Daily Advent reflections
A daily thought on our journey through Advent by heather Lodge
ADVENT 1: 28 November 2021 WHICH WAY?
Ps 25:4 “Show me your ways, lord, teach me your paths.”
1 Thes 5:8 “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.”
Residents of Surbiton will have noticed the introduction of cycle paths over the past few years, starting with new lanes on St Mark’s Hill. This seems to have caused some confusion since paths swap sides, share pavement space, and generally seem to deter cyclists from using them. And given this particular signage, it is, possibly, not surprising. Maybe I just don’t speak Cycle.
Travelling is, appropriately, the theme for the start of Advent. It reminds us that, as we did in Lent, we are embarking on a journey. One which we know will lead us to a stable in Bethlehem. The word advent derives from the Latin adventus, meaning ‘coming’ and seems to both confirm and emphasise the expectation and anticipation that we associate with this season.
However, we are missing part of the story as Advent and Christmas were originally fairly unrelated. Early Christians are thought to have marked Advent in a similar way to Lent with (another) 40 days of prayer, penitence and fasting – this time in preparation for Epiphany when new Christians would be baptised. Certainly, much of the Advent lectionary deals with God’s determination to redress Israel’s wrongdoings. As we prepare for Advent’s journey this year, therefore, let us do as Paul advises and set out on the path clad in love, hope, and faith to witness the birth of salvation.
ADVENT 2: 29 November 2021 GATEWAYS
Ps 122:2 “Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem.
2 Peter 1:3 “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”
I like gates. I collected these on my walk round Surbiton but I can never decide if they are there to keep occupants in or visitors out. My parents were fond of telling me that they do neither, ever since I made a bid for freedom aged three when the gates at the bottom of the drive were left open by accident one day. Gates have had an interesting history. In medieval times, they were the preserve of royalty to protect a castle or a town to protect its inhabitants. By Victorian times, a well-appointed house with an equally well-appointed gate were an indication of social status.
It is not escape but arrival that is the theme for today. This psalm was used by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. It speaks of the traveller’s joy at reaching his destination at the Temple where God dwelt. After what was likely to have been an arduous journey, here was refuge, safety, sanctuary. Here was protection where peace and justice could be sought. The letter from Peter to the churches in Asia Minor seeks to reassure that whatever the challenges on our Christian journey, we should know that God has already equipped us with the spiritual resources to cope – resources such as faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and above all, love.
ADVENT 3: 30 November 2021 THE ROAR OF THE LION
Amos 3:8 “The lion has roared, who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken – who can but prophesy?”
Rev 22:12 “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
I spotted this lion finial by chance, although I must have passed him dozens of times. As we saw yesterday, gates were used to give the right impression of the house behind them. They were decorated with elements of the family crest – including lions. However, lions outside a house carry varying significance around the world, from China where they guard homes against accidents, to Italy where they represent power, to Quebec in Canada where they are used to show that home-owners have paid off the mortgage. Wherever they are used, the lion represents strength, respect and honour.
As the lion’s roar commands respect and fear so should God’s words and the messages from his prophets. Amos warns that he cannot help but speak out to deliver God’s message of judgement to Israel. Such judgement will not be a surprise; God, through his prophets, has provided plenty of warning in the hope that his people will repent before he has to act.
Such repentance was not forthcoming which resulted in God sending his Son as our salvation. The passage from Revelation is more commonly used at Easter since it speaks of Jesus’ return but it works equally well during Advent. Like the lion who can’t be ignored, when Jesus comes again he will bring reward for the faithful for it is God who reigns supreme, from the first to the last and from the beginning to the end.
ADVENT 4: 1 December 2021 SIGNAGE
Isaiah 1: 27, 28b “Zion will be delivered with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness…and those who forsake the Lord will perish.”
Luke 11:29, 32b “Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah….for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.”
I pass this sign on my way to visit my mother. It belongs to the Maypole pub on Hook Road. Pub signs had become common by the 12C in England – largely because much of the population could not read – but did you know that Richard II passed an Act in 1393 that made it compulsory for a pub to display a sign? The reason? To enable the official Ale Tasters to check on the quality of the ale being served.
