10 December 2017
Waiting for ‘a day to astonish
us, reduce us to silence
and bring us to our knees’
Sunday 10 December 2017,
The Second Sunday of Advent.
11.30 a.m.: Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, Morning Prayer.
Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; II Peter 3: 8-15a; Mark 1: 1-8.
Part 1: Lighting the Second Candle on the Advent Wreath (the Prophets):
Last week, I explained in Askeaton and in Tarbert that on each Sunday in Advent, instead of preaching one long sermon, I’m going to offer three short reflections: looking at the Advent Wreath and Candles; looking at the Gospel reading and our hopes for the Coming of Christ; and looking at the meaning of Santa Claus.
In Year B in the Lectionary readings, we are focussing on Saint Mark’s Gospel.
Last Sunday, we heard his account of the Coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13: 24-37). This morning, we return to the beginning of this Gospel (Mark 1: 1-8).
While Saint John’s Gospel begins at the beginning of Creation (‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God,’ John 1: 1), Saint Mark, unlike Saint Matthew or Saint Luke, has no Nativity narrative, has no story of the first Christmas (see Matthew 1: 18 to 2: 23; Luke 1: 1 to 2: 40).
Saint Mark begins his Gospel with his account of the Baptism of Christ by Saint John in the River Jordan, which comes later in the other three Gospels (see Matthew 3: 1-17; Luke 3: 1-21; John 1: 19-34).
Indeed, there is no Christmas story in Saint Mark’s Gospel. Instead, the theme for the readings this morning is the Prophets, and then next Sunday [17 December, Advent III), we look at Saint John the Baptist, who in his own way is the last in the line of the Prophets, the bridge between the Prophets and Christ.
The prayers at the Advent Wreath on the Sundays in Advent can help us to continue our themes from the Sunday before Advent [26 November 2017], which we marked in these dioceses as Mission Sunday, supporting projects in Swaziland in co-operation with the Anglican mission agency, the United Society Partners in the Gospel (USPG).
As we light our Advent candles in anticipation of celebrating the coming of the Christ child, USPG is inviting churches and parishes to pray for mothers and children who are served by USPG in the world church in Tanzania, Ghana, Bangladesh and Palestine.
The first candle to light on the Advent Wreath on the First Sunday of Advent was the Purple Candle, recalling the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, our fathers and mothers in faith, like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob. The purple second candle, which we light this Sunday, represents the Prophets.
USPG suggests this prayer when we light the second candle:
O God of history,
who has spoken through the prophets;
we pray for mothers in Ghana
who have learned to protect their children from cholera.
Bless those who bring life-saving knowledge
and bless families whose children are now healthy and full of life.
Part 2: Waiting for Christ
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit Amen.
Our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 40: 1-11) is familiar to many of us because of the opening words of Handel’s Messiah. The promise of the Prophets is central to our understanding of waiting and hope in the weeks of Advent, the weeks immediately before Christmas.
In the Psalm (Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13), we also hear God’s promise that he will bless the people with peace and steadfast love, which shall be the visible signs of God’s presence and power (verses 8-13).
In the Epistle reading (II Peter 3: 8-15a), Saint Peter, by now at the end of his life, leaves an assurance of the fulfilment of God’s promises.
Now, in the Gospel reading (Mark 1: 1-8), the story of the Baptism of Christ gives us the first revelation of the Trinity to the creation in the New Testament. It is like the story of a new creation. God’s promises, expressed by the Prophets and the Psalmists, are being fulfilled.
But rather than retell those stories, as my commentary on our readings and as the second part of my sermon this morning, I want to read a letter I received a few days ago in an email from another Mark, the Revd Mark Aitken, Master of the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine in Limehouse, in the East End of London.
In his letter, he sums up a modern interpretation of the hope that was expressed in the past by the Prophets:
It is very strange that the time of the year which should be greeted with awe, wonder and bated breath; a time which should be focused on the kind of quiet that we hold so a baby won’t wake, is actually greeted with crackers, the loud singing of carols and noisy parties.
In the middle of winter, in a time of political uncertainty, and with many people living under all kinds of pressure, a reason to be cheerful should be grasped with both hands.
A season of goodwill and glad tidings feels very necessary.
However, what if there were more than just an excuse for a midwinter party going on here?
What if Christmas Day could be a day to astonish us and fill us with wonder, cut through our chatter, reduce us to silence and possibly bring us to our knees?
It could be in church, or as you sense the overwhelming love offered to you in a thoughtfully chosen present, or just in a stolen, quiet moment in the middle of a party, that your thoughts will turn to that child born in a dark stable, in the middle of the night all those years ago.
You might even catch your breath, feeling a deep longing inside you, and sense the gentle hint that this child will have something to say to you when he grows up.
Part 3: Waiting for Santa Claus
Last Wednesday, we recalled the real Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, during our mid-week Advent Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, and last Sunday I spoke a little about Saint Nicholas and his willingness to go to Alexandria, where God sent him, as a real example among the saints of how life is a pilgrimage, an Advent, that looks forward to the coming of Christ and his Kingdom.
That funny hat that Santa Claus wears is derived from the mitre that Saint Nicholas wore as Bishop of Myra.
Saint Nicholas’s election as bishop was unusual. After the former bishop died, other bishops gathered to elect the next Bishop of Myra. As they met, the wisest bishop heard a voice in the night telling him to watch the doors of the church the next morning at Matins. The first person to enter named Nicholas was to be the new bishop.
The wise one told the others, asking them to be at prayer while he waited at the doors. When the hour came, the first to arrive was the young man who had just arrived back from Alexandria.
When asked his name, he replied, ‘I am Nicholas.’
The bishop said to him: ‘Nicholas, servant and friend of God, for your holiness you shall be bishop of this place.’ They brought him into the church and placed him in the bishop’s throne where he was to be consecrated the new Bishop of Myra.
Myra suffered famine in the years 311, 312, and 333. The crops failed, and the people were hungry. Bishop Nicholas learned that ships bound for Alexandria with cargoes of wheat had anchored in the harbour.
The bishop implored the sailors to take a measure of grain from each ship so that the people would have food.
The sailors said ‘No’ as the wheat was ‘meted and measured’ and every bit must be delivered.
Nicholas replied: ‘Do this, and I promise, in the truth of God, that it shall not be lessened or diminished when you get to your destination.’
So, the sailors took a measure from each ship and continued on to Alexandria. When the wheat was unloaded, the full amount was accounted for. When the tale was told, the emperor’s ministers all worshiped and praised God with thanksgiving for his servant Nicholas.
Throughout the famine people came to Bishop Nicholas for wheat. He gave it to all who had need, and the grain lasted for two years, with enough remaining to plant new crops.
It’s a story that can remind us of Christ feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fish. But it also points to the generosity of Christ giving himself to us in the Eucharist or Holy Communion, and to the generosity of God in sending us the most wonderful gift of Christ at Christmas-time and the promises of the generosity and blessings of the Kingdom of God.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Advent Collect:
This collect is said after the Collect of the day until Christmas Eve:
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Introduction to the Peace:
In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)
Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for the Second Sunday of Advent, 10 December 2017.