Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sunday 9 December 2007 - Repent and Say Wow!

This is a sermon for Advent 2 based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12



In this second Sunday of Advent, we hear the voice of John the Baptist crying: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ We also hear the voice of Isaiah giving us his vision of the Kingdom of heaven: It’s a place where the wolf and the lamb live together and where God’s judgement results in equity for the poor and meek.

John the Baptist is not a cuddly character and his message this morning is not a cuddly message. The ordinary people of Jerusalem and Judea come to him to repent and to be baptised, but when the Pharisees and Sadducees come for baptism, he proclaims: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!’ For those of us who suspect that we may have some Pharisaicial tendencies ourselves, this can make for uncomfortable reading.

The American Christian author Frederick Buechner has this to say about the process of repentance: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry,' than to the future and saying 'Wow!.'"1

This morning, I want to think about this idea of looking at the future and saying ‘Wow!’ Because I don’t think that repentance is so much about focussing on what it is that we shouldn’t be doing as it is a process of looking at what life can be like under the reign of God.

Especially in Advent, when we are looking forward to God himself coming to live with us, repentance is about catching a vision of what the Kingdom of God might look like. And once we’ve caught this vision, we are called to be contagious and infect others with it.

Prevention is not the Answer

I just want to put forward a brief defence of this process.

There are those who might say ‘Well, that’s all fine and good, but the problem with society today is that it has no morals, no ethics. What we really need to do is to stop people from sinning. We need to stop them drinking and gambling their time and money away. We need to stop them neglecting their children. We need to stop them committing adultery. And now that I’m talking about it, I need to concentrate on stopping my own besetting sins. I really need to make an effort to stop being easily angered, to stop being so selfish….or…you can fill in your own besetting sins.

Now here is a demonstration of why I think that thinking about repentance as focussing on stopping our sins won’t work. Are you ready for the demonstration?

OK. Whatever you do, I want you to not think about the colour blue. OK? Do not, under any circumstances think about the colour blue! And whatever you do, don’t think about a blue monkey. And whatever you do, don’t think about a blue monkey riding a camel. Worse and worse, do not think about a blue monkey riding a camel playing a saxophone!

OK, now, be honest. How many people are thinking right this moment about a blue monkey riding a camel playing a saxophone? And how many of you were thinking about that when you came to church this morning? ‘Gee, I hope the preacher doesn’t talk about a blue monkey riding a camel playing a saxophone! I’m trying to give that up for Advent.’

The human mind doesn’t do very well at the task of not concentrating on something specific and that’s why this technique doesn’t work very well. And it’s for this reason that I believe that trying to promote the Kingdom of God by making a list of sins that we ought not to be committing is a completely ineffective approach to spreading the Gospel.

Methodism and The Kingdom of God

Now, there are many people, particularly outside the church, who think that this is exactly what the church does: that we preach against sin all the time.

But, I don’t actually think that Methodism has a tradition of doing this. Preaching against specific sins isn’t something that I’ve particularly encountered in Methodism. I’m sure that there are exceptions – there always are – but that’s not historically been the way we’ve approached the Gospel.

Historically, I think that the Methodist Church has approached the Gospel message by painting a picture of the Kingdom of God. And, at the beginning, at least, I think we not only painted this picture of the Kingdom, but we lived it out.

Methodism did catch a glimpse of a picture of the Kingdom and it was successful in being contagious with it.

Travelling preachers didn’t preach and then call for people to get down on their knees right there in the street and accept Jesus as their saviour. Early Methodist travelling preachers invited their listeners to join Methodist classes and it was within these classes that people gradually came to Christ in the company of Christian brothers and sisters.

These were often people who were considered to be so poor and so unfit to mingle with polite society that they were not fit to go to church. Suddenly, here come the Methodist societies saying: ‘You are welcome in our classes and you are welcome in our chapels. God is the God of everyone and he’s your God too.’

Illiterate people who were simply considered fodder for the mines and the factories were given the opportunity to learn to read and their children were given the same opportunity. People whose lives were viewed by polite society as expendable were told that they were of as much value to God as anyone else. All of this, I believe, was an acting-out of a vision of the Kingdom of God.

True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, 'I'm sorry,' than to the future and saying 'Wow!.'" (Buechner)

The Kingdom of God, 101

So, as I often do, I bring to you this morning a question for which I don’t necessarily have my own answer. That question is ‘How can we look out into the future and say “Wow!”’

Because I don’t really agree with those who say the Church has lost its way because it no longer preaches about sin. I think that the Church has lost its way because it no longer has a clear vision of the Kingdom of God.

Whatever we in the 21st century might think, the authors of Scripture thought that the Kingdom of God was going to be a literal, physical Kingdom. Jesus’ contemporaries thought that Jesus would return in their own lifetime and inaugurate this Kingdom. And ever since that first generation passed away, the Church has had to make sense of the fact that this has not yet happened.

