Saturday, December 04, 2010

These are the days of Elijah

1 Kings 18.7-16

When we decided to hold a praise service to celebrate the beginning of Advent someone said that it was a contradiction in terms. Advent isn’t a time of celebration. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost - these are the great celebrations of the Christian year. But Advent is a time of preparation, a time of repentance, a time to think about the judgement of God and to get ready to face him.

Yet surely we can celebrate the lives of the prophets who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah and prepared the Way of the Lord. Men like Elijah, Moses, Isaiah and Ezekiel. And let’s not forget Mary who prophesied about the impact that Jesus would have in her great song of praise to God which in Latin is called The Magnificat: ‘My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.’ This is the very first and greatest Advent hymn of praise.

So what are the days of Elijah? They are days of confrontation. During a time of desperate famine Elijah confronts Obadiah, the most senior civil servant in the land of Israel, and tells him to report back to the King, his master, that Elijah is here! It’s High Noon in ancient Palestine. One of the most evil kings ever to rule over Israel versus one of the greatest prophets of Yahweh, Israel’s God.

Obadiah is sure that Ahab will kill him just for mentioning Elijah’s name, and reminds Elijah that he’s a good guy, a secret servant of Yahweh who has been protecting his prophets from the sword. Ahab has been searching in vain for Elijah, in every land and region. What if he goes out to meet Elijah now and finds that he has disappeared again? Ahab will surely be beside himself with fury. But Elijah promises to keep the appointment and - after Obadiah delivers Elijah’s message - Ahab goes to meet him.

Here then, in these short verses, we have all the ingredients of the days of Elijah - days of great trials, of famine, and darkness and sword! And one man, the greatest prophet since the time of Moses, stands almost alone against the forces of evil, declaring the word of the Lord. His mission is, of course, to see righteousness restored throughout the land.

This, then, is something to celebrate in Advent: the courage of all those great men and women of faith who - in days of great trials - have declared the word of the Lord and demanded that righteousness must become again the hallmark of leaders and people alike. And make no mistake about it, we too live in the days of Elijah - a time of economic hardship, warfare and concern about the planet and its future. We need to hear, and to proclaim, the word of the Lord to our society and to our own friends and neighbours.

Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, we have come to worship you. Make us glad in this season of Advent because we want to be ready - ready to give thanks for your righteousness being restored, ready to recognise your presence with us in the great trials that we face today and ready to welcome your return at the end of history to make all things right. Open our hearts as we worship you so that we may understand what it means for us to proclaim the word of the Lord. In your name we ask it, and in the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 3.1-6

We began by reminding ourselves that Advent is first and foremost a time of preparation and repentance. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a sombre time, devoid of praise. Repentance can be a cause for celebration.

Jesus himself said that heaven rejoices more over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine good people who have no need of repentance. I guess he was exaggerating, as usual, in order to make his point. But you get the picture. God’s big project is to turn around the bad people and every time he succeeds the not-so-bad people should rejoice.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But actually it’s not the way the world works. When someone is nominated to take on a prominent role in our society, what do all the journalists do? They go digging to see if this person has any skeletons in their cupboard. Kate Middleton is a good example. I guess hundreds of journalists are now on her case, digging for dirt. The most that they’ve come up with so far is a see-through dress that she once wore at a charity fashion show. But they’ll keep looking.

When John the Baptist preached about repentance in the desert, and proclaimed that the day of the Lord which Isaiah had promised was surely drawing very near, thousands of ordinary people flocked to hear him and to confess their sins. Were the not-so-bad people impressed to see them getting religion? No, like a pack of modern day journalists they came to investigate him, to see if he was on message, to find out if he was making repentance too easy.

During the very first Advent Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth. Both women were pregnant and, in his mother’s womb, John the Baptist - Elizabeth’s unborn son - is supposed to have leapt for joy, according to Luke, when he heard the news of Jesus’ coming.

For Mary and Elizabeth Advent was a time for rejoicing, because they were soon to give birth, but it was also a time for preparation and reflection, and for getting ready to lead a changed life. A recent medical report said that all women should do more to prepare for pregnancy and childbirth. It’s in the best interests of their baby, but it’s also in their own best interests because having a baby will radically alter their lives and how they feel about themselves and about the world.

John’s message to the crowd was that the the day of the Lord would work a huge change in their outlook too. Like a pregnant woman preparing for childbirth and motherhood, to get the best out of the coming of Jesus they must prepare themselves to meet the challenge he will bring. They must change direction, or repent. This is the time of Jubilee - the time when people can be set free from all the skeletons in their cupboard and start over again. It’s the time for salvation.

