Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This is my last sermon before Christmas, so I hope you can find some joy in the last few days leading up to the big day. Apologies to those who attended the 8am service and didn’t hear the full poem at the end due to ‘technical difficulties’ But here you have it in its entirety!
Have a great Christmas and thank you to all those those have supported this blog site, or listened to my sermons in church, I hope God has spoken to you in some way?
Blessings to you
Sermon No 65
A Joy to Christmas
A sermon preached by Roger Laing (Parish Evangelist) on Sunday 17th December 2017 at the 8 & 10 am Eucharist Services at St. Paulinus Church, Crayford, Kent. (Based on John 1:6-8, 19-28 and Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11)
Good morning and a very joyous welcome to you all on this the third Sunday in Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday, and we have in church today a splash of colour which hopefully provides a glimmer of that joy which is what we are looking forward to in what is now just 8 days away, when we symbolically welcome the birth of Jesus into the world.
Now the name Gaudete Sunday takes its name from the Latin word meaning ‘Rejoice,’ so today is a welcome break in what is traditionally seen as a penitential season. So, amongst the pressures of our modern-day Christmas season that is increasingly full of commercialism, greed and pandemonium, hopefully we can try and take a moment out, and capture just a little of that feeling of expectation and joy in that promised redemption.
And as well as being full of joyfulness, today allows us once again to look at the mission and significance of that man which we heard about in the gospel reading, the man called John the Baptist.
Now John is probably one of my favourite biblical characters, not least because he is a bit of a rebel. He is one of those people that wasn’t afraid to speak out for what he believed to be true. He was in a political sense, like them or loathe them? the Donald Trump or Nigel Farage of his day. He was a man who was prepared to get dirty, and took on the establishment and winning.
John is arguably the most significant person in the whole bible other than Jesus of course, and he was special for a number of reasons, and I would like to highlight just some of them to you today.
John’s uniqueness didn’t just start at the point when he commenced his ministry, it actually goes all the way back to the Old Testament when the prophet Isaiah spoke about the coming ministry of John, some 700 years earlier.
And although Isaiah was born long before John, their roles were in many ways were very similar. They were both prophets and both specifically hailed the imminent arrival of the Jewish Messiah
In Isaiah chapter 40, Isaiah shouted, ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ (Isaiah 40:3)
Isaiah, as well as comforting his people, was using language that reflected the customs of the day, where heralds would be sent ahead to clear obstacles for an important arrival, and so it was no surprise that when John was questioned who exactly he was, John returned to the words of Isaiah and said, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the LORD’ (John 1: 23).
And in a similar manner the last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, the world has the last reminder of the coming herald before God became silent for 400 years. Malachi wrote, ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You’ (Malachi 3:1)
Both Isaiah and Malachi were talking about John, John was to be the forerunner to the Messiah. He was the one who was to prepare the way for the Lord. He was the one that would call the Jewish people to repentance in the wilderness of the Judean desert, and he was the one that would ultimately loose his life in the process.
We also know that John the Baptist was the most important person who had lived up to that time, because we are told so by Jesus and I’m not going to argue with Him! In Matthews gospel we read, ‘Assuredly. I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.’ (Matthew 11:10)
And John’s message, as was Isaiah’s, was to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming Messiah. And in living out that calling, we have the imagery of that wild and desolate desert from which John preached being used to illustrate something that would have been familiar to both prophets and people, that of preparing the way for the arrival of a king.
But when John uses this analogy, he is directing it right at the Jewish people who had in-fact hardened their own hearts, and caused them to be desolate places, just like the desert from which John proclaimed his message.
But right from before John was even born it was apparent that he was going to be something truly special. His mother Elizabeth the cousin of Mary was seemingly unable to have any children due to her age, yet with the miraculous intervention of God she became pregnant.
And so, imagine if you will, that feeling of joy that both Mary and Elizabeth felt as they became aware of their pregnancies, for those parents among you here today, recall that time that you found out you were to become mums and dads for that first time, and that feeling of joy and celebration that you felt (or perhaps it might have been a surprise – I don’t know!!)
