A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on the Third Sunday in Advent , 2015.

A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on the Third Sunday in Advent , 2015.

A glance at the TV screens this week has brought home in a dramatic way the need for agreements in Paris on global warming and climate change. The protracted negotiations for such an agreement also spell the costliness of such change which is required to reduce the emission of gasses into the air by as little as 1.5% by 2050.

Important and crucial as that is I want to reflect on a different kind of ‘climate change’.

Some words of John the Baptist from Luke’s gospel this morning,

“…bear fruits worthy of repentance”

I love words and language. Language changes over time and comes to change meaning over time. There was a time when the Prayer Book was composed by Cranmer that ‘to prevent’ meant to ‘go before’ as opposed to our modern meaning of ‘obstruct’. Take the word used by John and subsequently used by Jesus-‘repentance’. What images does that conjure up for you? Doing something seemingly naughty and feeling guilty? Had a bit too much to drink and made a fool of yourself? Flew off the handle at your best friend? And then feeling sorry!

Repentance is such a central word to the message of both John and Jesus and yet it means much more than being sorry. In fact it means something a bit different. Now for the Greek lesson-are you ready? The Greek word which is normally translated as ‘repentance’ is a lovely word called, ‘metanoia’. It comes from two Greek words: ‘meta’ meaning ‘change’ and ‘noien’ meaning ‘to think’. You might recognise our word ‘nous’ when we say, ‘didn’t show much ‘nous’’ meaning he didn’t think or use his head. ‘Metanoia’ means a profound change in the heart and mind of an individual what I want to call a personal ‘climate change’. So all you have to remember is that ‘repentance’ means a personal climate change a total change of the heart and mind of the individual.

The crowds came out to see John the Baptist-he must have been quite a sight with his camel hair tunic and his sandals and probably wild hair blowing in the wind. I imagine he was a fearsome character and somewhat uncompromising. He comes inviting the crowds to baptism and repentance. There are many records attesting to Jews involved in ritual washing to remove pollution that would defile the temple. John connects repentance with baptism a sign of renewal and cleansing.

John is calling for climate change on a large scale. He somewhat dismisses superficial attempts by the Jews’ appeal to Abraham as their illustrious ancestor. And he has strong words for the crowds-if you have two coats share with anyone who has none; a warning for tax collectors not to cheat and for soldiers not to exploit the weakness of others. Repentance and baptism involves a total change in perception and behaviour.

What might climate change look like for you and I? As climate change takes hold in our planet creating ice floes to melt, ocean water to rise, creating freak storms etc we witness a slowly developing change to what we can expect in the life of our planet. It is the same with the climate change which John and Jesus invites of us through the notion of ‘repentance’. Let me explain.

Two examples. One, Beth runs a local choir. She is very good at choosing an appropriate repertoire of music for different voices. She has a knack of being able to get the choir to raise the game to great heights especially at local concerts. She knows in her heart of hearts she has more in her, greater things to achieve and she decides to enter a national conducting competition, and wins. She becomes a conductor, no mean achievement for a woman in today’s world. She is realising the huge potential bursting to get out of her and she begins to lead a more deeply satisfying life albeit a more demanding one.

Two, Alex and Annabelle espy one another at a local gig, like the look of each other and begin dating. Each in their way are embarking on a journey in which each is risking themselves to each other, discovering that life together is more satisfying than when they were single. Each evokes in the other deeper and richer ways of being and living. Their life becomes more demanding as they start a family with the inevitable costliness of their love for one another.

I want to suggest that both undergo climate change-a kind of metanoia as they begin to see themselves and others differently and realise that they themselves are full of unrealised potential, Beth with her talent in conducting and Alex and Annabelle in their new found partnership.

Both required a willingness to open themselves to new possibilities they never dreamt of. Both required a willingness to surrender to a past life. Both had a vision of a more fulfilled life.

The crowds, the Jews, the tax collectors and the soldiers were all warned by John that real change of heart is required for those who would follow ‘the one is to come who is more powerful than I’, Jesus himself. It is a combination of climate change and renewal, repentance and baptism.

Would that a message that our political leaders and church leaders could hear. Let us cut out the spin about how brilliant our policies and plans are and somehow just what people need right now. John and Jesus call for a climate change.

What might metanoia look like for the Church right now? We much work to do and issues to resolve-church unity, styles of ministry and how to pay for it, the real acceptance of those in the ministry with gay and lesbian orientation, how to maximise the use of our church buildings and plant. John and Jesus call the Church as a community to a real climate change in their attitude to these questions.

John the Baptist was not a popular character in his day and don’t suppose he would top our X Factor chart today. John like the prophets before him challenged his hearers to take responsibility for their actions and urged them to change the world to the kind of place it was meant to be. He offered them the possibility of a changed heart, a climate change, and a mirror of themselves in the pool of water in the Jordan River to encourage them to make a renewed attempt at life by gazing on the one who is to come Jesus who ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’, both images of cleansing. Of course like his master he came to a sticky end. Living with uncompromising people like John shows up the seamy side of us and the cracks in our veneers.