And these are also the Days of Elijah, because Matthew makes very clear that he sees John the Baptist as Elijah returned from the dead in Israel’s hour of need. Like Elijah, John wears a hairy coat tied with a leather belt and lives in the wilderness. But for the new Elijah, restoring righteousness is not just a question of changing society and the shared values by which we all live, it’s also about changing individual people and proclaiming the need for personal righteousness to be restored.

Prayer
Loving God, from the dawn of time you have been preparing for the coming of your reign on earth. We praise you for the prophets who foretold the coming of Jesus, your chosen leader or Messiah, and especially we praise you for the ministry of John the Baptist. He was a voice in the wilderness making ready the way of the Lord by calling people to repentance.

We praise you for those who have made your promises known to us and who gave us the opportunity to respond to your call. Encourage us now when we feel like voices in the wilderness declaring your word, so that we may continue to share your good news until those around us are able truly to prepare for your coming in Jesus at Christmas. Amen.

Matthew 3.13-17

So why is it so important that Elijah had to return? Because part of his new mission was to baptise Jesus and so allow Jesus to experience that supreme moment of confirmation when he felt God’s Spirit filling every part of him, like a dove descending upon him from heaven, and he heard a voice assuring him that he was God’s beloved Son.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all make this seem like a fairly personal, inward experience, although Matthew implies that the crowd heard God’s voice too and Luke implies that the Spirit was as visible as a real bird. But in John’s Gospel it is John the Baptist who sees the Spirit descending on Jesus and hears the inner voice of God.

In the picture the Spirit is descending to empower and enable both John’s baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ subsequent proclamation of the Good News. And, of course, the Spirit comes to empower us too - and that’s another reason for rejoicing.

We are the labourers in the vineyard where the grapes are ripe and ready to be picked and made into wine. We are the harvesters in the wheat and barley fields where the grain has been bleached almost white by the sun and is ready for harvesting to be made into bread. And in this daunting task, of declaring the Word of the Lord, we need the dry bones of our very ordinary spiritual existence to be fleshed out by God’s powerful Spirit.

One of my day jobs is to sell mobile phone top-ups and stamps to post office customers. I’m supposed to ask every customer whether they need either of these things. And nine times out of ten they laugh and shake their head. But some people are fields white for harvest, or vines ripe for plucking. They’ve nearly run out of telephone top-ups or stamps, and I’m doing them a favour by asking.

You know, if we don’t talk to people about Jesus, how will we ever know whether the fields are ready for harvest? Advent is a time for preparing ourselves for the challenge of actually declaring the word of the Lord.

Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you for the steadfast witness of John the Baptist to your truth. We thank you for his courage, that led him to speak out even at great cost to himself. We thank you for his readiness to point away from himself to you. We thank you for his willingness to live in such a way that everything he did testified to the truth of his message in a manner that words could never do.

Help us to prepare your way for today. May we witness to your renewing power and demonstrate your compassion so that the hearts of many people may be turned to you and respond to your love. Amen.

1 John 1.1-4

Behold he comes! The song refers to poetic descriptions of the second coming of Jesus at the end of time, the culmination of salvation history when God’s work will finally be complete and his reign on earth will be just like it is in heaven. Advent is a time for looking forward to that day and celebrating the promise of its coming.

But Advent is also the time when we get ready to celebrate the coming of God in Jesus that happened in the middle of human history, two thousand years ago. John sums up the significance of that event when he declares: ‘We have seen it with our eyes and our hands have touched it. This we proclaim concerning the Word of Life.’

In the picture Mary is holding the Word of Life, cradling him in her arms as Joseph and the wisemen gaze at him in wonder. Nearby is a bed of straw where he will be laid to get some sleep.

Elijah’s promise, that the day of the Lord would come when righteousness would be restored, is being fulfilled in a very unexpected and surprising way. Not in the rise of a powerful leader - although the promise remains that he will return to complete what he has begun. But his first coming is as a baby. Almost unnoticed and virtually unobserved, God comes to dwell with us - and is immediately both helpless and yet wonderful to behold.

No wonder so many people refuse to believe that Jesus can be anything more than just a good man. How could God choose to empty himself and become like this? There is indeed no God like Yahweh Jehovah - a God who is willing to share all that it means to be human: joy and suffering, pain and delight, power and helplessness - for all these things are wrapped up in our short life span. This is the message of Advent and Christmas. To some people it seems blasphemous to talk about God in this way. To others it seems like nonsense. But to those who believe it is the true power of God.

Prayer
Gracious God, we thank you for the joyful promise of Christmas, which is that whatever we may face, you are always with us in Jesus. You support us through hard times by your loving example. You enrich us by your grace at work among us. You equip us with your spirit. So inspire us afresh each day to go on our way rejoicing with you and to declare your Word, the Word of Life revealed in Jesus Christ. Amen.

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