Thursday, 30 November 2017

Advent Prayer of Approach 2

Inspired by the wise men taking another path from Herod

Surprising God of unexpected endings,
            we enter your presence with lives half-lived.

And we bring with us the gifts of
            our hopes, our dreams,
                        our expectations, and our fears.
We bring the years that have passed,
            and the times still to come.

And in this moment, we ask that you will meet us
            through the restless Spirit of your eternal son,
            our saviour Jesus Christ.
Come to us in time, and show us the path to eternity.

Forgive us for those days we depart from your way,
            and lead us ever back to you
            as we travel roads as-yet unknown.

Give us creative minds and open hearts,
            that we might be sensitive to the stirrings of your Spirit,
            as you bring order from chaos, peace from conflict,
            love from hate, and hope from despair.

Surprising God of unexpected endings,
            in whom all of eternity finds its meaning,
we offer you our lives and our world,
            and we trust you with all that lies before us.

Advent Prayer of Approach 1

Loving God of Advent, we await your coming.

We gather in your name this morning,
            in expectation of encounter with you,
but we know that there is nothing we can do
            to hasten your presence among us.

And so we wait for you.

And as we wait, we open our hearts and minds
            to the scrutiny of your Spirit.
Show us those places in our lives
            where we have closed the door to your presence;
convict us of our sins and selfish actions,
            that we might be forgiven and transformed
            by your coming into our midst.

Come, Lord Jesus.
            Come in power, come in weakness,
                        come in judgment, come in forgiveness,
            come in our joy, and in our sorrow.

Come to your people,
            that we might discover your presence
            and know the love that you kindle in our cold hearts.

Come to us that we might become
            the agents of your in-breaking kingdom of justice and peace.

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

A Prayer for Advent

God of Advent, in a world of chaos, you can be very hard to find.
The good news of your presence can seem at best a mystery.

So teach us to wait for your unveiling, and give us faith to trust in your revelation.

When our world is in winter, comfort us with faith that the long dark nights, and cold hard days, do not last for eternity.

Help us to learn the lesson of the skeletal tree against the winter sky, and the dormant bulb in the frosted ground. Help us to trust that new life is already nascent within our world of winter, and that days of darkness contain within themselves the assurance of your coming to all who seek you.

So today we bring before you the needs of our winter world,
            and we offer our faith in the in-breaking of your new season of justice and joy.

We pray for our planet, and we rejoice that progress has been made on tackling climate change, but we recognise that there is so much still to do; and that countries will need the courage to act against self-interest if genuine change is to be achieved. Give us the courage to speak out, and to call your world to the self-less path which brings life.

We pray for all those who are victims of natural disasters. May we learn to live in ways that are in harmony with the natural world.

In a world of winter, we offer our faith
            in the in-breaking of your new season of justice and joy.

In a world of war and terror, we pray for peace on earth. When nations and ideologies take up arms to fight for right, we find wrong on all sides.

War has created the current crisis in Europe faced by those who have nowhere else to live, and refugees now seek new life far from home. But people-movement leads to fear and suspicion, and violence and bullying stalk the streets and whisper in the corridors of power.

Lord, forgive us. Help us to find a new way, where the spirals of violence find their end in you, as you call us to a new way of being human where forgiveness trumps retaliation, and violence stops with us.

In a world of winter, we offer our faith
            in the in-breaking of your new season of justice and joy.

We pray for all those who suffer because of their faithful witness to your kingdom of peace, and we think especially of those Christians who face harassment, discrimination, slander, false accusation, detention, and imprisonment, because they will not turn from your path. We pray that they will remain strong in faith and trust, despite physical and psychological abuse, and that they will know your presence with them as they walk the costly path of the cross. We thank you for organisations like Release International, Action by Christians Against Torture, and Amnesty International, as they face the darkness with unflinching gaze.

In a world of winter, we offer our faith
            in the in-breaking of your new season of justice and joy.