Add to all of the above the baggage of our own generation and all the Second Coming predictions of wacky Christian sects (mostly American, of course) and it’s easy to see why we no longer have a clear vision of the Kingdom. The Kingdom seems rather embarrassing and somewhat superstitious.

But over and over in both the Old and New Testaments, we are told that in the Kingdom there will be two important things: 1) peace (Shalom) – there will be forgiveness and reconciliation, not just between God and humanity but also between people and, indeed peace in all creation; 2) and there will be justice for the poor, the meek and the oppressed. Their lives will be redeemed and seen to be of worth.

This was the vision of the Kingdom that fired John and Charles Wesley. They were worried about their own eternal, spiritual salvation to be sure, but they also had and communicated a clear vision of the Kingdom of God.

What makes you say Wow?

So what is it that makes us say ‘Wow!’? What will help us get a clear vision of The Kingdom? I suggest that this is an important question for every church in this circuit and for the circuit as a whole?

I want to leave you with one concrete example of something that made me say ‘Wow!’ Last week at Foley Park, we had a young woman named G come speak to us from an organisation called ‘Night Stop’.

Night Stop operates within the Wyre Forest District and it finds beds for homeless young people between the ages of 16 and 25. Volunteer hosts offer Night Stop’s clients a bed and meals in their own homes for between one and three nights until Night Stop can find them accommodation elsewhere.

G told us that a great many of these young people are homeless because they have been kicked out of the house by their parents. A good many of them are kicked out because their mother or father gets a new partner who doesn’t want them around and their parent sides with the new partner.

Someone asked about whether it was safe to take such a young person into their home and G told us that the clients are all vetted for suitability before being sent to host families. In fact, she said, many of the young people are suspicious of the hosts simply because they cannot understand the idea that a complete stranger would take them in for a few nights. This sort of kindness is something totally outside their experience.

She read to us a story written by one young woman who was taken in by Night Stop and who now works for them. Night Stop provided that young woman with the opportunity to make a new start and get her feet on the ground and feel like a worthwhile person. In turn, she wanted to help others in the same way.

Night Stop made me say ‘Wow!’ because I think it embodies everything that the Prophets and Jesus had to say about God’s Kingdom. It’s an example of human beings reaching out to other human beings. It provides young people with the possibility of turning their lives around and it is the embodiment of a ‘poor’ person finding some kind of justice and help. I think it is a small glimpse into the Kingdom of God.


As we go from our worship this morning, I want to invite all of us to repent. Or, as Frederick Buechner put it, I want to invite all of us to come to our senses and think about what is really important.

I want to invite us to spend less time being sorry about what has happened in the past and to spend more time thinking about what God is doing in the world that makes us say ‘Wow!’ And I want us to think about what it is that makes us say ‘Wow’! What makes us say ‘Wow’ as a circuit? As individual congregations and even as individual church members?

Is there something someone else in this church is doing that makes you say ‘Wow! I wish I could do that, but I can’t.’? Perhaps you can support that person in their ministry.

My prayer this morning is that each and every one of us will catch a vision of God’s Kingdom. I pray that we will be so enthused by this vision that we will say ‘Wow!’ and communicate our enthusiasm to others.

In the words of John the Baptist, my prayer is that, this Advent, we are all enabled to repent, because I believe that the Kingdom of God has indeed come near. Amen

1 Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC; HarperOne, 1993, New York p. 79.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sunday 2 December 2007 - Swords into Ploughshares

The texts for this sermon are: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44

Readers of The Church Times will recognise an illustration from John Pridmore's commentary this week. I think Pridmore's commentaries are truly inspirational and I try not to write my sermon before reading them. Long may he continue to write!



For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. So reads the second half of Isaiah 2: verse 3.

I suppose it’s the sort of thing we expect to hear from a prophet. And, given that this first Sunday in Advent is devoted to The Prophets, we probably don’t find this verse terribly surprising at first glance.

But what is surprising about this morning’s reading from Isaiah is the fact that much of Isaiah’s prophecy is directed toward calling Jerusalem to repentance. Jerusalem, in Isaiah’s day, is an unending problem from God’s point of view. Jerusalem is a symbol of self-sufficiency and a national, self-serving religion. It is a symbol of country’s focus of faith in the nation rather than faith in God.

Yet despite all these problems, Isaiah is given to see a picture of a new Jerusalem where God resides and where people of every nation acknowledge God as their Lord. In the new Jerusalem which Isaiah has seen, it is God whose judgement and arbitration of all nations has resulted in international peace. And is because of the rule of God that nations are able to exchange weapons for tools of peace.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, we are told that, as we look forward to the coming of the Lord, we are to keep awake and to keep ready. Our waiting and our readiness are not to be passive things, but they are to be active things.