How many of us would admit to wanting some kind of physical sign from God that we should or should not take a particular course of action? Somehow a sign is worth more than hearing and believing God’s word for us. Jesus has been teaching his disciples how to pray but then the crowds gather and, seeing Jesus cast out a demon, the religious leaders ask him for a sign that he acts in God’s name. Jesus provides a reminder that the people of Ninevah had changed their ways after hearing Jonah speak of his deliverance by God from the whale. Jesus’ coming is more powerful than was Jonah. No further signs needed.
ADVENT 5: 2 December 2021 SUNRISE
Malachi 3:7 “Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.”
Luke 1:76a,78-79a “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High… because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness.”
I just missed the full beauty of this sunrise last week. I opened the curtains to see a brilliant red and orange sky but, by the time I had put on my shoes and coat and found my gloves so I could go for a walk, the colours were fading and I could only capture a hint of what had been. Despite my poor timing, there is something about witnessing such a sunrise that makes you catch your breath in awe.
Today’s readings speak of a dawn – a popular way of thinking about the Messiah’s arrival – that will bring a new light to people to enable them to return to God. Zechariah’s son, the focus of this passage in Luke, has been appointed as the one who will prepare us for Jesus’ arrival. The majesty of dawn’s fiery skies that seem to gild everything beneath them, makes the anticipation and expectation of this almost tangible.
ADVENT 6: 3 December 2021 REMEMBRANCE
Malachi 3:16b “A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honoured his name.”
Philippians 1:20 “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
According to the Imperial War Museum, there are over 90000 war memorials in the UK, including this one in Surbiton. I learned only recently that around 50 towns and villages in England were identified as Thankful Villages because they lost no-one during World War 1. In place of a war memorial these places often have a plaque giving thanks to God that no lives were lost from the parish. Only fourteen of the Thankful Villages were lucky enough to have lost no lives in either of the world wars.
The question of why we serve God is at the heart of Malachi’s message today. The people of the prophet’s time had become indifferent to God, feeling that there was no reward in serving him. It wasn’t preventing the wicked from flourishing. Neither has serving God protected believers from their sufferings. The situation is so bad that such arrogance is considered blessed because the behaviour never seems to be called to account. However, Paul reminds us that good can come out of adversity and even his imprisonment has enabled others to speak more confidently about Christ. And God remembers those who honour him.
ADVENT 7: 4 December 2021 TRAVELLING LIGHT
Malachi 4:2 “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays.”
Luke 9:3 “Take nothing for the journey – no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.”
We have a rule that if we can’t carry something in our rucksacks then it doesn’t come to camp with us. We also set a weight limit for our rucksacks of 45lb. More than that and we need our own donkey. The trouble starts though when you pass a shop window such as this one, tucked away at the bottom of St Mark’s Hill. There is always one more piece of kit that we’d like.
The thought of setting out with nothing in our rucksacks is a major challenge. We could certainly survive camp with far less but with nothing? It would teach us resilience but it could also land us in a lot of trouble, especially in some of the weather we’ve seen. However, Jesus is not advocating poverty here. Instead, he is impressing on his disciples that they will not be able to do his work if they are ruled by their possessions and a materialistic approach to life. Today’s readings remind us that Christmas is not really about the presents or the decorations or Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. All we need to remember is that the son of righteousness is arriving who brings with him the true sustenance that we need and that we must be ready to serve him when and where we are called.
ADVENT 8: 5 December 2021 TWITTENS AND GINNELS
Mal 3:1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the LORD you are seeking will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.”
Luke 3:4b “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the LORD, make straight paths for him”
Look closely at this picture and you can just see the path weaving around several bends and away up the hill. It starts at the top of King Charles Road and finishes about half-way down St Mark’s Hill. In my home county of West Sussex such an alley used to be called a twitten. In my mother’s home county of Lancashire it used to be a ginnel.
John the Baptist declares Jesus’ arrival in the manner of a homecoming. His quote from Isaiah is a familiar part of the Advent story and every time I hear these words I think of the glorious aria “Every valley shall be exalted” from Handel’s Messiah. John’s message is clear – we must prepare for God’s son with great attention. Even the paths must be straightened for a new era is dawning and nothing either physical or spiritual must stand in the way. John speaks from the wildness of the desert and this time it will be Jesus who will lead us home.