Indeed, we read in Luke’s gospel that when Mary travelled to meet her cousin Elizabeth and greeted her, the infant John literally ‘leapt for joy’ in her womb (Luke 1:41NRSV). So, John, the greatest prophet, even before his own birth had recognised he was in the very presence of his saviour, that he was still yet to proclaim!
So, all through the narrative of the story of John, there is an ever-present joy, and it is that joy that we ourselves should take forward in our own lives, as we travel this strange and sometimes uncomfortable Christian journey. For we know that our own lives can sometimes become baron and desolate, just like the Judean desert.
And be aware that too that we need too to distinguish the difference between joy and simple happiness, for there is a subtle difference between the two.
The theologian Henri Nouwen I think captures the difference between joy and happiness quite nicely, when he wrote, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death-can take that love away.” Nouwen implies that joy can be present always, even amid sadness, whereas ‘happiness is simply a feeling that comes over you when you know life is good.’ (http://www.azquotes.com/author/10905-Henri_Nouwen/tag/joy)
And I can agree with him on that, for at this time of year I myself am always reminded of my own mother, and although she is no longer with me or my family on this earth, she herself was fittingly called ‘Joy’ and so I am able to remember her at this time with joy, even though her loss naturally causes some sadness. It is that joy that sits comfortably in the midst of loss and bereavement. It is that same joy that is in hope of Jesus.
So, John, that greatest of prophets is the announcer of joy and hope. John was the first person to herald the arrival of the Messiah. And he was the first witness to proclaim His divinity.
John was also consistently humble and would always, when questioned, be insistent that he was not the Messiah, and repeatedly state that one ‘greater than he’ (Luke 3:16) would come after him, and he knew that as Jesus commenced His own ministry then he himself would decrease his own.
For John was fully aware of his vocation and what he had been called to do. He was sent to solely proclaim the good news that the Messiah, that had been prophesied was coming. And if you ever look at paintings that depict John the Baptist, you will find that in many of them the artist is able to capture that picture of John always being secondary to Jesus, the One that he proclaimed, at the same time emphasising how it is necessary that he diminishes as Jesus increases.
In John 3:25 we hear John himself say, ‘Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled, He must increase, but I must decrease, He who comes from above is above all’ (John 3: 29-31).
John recognises that his own ministry is complete in proclaiming the arrival of Jesus and has that everlasting joy that comes only by being obedient to God’s call.
And for anyone considering a call to formal ministry then you would do well to prayerfully reflect on Johns life. For he is a man that knows what he is about. He is a man that doesn’t seek the grandeur of high office, or what many might perceive as more important roles. John accepts the call on his life to be what God has called him to be.
For God has a role for all of us, if we offer ourselves to Him and He will use us for His service in the way He wants, and not necessarily in the way that we might think we should be used!
So, today as we rapidly approach Christmas, look towards that pink candle and think of ourselves in good spirits and joyfulness ready to greet our Lord. Let us describe ourselves unashamedly to others as ‘being in the pink’ knowing that however we might feel or whatever life has thrown at us, we can still be joyful because we know the Lord Jesus.
I would like to end with an Advent poem called ‘Joy’ written by the poet and lyricist, Lindy Gray, and it goes like this: –
I’ve got the joy,joy,joy,joy down in my heart!
And I agree with that sentiment.
There is a lot of joy available,
worthy of being mentioned four times
but the down part is true, too.
Very often, the joy is buried deep below the surface,
Hidden under layers of information and distraction,
a polished stone under a stack of old newspapers.
So much negative in the world today,
so much trash,
so much fear.
We bury our faces in our phones
because machines are much easier than people,
and the garbage keeps piling on,
and the joy becomes more and more a distant memory.
But joy is our birth right.
The angels told the shepherds they were bringing
good news of a great joy that will be to all people.
The good news is for us,
but we have to make room for it.
Our minds are busier than a guest house in Bethlehem during a census-too full for one more family,
even a small one.
The birth is coming
The joy is promised.
May we make ready
may we make room.
May we join together,
help each other, and sanctify space
for God’s great gift of joy. (Lindy Thompson)