JESUS AT OUR DOORS

Sermon delivered on the Third Sunday in Advent the 11th December 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the St. Alban's congregation of the Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: Isaiah 35: 1-10     James 5: 7-10     S. Matthew 11: 2-11

S. Matt 11:6 Jesus said, "Blessed is he who takes no offence at Me."

GOD TAKES ACTION
When people go through personal difficulties of some sort, such as mourning the death of a loved one or fearing for the future such as that of one’s children or one’s country, or even when we contemplate some budgetary constraint that we or others may bear, it is quite a normal reaction to feel a degree of depression. I have observed on occasion in such times, if we are wanting to get out of this state, but do not have the personal resources to do so, that God seems, perhaps through the material of our daily worship, to take action through His words to strengthen our faltering faith. "Blessed are the eyes that have seen what yours have seen, and blessed the ears that have heard what yours have heard," Jesus sometimes says to us, and we are then suddenly brought to the realisation that God Himself perceives the events that are bothering us. When we begin to bring to the matter the divine resources that God intends us to, and that is only to be found from outside ourselves, we find the burden of it is lifted, either soon or eventually. Jesus' yoke is truly an easy one, which is to say, a yoke that helps us to carry otherwise difficult loads.

HOLDING THE IMPOSSIBLE VISION
There is a lot of material in our lessons today that can help us to listen to the voice, as it were, of Jesus at the doors of our souls. Contemplate a mind prone to be depressed encountering our first lesson from Isaiah 35, and hearing how the desert shall rejoice and blossom, how strength prevails over anxiety, how God will come with recompense, how the condition of the blind, the deaf, the dumb and so on will be reversed, and how a highway shall appear upon which the redeemed of the Lord shall return home to Zion with singing. It is true that the first reaction could well be, "Well, all this seems really not to be relevant to the conditions of my life." And the temptation might be just to turn off. But if an impulse deep within us or even just our personal prayer discipline tells us not to turn off, but just hold the words within our spirit, then we might realise that after all there can be a connection between these words and our own condition. For they are two poles, one pole being the restored paradisal ideal, which in the New Testament is referred to as the imminent Kingdom of God, and the other pole being the troubles or difficulties of our experience. The connection would have to be patience or endurance, and in order to keep the two poles connected that patience and endurance would need to be like a very firm and strong connecting wire. We might not be able to see how the one pole influences the other, how the Kingdom of God influences the difficulties of our experience, but by faith we can recognise that God orders it so. Did He not say, and does He not now say, “The Kingdom of God is at hand”? We should remember we of the New Testament age are in the mountain valleys of the High Kingdom of God, one peak of which was His coming at the first Christmas, and the other His coming again, His final advent. Or perhaps, with the use of St. James’ imagery in our second lesson, we are somewhere between the earlier rains and the later rains. The seemingly unattainable vision should not be allowed to fade away, and in this way faithfulness over time can heal and restore us from any depression and isolation.


ACHIEVING THE RESOLUTION
St. James speaks of the farmer waiting for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. The word “patience” is the translation of a Greek word meaning longsuffering. There is no question that you have to be longsuffering in farming. You have to learn when to wait and when to act urgently, as the timing of many things is not negotiable or under your control. St. James counsels that we have to have a similar patience, as well as expectation over the coming of the Lord. It is at hand, imminent, yet for now its imminence must be endured for an unspecified time. Perhaps we can think of that coming, with its themes of the righting of the wrongs of the world, in terms of the resolution of harmony at a particular point of a choral work that approaches that point through an abundance of dissonance. The singers have to be patient not to try to scramble to the resolution under their own steam too early, but when the time is ready they have to seize the moment, otherwise they will spoil the resolution. That harmonic resolution of the Lord's coming we can perceive not only as the final Advent of the Lord, but sometimes in the way that the final resolution may be reflected in our lives ahead of time. Some aspect of the paradisal ideal, perhaps, comes about for us after a protracted ordeal. The ordeal, too, is the Lord's and must be conducted with faithful patience. In choral pieces too, there are many places where a temporary resolution is touched upon before finally the grand resolution is achieved at the end.

NOT THE PRESENT MOMENT ONLY
Imagine if when a musical score was being copied the last page got lost and nobody knew that the composer intended the work to continue past the pages they had. People might imagine that the composer had produced a poor result. This is like what happens to us when the connection we thought about between the poles of our difficulties and the Kingdom of God breaks, our endurance falters, and we take offence at the Lord over our life. A grumbling against one another is one possible result of this, when we forget that these others too are part of the score that God has handed to us. St. James warns that grumbling against one another in the church lays us open to divine judgement. For it is not we who are to judge the Lord over His handiwork: it is He who has the capacity to judge us.

THE TEMPTATION TO JUDGE THE JUDGMENT
Even St. John the Baptist, who as Jesus said was a prophet and more than a prophet, is recorded in our Gospel today as being tested. Jesus said that John was more than a prophet because he not only prophesied of the Messiah to come but also identified who that Messiah was. And that brought him into a vulnerable position, because the works of Jesus on earth did not fulfil all the prophetic hopes of Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets, though the fact that Jesus gave sight to the blind, and cured the disabled and sick, and preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God were sufficient signs that this was indeed the Messiah. Yet at the same time, the judgment upon mankind that John himself had proclaimed as imminent, and of which the Old Testament prophets often spoke, was apparently not occurring. Certainly this would have been of direct concern to the imprisoned prophet, because a delay of judgement meant more injustice heaped upon his own head every day.

John the Baptist had to learn, as do we all, that the Lord's timing is not our timing. Of course the Lord knows us through and through, and as St. Paul says, He does not give us more than we can bear, though our own assessment of what we can bear may be extremely inaccurate. St. John the Baptist would in time have to pay the ultimate price for being a prophet, and, we may reasonably assume, died bravely and faithfully as such, knowing and trusting in the Messiah that he had faithfully proclaimed, and relying on Him to resolve what perhaps was for him the unsolved question of the delayed judgment. Blessed was the Baptist if after receiving Jesus' word from the disciples he had sent to him, he took no offence at Him.

THE STRANGE GIFTS OF GOD
A strange truth is that God has given us all life’s complications just as He has given to us everything else including His many graces and reliefs. It may not be for a long time that we will begin to appreciate such gifts. We may not yet understand much of the story of disasters like the terrorist bombings or hurricane Matthew, personal tragedies or other ruinations and puzzles from God's perspective, but I am prepared to say that the day will come when we will rightly look back upon them with sincere thanksgiving to the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, who knows the end and purpose of things before they come about, and who will fulfil what may now at best only be the glimmer of a clear vision for us. Let us be patient therefore, and establish our hearts upon the foundation of faith in the Lord; for blessed still, are those who take no offence at Him.

QUESTIONS

1. The attitude of prayer and the attitude of grumbling are fully opposed to one another. How quickly can we expect to expel grumbling from our own life?

2. If you are prepared to stay in God's perspective about life, which is prophetic, are you prepared to pay the prophet's price?

3. Consider and list some of "God's perspectives" about the year 2004 (Ivan) or this year.