourselves” or in a popular saying – “you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, it’s up to the horse to make the final move, and so it is for us.

I have been using the Jesus prayer since that day and it works for me. I printed it and put it on the key fob of my car keys but within a day or so I’d remembered it by heart. So, this advent I simply ask you this – are you prepared? If the idea of the Jesus prayer appeals to you as a way to stop and move out of our time to spend time with God, and if you’d like to not only use it but think a bit around it I have put 10 copies of the book on the coffee bar, please feel free to take one. If you are no 11 onwards you can get it for around £5 on Amazon or Abebooks.

I’m going to finish with a short extract from the chapter “desire for the presence of God” which goes like this, and this is the author speaking:

I once heard a story about an old parishioner of St Jean Vianney (the Cure of Ars) who used to spend a lot of time alone in church. St Jean became curious about him and asked him one day, “Why do you spend so much time sitting in church? What do you think about?” The old man answered, “Oh I just look at Him, He looks at me, and we are happy together.”

This wonderful story illustrates two important points about contemplative prayer: it is not complicated, but is a simple way of being in the presence of God; and we do not have to go to the desert or enter a monastery to experience it.  We can practise it anywhere, at any time. But most of us, like the Russian Pilgrim, need help and encouragement to begin. We need to find a path of prayer, a simple way of experiencing the presence of God and remaining in it. It can be for us a means of entering the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. As Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity has said, “Heaven is God and God is in my heart”.

Living the Jesus Prayer, Practising the prayer of the heart. Irma Zaleski. Canterbury Press, Norwich edition printed 2011

Mark Ward, LLM

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