ADVENT 9: 6 December 2021 CAN YOU HEAR ME?
Isaiah 40:9 “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout.”
Romans 8:24-25 “But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
Do you remember how you were taught to dial 999 in an emergency if you couldn’t see the telephone dial? The array of mobile phone masts that sits on top of this block of flats in Surbiton is a reminder that telephones have come a long way since the bakelite phone that was a fixture in our living room. Invariably there was such a poor connection that you had to raise your voice by several decibels in order to be heard. Come to think of it, that seems to be an unresolved problem decades later doesn’t it?
Isaiah’s message is that some news does not need to be whispered or kept secret but shouted from the hilltops so that it can be heard as far and wide as possible. The days of exile for the Israelites are ending. Jerusalem can throw off her decades of mourning at last. God is returning and will gather his flock together as tenderly as a shepherd collects his sheep. God’s glory will be revealed to everyone. This is news to bring comfort indeed to a suffering people. We wait in patience for our hope to return this advent so that we too can shout about God’s glory from our own mountains.
ADVENT 10: 7 December 2021 ROOT AND BRANCH
Jeremiah 33:15,16b “In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land…..This is the name by which it will be called: the Lord our Righteous Saviour.”
Luke 21:29-31 “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
One of our traditions at home was to go into the garden on Christmas day to see how many different plants were in flower. It always surprised me that the count was usually well into double figures. In the absence of a garden, I now check the rose bushes outside Fishponds Park in Surbiton. There are enough coming into flower at the moment to make me think that there might be roses still open in a few weeks’ time.
Both Jeremiah and Jesus use the analogy of plants and trees to mark significant events. Jeremiah promises the Israelites that their looming exile is a precursor to restoration. God will send a new branch of the House of David who will fulfil God’s promise to return his people to Jerusalem – a promise delivered in the birth of Jesus. But Jesus speaks of the time when he will return, a time that will bring about God’s kingdom, a time identified by signs that will be as unmistakeable as the leaves on trees indicating the approach of summer. As one year ends, Advent seems a good time to reflect on the Lord’s prayer where we pray “your kingdom come.” Are we part of it?
ADVENT 11: 8 December 2021 AT COURT
Psalm 50: 3,6 “Our God comes and will not be silent;…. And the heavens proclaim his righteousness, for he is a God of justice.”
Matt 23:8-9 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”
The legal year in the UK starts, I believe, on 1 October. It is marked with a formal procession of public officials in a tradition dating back to the assizes and were designed to impress the public with the power of the law. The assizes were criminal trials held twice a year with local juries in front of a presiding judge from the Royal Courts in London. The procession would culminate with a preacher giving the assize sermon, often on the theme of judgement or repentance. A number of such sermons survive today.
The language of the courtroom is reflected in our readings today. The psalmist, Asaph who was appointed by David to oversee the Temple’s music and worship, calls witnesses from heaven and earth to testify to God’s righteousness. God has entrusted his laws to his people and that makes people subject to his judgement if they should go astray. Jesus warns that we can lose sight of our relationship with God if we become concerned with status. Jesus’ reference to our Father in heaven reminds us that we should not covet religious titles and that we are all equally his children.
ADVENT 12: 9 December 2021 MAKE READY
Amos 9:11 “I will restore David’s fallen shelter—I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins and will rebuild it as it used to be.”
Luke 7:27 “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
One of the delights of Autumn as a child was crunching through the drift of fallen leaves on pavements. The trouble is that, once they are rained on, the leaves lose their crunch and become a slippery morass that requires a good grip on your shoes just to stay upright. Walking up St Mark’s Hill on my way home last week, I also noticed the salt bin standing ready to prepare the road for icy weather.
Preparation is the theme for today and is a key part of our Advent journey. Jesus quotes the prophets who foretold the arrival of one who would prepare the way for him. John’s message of repentance to change hearts and minds so that people would be ready to receive God’s Son was received well by those whom he had baptised. Those in authority rejected John as they would Jesus. The message for us today is that we need to make some repairs to our ways of life and rebuild what is broken in preparation for Jesus’ arrival.
