This church has no children on a Sunday morning, so the Discussion happened in the 'children's slot' early in the service and the sermon came in the usual slot. The texts are: Isaiah 61:1-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent and it is traditionally the Sunday that focuses on the work and mission of John the Baptist.
And this morning we have two scripture verses. One from John about John the Baptist himself and one from Isaiah. The emergence of John the Baptist into the life and times of the Jewish people signalled the end of prophetic silence. In John, God began to speak to the Jewish people again through prophets.
This morning, I wanted to begin with a discussion about prophecy. What does prophecy mean to you? Who is a prophet? What does a prophetic message sound like? Are there prophets in the church today?
OT prophets were rooted in the history of Israel. Came from different traditions and had some different understandings of that history. All of the prophets believed in the election of the people of Israel by God as his people. Covenant - spelled out mutual obligations. Their concerns were all about the breeches in the covenant.
One of the big prophetic disagreements was whether God would remain faithful to his covenant if the people of Israel broke their covenant (Isaiah & Ezekiel - yes; Jeremiah - possibility that God would dessert)
Christians believe that God's final word through the prophets was one of hope and promise. No matter what the people did, God would remain faithful. For Christians, John the Baptist is part of the beginning of this new era of God's faithfulness.
Today's Gospel reading points us to John the Baptist and it is something of a remarkable reading. The reading is remarkable in that it is really the only passage in Scripture that tries to deal theologically with John's mission and identity. But the passage seems to be a lot more concerned with telling us who John is not rather than telling us who John is. It's not so much concerned with exalting John as an important prophet but with saying emphatically that John is not the Messiah.
I think that this possibly because the function of a prophet is to point away from himself or herself and to point to toward God. And John's function, as the first prophet the Jewish people had in a number of centuries, was to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promise to all of humankind - a promise that he was going to keep through the Jewish people.
Pointing Toward God
All of this reminded me of another sign pointing to God, although I'm fairly certain that's not what its sponsors intended.
The sign - or rather signs - that I'm thinking of were the ones that the British Humanist Association put on the side of London busses in October. You probably read about them because they received the endorsement of Richard Dawkins, the scientist and high-profile atheist. The signs read: 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'
I wonder if you'll think I'm off my trolley for saying that these signs point to God? Perhaps you think that they point away from God, and not to God.
But I think that they do point to God - or rather to 'A' god. And I'd venture to say that this god is the god that many people who don't have a faith believe in (if that makes any sense!) But even worse, it's the god that they think we believe in.
'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'
Implicit in this statement is the idea that if there is a God, then my friend, you'd better be worried and you better not be enjoying yourself! This is the picture of God as the Great Referee in the sky. An all-powerful being whose job isn't to teach us, to nurture us or even to sympathise with us. God is the Great Referee whose job is simply to watch us playing out our lives and to blow the whistle and impose a penalty whenever we set a foot wrong. If we receive too many penalties then eventually we will be out of the game: plenty of things to worry about, then.
Waiting for God
So, here we are in Advent, and the Church is waiting for God to come down to earth, to come and mingle with us, to walk with us, talk with us, and participate in our life. But if the British Humanist Society's view of God is right then we'd all better duck and cover.
I'm sure we all know - or know of - at least one individual in our lives who is always critical. Someone with an uncanny knack to see the flaws and mistakes of others and who is not willing to overlook them, but who is more than happy to point out those shortcomings to anyone and everyone who will listen. If God is like that, then who would want to have anything to do with God?
If our message is 'There probably is a God. So be very worried and stop enjoying yourself!' then who in their right mind would want this God to arrive? Who in their right mind would want to have Advent - a season of four weeks eagerly anticipating the arrival of this disapproving kill-joy?
Insiders or Outsiders?
But my question is: what are we doing as the Christian church that puts forward a different image of God? Not what are we preaching, but what are we doing? How are we behaving as Christians? How do we treat others?
Do we wholeheartedly communicate the message that God loves people who are not like us? Or do we communicate the message that God will love you if - and only if - you become like us?
One of the most frequent criticisms people outside the church tell me is that church people are hypocrites. When I ask people what they mean, they often can't answer or they respond with a story about how they have been disappointed by the church in some way. But I wonder if they mean something like: 'You tell me that God loves me just as I am, but you act like he'll only love me if I'm like you'.
Do we really treat people outside the church or of other religions as individuals who are created in the image of God? Do we treat them as individuals who God knows and loves just as he knows and loves us? Or do we assume that we have all the answers about God or about 'religion' because we are Christians and they are not?
Here are just two examples of the sort of thing that I mean:
First Example. When we complain that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because this is no longer a Christian country, what do we mean by that? That we are moral and that others are not? At a recent bible study, someone noticed that the author of a book we were using actually made the claim that since morality comes from God, only Christians can be moral people.
Second Example. The President of Conference recently told a story of a Methodist congregation in what is now a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. The congregation had sold its church hall about 30 years ago and the hall has been resold twice and was now home to a Muslim school where children are taught the Koran. The Methodists have no idea how to engage with their Muslim neighbours because they believe that their reason for relating to this Muslim school would be to convert them to Christianity. So their message is 'You're not worth getting to know unless you become like us.' Now I'm quite sure that this isn't the message that this congregation wants to communicate, but that's what's happening.
I think it's things like this that communicate to others the message that 'God will only love you if you're like us'. Or to use the Referee metaphor: 'God will only love you if you're part of the team.'
However, in today's reading from Isaiah it is not those with the power and status of the established Babylonian order who receive God's loving care but rather those who are outside.
With Human Dignity
I guess I'm asking the question, 'Do we treat other people - people of different faiths and people of no faith - as dignified human beings who are as loved by God as we are?'
When the Christian church is being all that she can be, it is one of the few places in our society where an individual can go and be himself or herself without a mask and without playing a role. Church is one of the few places where we can be just ourselves without being a client, a patient, an advertising target, an employee, a charity case or an expert.
If you want to know my answer to the question: What is our purpose if it is not to increase our numbers, if it is not to promote revival, if it is not to get other people to join us? My answer is: Our purpose is to love other people unconditionally, to really believe and to treat each person as if he or she was a precious child of God for whom God earnestly desires healing, freedom and wholeness. In this way, the church can be truly prophetic and the church can truly point to God.
My prayer is that each of us will truly take on board the extent of God's amazing unconditional desire for healing and wholeness as expressed in the reading from Isaiah. I pray that each of us may be able to own it for ourselves and that, in our joy and gratitude, we will be able pass on that love to others.
God probably does exist. So rejoice and celebrate his amazing love. Amen