We pray for those who find this time of year especially difficult. We think of those who find the loss of loved ones hard to bear, when so many are focussing on family. We pray for those for whom the coming Christmas festivities speaks of unfulfilled dreams. And we ask that you will reveal yourself to those who mourn, and to those who are sad. Be their comfort and joy, and may those of us who are happy be attentive to those who are not.

In a world of winter, we offer our
            faith in the in-breaking of your new season of justice and joy.

Loving God of Advent, we await your coming, and we anticipate your revelation, and we long for your unveiling.

Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Day of the Lord

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
19 November 2017

1 Thessalonians 5.1-11 
Isaiah 59:14-20   

Do you know what I mean if I ask whether you’re an ‘owl’ or a ‘lark’?
            I’m definitely a lark, and what I mean by this is that I’m a ‘morning person’.
                        I always have been.
            I like to get up early in the morning, and get on with the day.

For several years in my teens I had an early morning job:
            initially just a paper-round,
                        it soon became a job at the newsagents opposite Sevenoaks train station.
            I used to get there every morning at 5am,
                        to set up all the papers for the other boys and girls,
            and then I’d do my own paper-round,
                        plus anyone else’s who was off sick,
            and then I’d serve behind the counter selling cigarettes and newspapers
                        to commuters until it was time to get the 8.05 train to school.

It meant getting up at 3.30 most mornings, but I loved it.
            In fact, sometimes I used to go for a swim on the way into work,
                        and would arrive at 5am having already done a half hour cycle ride
                        plus half an hour in the pool.
            I don’t think I could do this now, but I enjoyed it back then.

And one of my favourite parts about this, and it’s something that’s stayed with me,
            is that I really like being outside as the sun comes up.
The gradual lessening of the darkness as the day dawns
            is a spiritual, numinous time,
when the world seems to hang between dark and light,
            and you’re not quite sure which is winning.
But then the sun floods the earth, and suddenly the day is upon us.

Some of you will know exactly what I’m talking about,
            and others of you will be looking at me like I’m some kind of strange alien
because the last time you saw the dawn
            was when you were forcibly awoken by a small child
            screaming, ‘is it time to get up yet?’.
Actually, that small child was me,
            and it was my owl of a father who would should back at me,
            ‘No Simon, go back to sleep!’.

Well, I think St Paul was a lark.
            Certainly, he was for the purposes of his letter to the Thessalonians.

He was writing to encourage them to persevere in their faith,
            to be steadfast in their hope,
            and to be generous in their love for one another;
and to do this he makes generous use of the metaphors of night and day.

He paints a picture of the world hanging in that moment between darkness and light,
            and he tells his congregation that it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee,
            because everything is set to change.

But before we go any further with Paul’s imagery,
            I’d like to take a moment to dispel a myth that has grown up around this passage,
                        and the others that it parallels elsewhere in the New Testament.
I’ve heard it preached, and maybe you have too,
            that we need to behave ourselves because Jesus is coming ‘like a thief in the night’,
                        and might catch us out in whatever it is we shouldn’t be doing.

This is a spirituality of fear and control,
            and I’m just going to call it for the manipulative theology that it is.
If the only reason we do what God asks us to do,
            is because we’re afraid of what’ll happen if we get caught disobeying,
            then we have a highly deficient view of God, ethics, and the resurrection.
This isn’t what Paul believes, and we should believe it either.

Although I do recognise that for those of us brought up
            with an inherited culture of Catholic or Calvinist guilt,
it can be quite hard to shake off the lurking shame and fear
            that persistently haunt our idle moments.

But for Paul, Jesus doesn’t come ‘like a thief in the night’
            to catch us out in our depravity.
Rather, he comes to bring the dawning light of the new day
            to those whose lives are trapped in the depths of darkness.
The day of the Lord isn’t some spotlight of shame that shines on the sinful;
            it is a liberating light that dispels our deeds of darkness.