Our Advent journey then is not a smooth path. The path is uncertain in places but full of possibility and hope for a better future to help us ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance (metanoia), that divine love may rule our hearts and minds as we seek to serve God and his church

 

A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Hale. On the second Sunday in Advent, 2015.

I spent the inside of last week with my friend and colleague Peter Murphy at the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. Ostensibly, we were there on a nostalgic visit re-visiting a Hostel in Leeds also attached to the Community where we started our theological training some 50 years ago. We took the opportunity to re-visit the Hostel which is now a University hall of residence and witness a remarkable transformation within the historic shell of the remarkable Victorian building. The chapel is now a common room and a large plasma TV screen now adorns the East end of the chapel where the altar used to rest. To the right of the TV screen I are the words, RELAX-good transformation!

Part of the time we shared in the life of the Community as we worshipped morning and evening, a lectio divina (bible study), and had shared meals largely in silence. The love with which the brothers received us was palpable. We made a pilgrimage to the Calvary Garden, the Community’s cemetery as we said hello again to the monks who had been our mentors those 50 years ago.

In the silence the only distractions are those which flowed through my head and experienced in my body. Distractions there were and also a great sense of simply being in the moment filled with a silence I want to name the presence of the mystery of God. It was bit like a dance. At once in the moment sensing the fullness of the silence and then my mind travelling myriads of paths of things important and insignificant.
Richard Rhor, a Franciscan monk in his book, ‘Everything Belongs’ writes this,

“The now is not as empty as it might appear to be or that we fear it may be. Try to realise that everything is right here, right now. When we are doing life right it means nothing more than it is right now, because God is in this moment in a non-blaming way. When we are able to experience that, taste it and enjoy it, we don’t need to hold on to it. The next moment will have its own taste and enjoyment.”

The Advent season beckons us to a time of waiting and attending. We are called to pay more attention to the moments of existence-the air we breathe, the autumn wind blowing on our faces, the dancing leaves at our feet, the smell of rotting and decay, the watery sun and moon. And inside ourselves to discern what is really important for us. Our daily battles with demons of many familiar faces, our anxieties about those we love, our concerns about cards and presents. How we are going to meet the seemingly conflicting demands of many people.

Weighing heavy on my heart this week is a dear friend’s huge grief at the loss of his son through cancer at such an early age knowing that his other son is also slowly dying of cancer. What do I say to him? How can I support him? Peter and I lit a candle for him and his family in York Minister I subsequently found out, almost at the point he died. I know that I have to surrender all of my thoughts and feelings and faltering prayers to the divine mystery who goes before me. And I still am concerned about what I can do.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”-words from Mark’s gospel echoing those words of comfort by Isaiah to a broken nation of Israel. What John the Baptist shows us is a passion and a zeal for the coming presence of God in our lives. How do we prepare the ‘way of the Lord’? How do we ‘make his paths straight’?

One of the downsides of the Protestant Reformation was to focus our attention so much on the spiritual journeys of individuals. Both are important-the individual journey and the community. I came away from Mirfield with a sense that God is working in the Community. It is all too easy to use the Church as a private club for the development of our individual spiritual journeys. For us to act as a community, as an alive body of people we have to spend time being with and listen to each other as we grow in trust and faith with each other. It is in the active engagement with each other we discover what the path of the Lord is for his people, how to make his paths straight.

So what do we talk about? Do we share and hear each other’s pain and dilemmas? Do we have share a future together to be Christ’s hands and feet and heart in this place? What are our church’s distractions? What are we avoiding? An examination of the agendas of our PCC’s and Synods might be worth a look!

Advent might then become a period when we think about these things and pray about these things knowing that the mystery of God’s love is already before us longing to support and sustain us in the difficult questions and the anxieties we carry.

Advent is a period of preparation then, a time when we can set aside some time from distractions and risk simply being without too many words. We live in a fabulous part of the world. The world of nature provides us with so many gifts of awareness of God’s loving mystery. Stand in the stillness of the forest and know that you are both alone with yourself and connected to one who holds the whole of life in the palm of his hand.

John the Baptist’s message to the crowds was one which pointed away from himself to the one who ‘is coming after me’. Once we know what truly distracts and fills our heads with so many thoughts and fears and anxieties that we may be able better to make an act of surrender of them in order that God’s love and energy can fill our moments. Our awareness of them may be fleeting. But it is in opening our hearts that we allow God to fill us. That is Mary’s eternal gift to us. She was beckoned by God to open herself to be filled with his Spirit and Jesus, God with us. That is the goal of our ‘preparing the way of the Lord’-again this Advent open your heart to yourself in love and to one another and all whom you meet-enjoy making the paths of the Lord straight for all to walk on.

 

John Towler