ADVENT 13: 10 December 2021 EQUALITY
Amos 9:4 “You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves.”
2 Corinthians 8:12 “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.
The lamb-oriented menu of this restaurant at the bottom of Ewell Road reminds me of an unexpected email we received from our campsite back in June. “Now available,” it said, “lamb burgers from our local farmer. Raised in the fields next door,” it said. “Oh no”, we said, “that’s Percy and Brian. You can’t eat them,” we said, “we watched them running around a few months ago.” Such is our personal hypocrisy in only buying our meat pre-packed from a supermarket.
One of the reasons why I love Amos is for his straight-talking. There is no misunderstanding his message. The targets of his wrath are the complacent who live for their feasting on choice lambs and their luxury lifestyles, drinking “wine by the bowlful,” with no thought for the poor. They mock the prophet’s warnings of forthcoming judgement for their lack of respect for God’s laws. Appropriately for the season, Paul writes to the church at Corinth to remind them to “excel in this grace of giving.” Our service to God requires our willingness to see his work through and a genuine desire to achieve equality. If this is at our heart then our gifts, however great or small, are acceptable to God.
ADVENT 14: 11 December 2021 A MILE IN MY SHOES
Amos 8:4a,5b, 6a “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land… skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
2 Corinthians 9:9 “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”
My colleagues at The Health Foundation, in collaboration with the Empathy Museum, run a project called A mile in my shoes. The aim is to build empathy with people’s circumstances that are very different from our own. The project comprises a physical collection of shoes, housed in a giant shoebox. You, quite literally, step into a pair of someone else’s shoes and listen to the accompanying audio recording of the owner’s story of their perspective and experiences in using or delivering health or social care services. Some of the stories are also now online.
Today’s readings reminded me of the need to walk in someone else’s shoes in order to appreciate their circumstances. Failure to understand is likely to lead us to the kind of behaviour that Amos condemns as exploiting the poor and which results in failure to look after the vulnerable. Continuing his theme of giving to support those in need, Paul reminds us that it must be done with a generous heart – the amount is irrelevant, it is the desire behind the gift that God sees. In a point well made for this time of year, neither Amos nor Paul is declaring that commerce is evil in itself. The problem only arises where it becomes all-consuming and therefore damages our relationship with God.
ADVENT 15: 12 December 2021 NAMED
Isaiah 12:5 “Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world.”
Luke 1:59-60,63“On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John…his father, asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.””
In the 1980s, there was an excellent TV series called The Irish RM with the wonderful Peter Bowles. Despite the Resident Magistrate’s best efforts at exerting authority, he seemed to be outwitted endlessly by his housekeeper, one Mrs “Kay de Gawn,” as she introduced herself. Eventually I came across a copy of the book in the library. Until I saw the name in print, it hadn’t occurred to me that the said Mrs “Kay de Gawn” was actually Mrs Cadogan. I am reminded of my error every time I pass this road.
Mis-construing names is something of an issue at the circumcision of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s much-longed for baby. Zechariah’s doubt at the Angel Gabriel’s instruction that the baby’s name would be John and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth was such that he was unable to speak for the remainder of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The act of writing John’s name to back up Elizabeth’s assertion released Zechariah from his muteness. The priest’s song of praise reached far and wide, extolling people to take notice of his son because he has come to prepare the way for the coming of salvation – and there will be no doubt about the Messiah’s name.
ADVENT 16: 13 December 2021 THE COMING OF ANGELS
Zechariah 1:11 “And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”
Matt 24:31 “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
Rather like trying to draw God, I find drawing an angel equally challenging. I found this one when I walked through Kingston’s Christmas market early one morning. It is part of a nativity scene that plays out high above the market stalls. The figures revolve like a Swiss clock and I stood watching it for several minutes before I suddenly realised that one figure was indeed an angel. I’m still wondering why I didn’t immediately recognise her as such. I’m also wondering just how many market visitors never look up to see what is happening over their heads.
