St Bride's: Sermons

I blame Handel's Messiah

Luke 3: 1-6

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Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene,

Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;

As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;

And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

I blame Handel's Messiah

I wonder if you are one of those people who looks away from the TV screen on a Saturday when the announcer at the end of a news bulletin gives the football results just before Match of  the Day. If you know the result in advance then the excitement and anticipation of the game is spoiled, there are no surprises, so you're not on the edge of your seat.

In the Gospel today Luke takes a passage from the prophet Isaiah and re-badges it as a description of John the Baptist predicting the coming of Jesus. "The voice of one crying in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord..."

The unavoidable impression we get during this Advent period and the approach to Christmas is that the arrival of the Messiah was scrupulously prepared for, with a carefully choreographed series of rising expectations - a bit like waiting for the Queen to arrive in your town on a special visit. The Word becoming flesh is presented as the fulfilment of a well-rehearsed series of expectations - the birth of Christ is an inevitability.

Now  this reading of events has its advantages - a measured preparation for a joyful celebration of the Christmas festival; and there is no doubt that this Advent season with its lovely music, ceremonies, carols and hymns is beautiful and uplifting.

But the sense of inevitability about the Gospel writers presentation of the birth of Christ is a bit like watching a football match replay when you know the score and you've seen the goals: shock, surprise, spontaneity, excitement have all vanished.

Just so with our Gospel's take on the Christmas story which gives the impression that the Old Testament is stuffed full of references to the coming of a Messiah - when actually there aren't many at all.

I blame Handel's Messiah - or rather the libretto drawn together by Charles Jennens who ferreted out every text that could possibly have any bearing on the coming of a Messiah and by lumping them all together fuelled the impression of a huge groundswell of Messianic prediction and expectation.

The effect of this kind of thing (repeated in our carol services) is that we can become immunised against the coming of Christ as a surprise - an event out of the blue, unprepared for, unexpected. And that's important as an understanding of what Christmas is all about, because it is as surprise that Christ comes to us still.

One of the spiritual books I treasure is by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Gerard Hughes called God of Surprises; his thesis is that God is the hidden treasure within each of us - the ground of our being - and that each of us needs to make an inner journey in our lives, discovering more about ourselves and God as we go, and that although this is discovery of God can feel threatening and painful, the surprise is that it is in fact life-enhancing and renewing.

The Advent message to us is that God comes to us and reveals himself within us in ways we can never predict. We like to think we are like Goliath protected by our routines, our presumptions, our settled understanding. No-one can catch me out, especially God . If God comes to me, he'll come on my terms, with lots of notice: when I'm ready. Not before, and certainly not unannounced.

But there's always a chink in our armour. David found it when he faced Goliath with his slingshot. Just so, God will find a way through our defences and take us completely by surprise.

We won't have expected it; we won't have programmed it; there will be no prophecies to prepare us or get us in the right frame of mind. God comes to us according to His schedule, not ours, unexpectedly, out of the blue.

As Gerard Hughes says at the end of his book :-

"God is in all things, so that there is no particle in creation and no experience of yours in which he is not with you."

That's why we can discover God at any moment of our lives, in any circumstance - even the most unlikely. Remember that, when we're tempted to view the Christmas story as a well-planned and prepared for event. God came among us in the birth of Jesus as a surprise, unprepared for, when least expected. He comes to us today just as unexpectedly, which is why our Advent watchword should not be "Be prepared"  because we can't really be prepared for the God of surprises; no the watchword is "Be awake, be alert because you do not know the day or the hour..." (Matthew 25: 13)

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