And whilst I’m at it,
            those who have sought to tie this passage from 1 Thessalonians
                        to some end-times chronology
            are on a hiding to nothing;
and the irony of this is that Paul knows it too.
            It’s there in the first couple of verses of chapter 5:
                        ‘Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,
                                    you do not need to have anything written to you.
                        For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord
                        will come like a thief in the night’.

In other words, stop trying to double guess when the Lord will return
            – you can’t, so don’t.

Rather, be prepared because the day of the Lord is at hand.
            It might feel like darkness has won the day,
                        and that the world is on an inexorable path
                        towards yet more pain and violence,
            but if you strain your eyes to the horizon
                        you can see the first glimmers of the great alternative,
            which draws people from darkness to light,
                        transforming lives and enlightening minds and hearts.

Paul sees the death and resurrection of Christ
            as the great turning point of the ages.
His death on the cross marks the moment
            that the old age of darkness, sin, and death loses its power;
and his resurrection is the dawning of the new age
            of light, life, and hope that is coming into being.

And just as Easter Saturday was a time of waiting,
            with the world hanging between darkness and light;
so we too live in the time-between-times,
            as the darkness of the world is gradually challenged
            by dawning of the light of resurrected Christ.

But the temptation, of course, is to not see it.

The temptation is to ignore the glimmer of light on the horizon,
            and to resign ourselves to the way the world is,
                        the way the world has always been,
            and to tell ourselves that it probably will always be the same.

The darkness that surrounds us can seem so utterly overwhelming,
            so seductively soporific in its enfolding embrace,
that it constantly threatens to lull us into silence
            as we sleepwalk our way to the very gates of hell itself.

And let’s make no bones about it;
            if we allow ourselves to slumber while evil has its day,
                        we run the risk of opening the very gates of hell on earth.
As Edmund Burke famously put it,
            ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good people do nothing.’

And so the world of darkness does all it can
            to silence those voices that would call the dawning of the day.

The powers that be would much rather we mumbled,
            ‘Peace, peace, peace and security’,
            than that we proclaimed the great alternative of the coming day of the Lord.

And just as the ancient prophets Jeremiah (6.14; 8.11) and Ezekiel (13.10)
            criticised those in their time who proclaimed peace when there was no peace,
so Paul criticises those who mumble mantras of stability,
            those who tell everyone that ‘everything’s alright’,
            and that ‘nothing too bad’s going to happen’.
These people, he says, will be the first to face destruction
            when their prophecies of apathy fail to keep the darkness at bay.

And so much of our contemporary political discourse
            is justified by these mantras of stability.
‘Strong and stable’, that’s the way to peace, we’re told.

            Forget principles of mutual accountability, subsidiarity,
                        and communal responsibility:
            what we need is a show of strength to bring peace to our world,
                        and restore the security of our borders.

            Forget costly investment in global education and health,
                        forget international agreements on carbon dioxide reduction:
            it’s walls and borders that win elections.

And, depressingly, this is nothing new:
            the slogan of the Roman Empire was ‘Peace and Security’.

The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome,
            was the way the Empire had dominated the globe.
Peace through military strength was the way of Rome;
            and Paul, citizen of Rome, knew this very well.

Those he mentions as the proclaimers of ‘peace and security’,
            are nothing other than apologists for the darkness of the Empire.
And Paul says that they will ultimately pay the price
            for their wilful justification of the violence of the regime.
Those who dance with the devil end up getting burned,
            and Paul wants his readers to realise that their calling is to wake up,
                        to see the ideology peace through violence for what it is,
            and to start living the great alternative into being.

He says to them,
            ‘But you, beloved, are not in darkness…
                        you are children of light and children of the day;
                        we are not of the night or of the darkness’ (v.4-5).

And so he calls the followers of the resurrected Jesus to live differently.
            ‘Keep awake’, he says;
                        don’t fall back into the land of darkness.
            And ‘be sober’ he implores;
                        there’s not much point being awake if you’re drunk all the time.