Today’s readings make me think that there is a need for an angel-recognition course. Matthew is focused on Jesus’ second coming when the angels of the Lord will gather all believers from every quarter of the world. Whilst we now expect Christ’s arrival in a stable in Bethlehem, his arrival in power and glory at the end of time will be sudden, as startling as lightning in a storm, and highly visible. No star will be needed to guide our way and, unlike the market nativity, there will be no way Christ will be missed. Until that time arrives, we can only pray, in the prophet Zechariah’s words, that the Christmas angels will, one day, go throughout the world and find everywhere at peace.
ADVENT 17: 14 December 2021 FOOD FOR THE HEART
Isaiah 11:3b-4a “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy,”
Hebrews 13:9 “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so.”
There is archaeological evidence for mid-winter feasting dating back to Neolithic times but it was mostly in the Victorian era when the Christmas dinner became more of a family occasion. After last year when families were unable to celebrate together, the current proliferation of festive food billboards around Kingston can be excused. For those without food or home, as well as those of us who will eat alone on Christmas Day, these adverts can be challenging.
There has been much debate over the meaning of this particular text from Hebrews and at first glance it might suggest that Paul is promoting a rather Puritanical approach to Christmas. However, it is unlikely that Paul is condemning the feasts that accompany religious festivals as such. He is, perhaps, providing a timely reminder that our ceremonial foods and practices are not the source of our spiritual nourishment. Knowledge of how to achieve God’s grace will serve us better spiritually. Keeping the reason for celebrating Christmas in mind enables us to gather around the dinner table in true thanks and praise for Jesus’ coming.
ADVENT 18: 15 December 2021 WOLF AND SHEEP
Isaiah 11:6 “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them”
Acts 28:27 “For this people’s heart has become calloused;…. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”
Queen’s Promenade runs beside the Thames between Surbiton and Kingston. It was opened by Queen Victoria in 1858 and was originally planned to be an exclusive walk for the new villas that had been built along the Portsmouth Road. However, following council funding, the walkway was made public. The bandstand and fountain have long been lost but in the recent restructuring and extensive re-landscaping this outdoor game was installed by the cafe. Each block contains an etching of an animal and the aim (I think) is to achieve each row and column of the same animal.
Today’s readings speak of the coming of a new world order so extensive that even wild and domesticated animals will live in peace and harmony with each other. Their young will graze with each other and predatory instincts will be replaced with such harmless behaviour that they could be led by a child with no danger. In order to bring about such peace God needs us not just to hear him but understand and act accordingly. Paul’s efforts to preach the good news of Jesus’ coming is met with divided opinions. Whilst many hear and believe, many do not. Following on from yesterday’s readings that spoke of the need to feed our spiritual hearts correctly, the message for today is that the consequence of not doing so risks us becoming hardened and insensitive to God’s word.
ADVENT 19: 16 December 2021 KEEP BURNING
Psalm 62:5-6a “Yes, my soul, finds rest in God; my hope comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation;”
Matthew 25:13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”
Lighting is perhaps the one thing we have not yet sorted to our perfection on camp. In the summer months it isn’t a problem. In September and October when the light fades early, we rely a lot on our headtorches. Over time we have found affordable solutions that we can wear comfortably but the light inside the tent is more challenging. We’ve tried all sorts of lamps, and even considered a good old-fashioned Tilley lamp, but have yet to find an answer that works for us.
All of which means we are always looking out for a light that we’ve not considered which is why I spotted this set of candle holders in a shop window in Kingston. They also made me think of today’s gospel reading about the ten virgins who went out to meet a bridegroom. Half of them missed the wedding banquet because they were unprepared, having failed to take sufficient oil for their lamps to keep them burning until the bridegroom eventually arrived. Jesus’ message is clear. We may know when we celebrate his birth but we do not know when he will come again in glory. We must be prepared at all times because the price of our failure will be very high.
ADVENT 20: 17 December 2021 NEVER FORGET
Jeremiah 31:33b “I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Hebrews 10:16 ““This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”
It is said that elephants never forget. A study in 2007 found that elephants can recognise and keep track of the whereabouts of 30 other elephants at a time. The matriarch of the herd also remembers routes to alternative sources of water and food when usual sources fail. The white elephant is the national symbol for Thailand so, appropriately, this elephant is one of a pair that sit in the windows of a Thai restaurant in St James’ Road.