So what does any of this mean for us? And how does it affect our lives today?

Well, the Gospel message is not all about pie in the sky by-and-by. I think perhaps that we are told about the coming Kingdom of God not so much to provide us with information as with motivation.


It can be hard to stay motivated, however.

Perhaps our difficulty in staying motivated is a case of remembering how things were in the past in church and wishing that they could be that way again. Or perhaps it’s a case of feeling that decency is society is deteriorating in comparison with the way it was in our youth.

We might sit here and think ‘Well, it’s easy for Isaiah to talk about the coming reign of God when swords will be turned to ploughshares, because he lived in a time when people feared God. Isaiah didn’t have to face the problems that we have today.’ Well, listen to Isaiah just one chapter later (Isaiah 3:5):
The people will be oppressed, everyone by another and everyone by a neighbour; the youth shall be insolent to the elder, and the base to the honourable.

That hardly sounds like The Good Old Days. And it hardly sounds like Isaiah doesn’t have a clue about the sort of issues that we are facing today. And yet, even in the middle of all this, Isaiah claims to have seen a vision of a world at peace. He claims to have seen a vision of people labouring for the production of food rather than for the production of weapons of war.

How can we catch a glimpse of that in a world where there is new unrest in the Philippines, in Pakistan and in Burma? Not to mention old unrest in Korea, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Holy Land? How can we catch a vision of a world turned toward the purposes of God in a society where the church ain’t what it used to be?

How can we keep our eyes on this New Jerusalem – on the purposes of God – without losing our motivation? How can we see God’s vision if it doesn’t necessarily look like what we’re expecting?

Guns into Sewing Machines

The image of ‘swords into ploughshares’ is a powerful one and one Christian charity in Mozambique used this idea in a very literal way when the decades-long civil war in that country ended. The charity, the Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM), was sponsored by Christian Aid and they recount the story of a man named Sousa Manuel Goao.

Senhor Goao was kidnapped at gunpoint by rebel forces in 1981 when he was 23 years old. He was forced to march 150 miles bare-footed to a training camp near the South African border. The prisoners were barefooted to prevent them running away but anyone who did attempt to escape was shot in front of the other prisoners. In order to survive, the rebels had to hunt wild animals, raid farms or attack civilians.

The war lasted 18 years and ended in 1992 but the United Nations forces which were meant to disarm both sides failed to find most of the weapons in the country, as most of them had been hidden and people were afraid of being reported to the government. But later in the decade, CCM came up with the idea of collecting weapons themselves. In 2001, Senhor Goao handed over his guns to CCM and in return, he received three sewing machines.

CCM is a small organisation, and it was working with a couple of old trucks that keep breaking down – but it nonetheless managed to collect more than 100,000 guns, hand grenades and rocket launchers. It was far more successful than the official agencies because former rebels feared being prosecuted by the government.

CCM provided former soldiers with ploughs, bicycles and sewing machines and these tools made the difference between life and death for many of the people who had nothing. When CCM wondered what it was going to do with all the weapons, it came upon the idea of disarming them, cutting them up, and giving the metal to local artists who turned them into sculptures. They even made chairs and coffee tables out of cut-up Kalashnikovs.

Mozambican Bishop Dinis Sengulane said the following about the CCM project: ”I say to people that sleeping with a gun in your bedroom is like sleeping with a snake: one day it will turn round and bite you. We tell people we are not disarming you. We are transforming your guns into ploughshares, so you can cultivate your land and get your daily bread. We are transforming them into sewing machines so you can make clothes. The idea is to transform the instruments of death and destruction into instruments of peace and of production and cooperation with others.”

Conclusion: Keep the Faith

This is one very powerful – and almost literal example – of turning swords into ploughshares.

The call from the Prophets on this first Sunday in Advent is a call to keep the faith. It’s a call to keep faith in God and in his purposes for the New Jerusalem when swords will be turned to ploughshares and where Christ will reign as the Prince of Peace. And it’s a call to keep this faith even when we are tempted to think that faith is not possible.

Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God grows from small mustard seeds. This morning, we have heard some examples of how small seeds can grow. Sometimes we have the satisfaction of seeing our seeds grow into healthy plants. Sometimes we don’t even have the opportunity to see them germinate.

But we are nonetheless called as Children of God to keep on planting the seeds. If we remain alert and on watch, we will find our opportunities.

We are told about what is to come not to provide us with information, but with motivation. If we keep our eye on the prophets’ vision of the New Jerusalem, our motivation will remain strong.

As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning, I pray that each of us can stay focused on the image of God’s Kingdom. And I pray that we may each be empowered to acts of kindness and mercy and to keep faith in the coming of the Prince of Peace. Amen