Those who belong to the coming day
            are to live as children of Christ, not as children of darkness.
The sleep that Paul wants his readers to avoid
            is the sleep that ultimately leads to death,
            the life-denying slumber of terminal ennui.

Paul knows that life should be so much more than this.
            So, he says, let us ‘put on the breastplate of faith and love,
            and for a helmet the hope of salvation’.

This trilogy of faith, hope, and love, crops up elsewhere in Paul’s writings,
            perhaps most famously at the end of his great hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13;
and here in 1 Thessalonians he combines it with the image of the armour of God,
            something which he expands on further in his letter to the Ephesians (6.10-20).

Paul tells his readers to protect their bodies with faith and love,
            and their heads with the hope of salvation.
It is these three: faith, hope, and love,
            which can provide the only effective defence against the darkness of the world.

Evil will not be defeated by violence,
            and neither can it be ignored into inexistence.
But faith in resurrecting power of Christ,
            hope in the future that God is bringing into being,
            and love for other that mirrors the love of God for all creation
is a three stranded cord that cannot be broken,
            and a protection for those who long to live differently.

So where, in our world, is there darkness.
            Where do we least expect to see the light of day dawning?

Maybe we look to the wars and conflicts that daily fill our media,
            and see nothing but hatred and destruction.
Maybe we fear the terrorist on the street or the tube or the bus,
            and we find our love for the other diminished
            as we extrapolate that fear onto those who do not look or live like we do.

Maybe we know that the real darkness
            is the darkness that lurks in our own souls,
as we consider our capacity for hatred, abuse, and revenge,
            and know ourselves for who we really are beneath the social veneer.

Or maybe we live in the daily darkness of our mundane existence,
            trapped by poisonous cycles of relationships,
            or imprisoned by depression and self harm.

And my question today is this:
            What would lit look like for the day
            to unexpectedly dawn upon our darkness?

What if the coming day is calling us to become more involved
            in making our society a more loving and peaceful place.
What if we determined to reach out across borders
            of ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or social standing,
            to include the other and befriend the stranger.

Some of us were at the London Citizens Mayoral Assembly on Wednesday night,
            and we heard how churches, mosques, synagogues,
                        schools, and universities across London
            are working together on issues such as asylum and immigration,
                        the living wage, affordable housing, children’s health,
                        and good employment practice.
Bloomsbury is part of this,
            and maybe this is what living as a child of the light might mean for you.
If it does, then come and talk with me.

But what if the coming day means turning the light inwards,
            to address the darkness that hides deep in our souls.
What if we are being called to take the courageous step
            of admitting we cannot fix ourselves,
            and that we need help from another.

As one who has undergone psychotherapy myself,
            I can attest that it is a path of enlightenment and freedom.

And what if the call to turn our faces towards the coming dawn
            means taking the step of seeking baptism in the name of Christ,
to decisively turn to follow him
            and to publicly bear witness to your journey from darkness to light.
Again, if this is you, come and talk to one of the ministers,
            and we’ll stand alongside you as you follow Christ through the waters of baptism.

And if it all just seems too overwhelming,
            then just hear this:

When all hope seems lost, when all faith is spent,
            when all love is diminished;
that is when the day of the Lord is set to break in upon us,
            and that is the time for the great thief Jesus Christ
to steal us back from claws of darkness,
            to restore our faith, hope, and love.

Not even death itself can separate us from the love of God
            in Christ Jesus.

Because this is where the image of the day of the Lord
            coming like a thief in the night takes us.

Jesus has come to steal the world back for good.
            He has broken the bars of hell,
                        and escaped the clutches of evil,
            he has defeated the power of death,
                        and overcome the supremacy of sin,
            and he comes to the darkness of our night,
                        to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Darkness does not win the eternal battle.
            Darkness always gives way to the eternal dawn,
            just as surely as day follows night.

So have hope, my friends, keep the faith,
            and let us live in love.
Let us encourage one another, and build each other up,
            let us keep awake, and let us live as children of light.