God had promised the Israelites his blessings provided they followed the laws he had given them, written on tablets of stone at Mt Sinai. Sadly, the Israelites gradually forgot their side of this covenant. God did as he had threatened and scattered them into exile. Jeremiah’s task is to tell the exiles that all is not lost. God is going to make a new covenant so that he will be their God for all time and they will be his people. This covenant will not be forgotten because it will be written on hearts and minds instead of stone and the price of sin will be paid by his Son on the cross, once and for all. All we have to do is believe in God and follow Christ’s example with heart and mind and soul.
ADVENT 21: 18 December 2021 THE SEA, THE SEA
Isaiah 42:10 “Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.”
Hebrews 10:37 “For, in just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”
I nearly walked right by Lady Em, failing to recognise her under her winter coat. During the summer her awnings are rolled up and there are usually pretty posies of flowers attached to the struts of the “window frames.” She often acts as a little ferry from one side of the Thames to the other. Although I don’t think she is nearly old enough, she always reminds me of the small boats who made the perilous journey to Dunkirk.
Isaiah’s words bring to mind John Masefield’s Sea Fever. Whilst the poet speaks of the call of the sea as one that is alluring because of its wildness and loneliness, its adventure and its exploration, the prophet uses the analogy of the sea to show that his message encircles the earth. The sea is a means of joining up separate lands and islands so that the whole world will sing a new song about God’s goodness. And why should we praise God anew? Because, as Paul writes, Christ will come again. It is that promise that makes us hold on through the challenges and stresses of our lives.
ADVENT 22: 19 December 2021 SHINE
Psalm 80:3 “Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
Luke 13:35 “I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Make-up counters are daunting places. As this advert shows, there are powders to reduce shine and lotions to make your face glow. There are gels to hide shadows and creams to add shadows. All in an array of colours that seem to belong on an artist’s palette. Knowing what product to use how, when and where is either an art or a losing battle. Fortunately, face masks and make-up are not very compatible and give me every excuse to leave my make-up in the bag.
The prayer for the light of God’s glory to shine upon us is the benediction at the close of our Sunday service. Whilst we might try to perfect our shiny faces, the light from God’s face is perfection itself. In fact, it is so holy that, as God himself told Moses, no-one can look at God’s face and live. The Psalmist in today’s reading is praying that God will help his people out of their present difficulties and be pleased with them once more by turning his face towards them again. Although salvation depends on God’s favour, his people have not helped themselves by wandering away from God’s side. Jesus’ coming has paved the way for us to know that salvation and every glitter of shiny tinsel and sparkle of Christmas lights remind us that Jesus will come again.
ADVENT 23: 20 December 2021 OF SHEEP AND A SHEPHERD
Micah 5:4 “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord…And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.”
Luke 1:42 “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear.”
I may have told you this before so forgive the repetition. One morning at breakfast in the University refectory, I asked my friend about the white stones that we could see in a distant field. She fell off her seat in hysterics. “Those are sheep, not stones,” she said eventually. Thirty-something years later she still sends me sheep-related gifts for Christmas and birthdays. Sheep being in short supply in Surbiton, I was delighted to spot this sheep-ish draught-excluder on display a few weeks ago.
Micah’s prophecy is as familiar to us as the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary. God will keep his promise to his errant people Israel and in a small town in Judah a Messiah will be born who will deliver his people. He will be both King and Shepherd, feeding and protecting his flock to the ends of the earth so that they thrive in peace and security. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth sees that her cousin Mary has been chosen by God to fulfil Micah’s prophecy. Her own, miraculous, baby recognises Mary from the womb and Elizabeth pours out praise for Mary’s faithfulness to God.
ADVENT 24: 21 December 2021 SOVEREIGNTY
Psalm 113:5-6 “Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?”
Colossians 1:16 “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
Before the current tide of Covid sent me indoors again, I wandered around a garden centre to admire the Christmas displays. The origins of the Christmas wreath are thought to lie in Greek and Roman society where leaves and flowers were used to show power and victory – for example Olympian athletes were crowned with wreaths of olive and laurel. Wreaths of holly were used at the winter solstice to protect homes from evil and when the tradition of decorating a tree for Christmas began in the 16C, the prunings from the tree woven into wreaths to symbolise eternity and divine perfection.
In the present turmoil and struggle, both nationally and individually, to manage life through a pandemic, Paul’s words to the Colossians provide a moment of reassurance. God’s Son is sovereign over all that exists, whether it can be seen or whether it is invisible to our eyes. Christ is both the creator and the reason for creation. It is there to glorify Christ. He rules over the hierarchy of angels – the thrones, dominions, powers – as well as the rulers and governments on earth for eternity and to divine perfection. Let us celebrate Christ’s coming to earth in this Advent to deliver us from all evil.
ADVENT 25: 22 December 2021 GARDENING
Micah 4:3 “They will beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
Luke 1:52-53 “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
A rack of shiny gardening tools always seems to shout “Your garden needs you. Here, take me.” These are a far cry from the gardening tools I used to use. We had a small, lean-to shed that was propped up against the end of the garage. You ventured into its dark recesses at your own risk – largely because the re-purposed door was liable to fall off its hinges. The walls were hung three-deep with much-loved but heavy forks and spades, numerous shears, a hoe or three and lethal rakes that did a fantastic job of collecting autumn leaves – no need for a leaf-blower here.
Micah’s prophecy speaks of a time when the tools of war will no longer be needed and a better use for them will be to recycle them into tools that will bring goodness out of the earth. The prophet tells of a time when there will be freedom from ignorance because the coming Messiah will teach us his ways, there will be freedom from war because the peace that he brings is a righteous one, there will be freedom from want because there will be plenty, and there will be freedom from fear because there will be no need to be afraid. Mary sings of the greatness of God in fulfilling the prophecy and bringing about a world-changing, life-transforming event in the birth of her child, the Son of God.
ADVENT 26: 23 December 2021 A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Jeremiah 31:13b “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.”
2 Peter 1:20 “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.”
Make we merry is the title of a work premiered in 2018. It brings together a variety of Christmas songs from 13C-15C – a reminder that our Christmas carols have long origins with many of them starting out life as medieval folk songs. The tradition of the carol service is said to have been started in 1880 by the Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson. Desperate to get the inhabitants of Truro out of the pub on Christmas Eve, held a new type of service of nine carols and lessons. Our service on Boxing Day will explore the history and meanings of some of our best-loved carols.
Jeremiah’s prophecy calls to mind the carol God rest you merry gentlemen with its chorus of “tidings of comfort and joy.” The news that the prophet brings is a comfort indeed. The captives in exile have wept and suffered and mourned their fate for long enough. God will turn their sorrow into joy as he will gather a scattered flock from their captors. God’s people are returning to Jerusalem. There will be much cause for rejoicing. It will be a time of plenty as God promises to renew his covenant with them, writing it on their hearts. And as the author of 2 Peter says, prophets do not speak their own words but only the message that comes from God. We can trust in Jeremiah’s words of comfort and joy.
ADVENT 27: 24 December 2021 THE NATIVITY
Isaiah 9:6 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Luke 2:7 “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
You will find this stable outside St Mark’s Church. St Francis of Assisi is credited with establishing the tradition of a nativity scene that tells the Christmas story. In 1223, Pope Honorius III gave Francis permission to recreate a stable in a cave near the Italian village of Greccio, complete with a manger of hay and an ox and an ass. Francis then invited the villagers to come to the cave where he preached about the baby of Bethlehem. It is said that the hay developed miraculous powers to heal cattle diseases.
Our Advent journey of preparation, repentance, and expectation reaches its destination tonight in a stable in Bethlehem. Born into humble circumstances, surrounded by animals and worshipped by the shepherds, Mary’s Son is welcomed into the world. It happens exactly as the Angel Gabriel promised and as both Isaiah and Micah prophesied. Resting on this baby will be the wisdom and strength and power of God’s governance of peace and righteousness. Our Messiah has arrived, not as a conquering king displaying military might but as a baby who will grow and live among us. God is with us. And life begins here.