Advent 3

May the Lord, when he comes, finds us watching and waiting, Amen   Bring me sunshine in your smile

Bring me laughter all the while In this world where we live there should be more happiness So much joy you can give to each brand new bright tomorrow…   Words of a Winnie Nelson song from 1966, but popularised in the UK by Morecambe and Wise, a comic double act who ruled the roost for many years.   Their Christmas Special on the BBC was must-watch television on Christmas Day evenings and stars, celebrities and news anchors of the time fell over themselves to get on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. The 1977 version (I give away my age) attracted 20 million viewers (40% of the entire population at the time). In fact, the National Gird (that controlled the supply of electricity) made special preparations for the end of the show, knowing there would be a huge demand for power as everyone put on their kettles for their evening cup of tea.  

After just two weeks of following Mark’s gospel, we change to John. Mark’s gospel is the shortest and whenever there are gaps (as it were) John is often included as his gospel account is today.  

As I mentioned last Sunday we get two ideas of who John the Baptist is, one last week from Mark, and now another version for the fourth gospel. The author spells out John the Baptist’s credentials: a man sent from God … [he] came to bear witness to the light (meaning Jesus).  

John the Baptist (as John the author of the fourth gospel suggests) encounters the same challenges as Jesus did, in terms of the religious authorities sending priests and Levites (teachers) to question John. They were wanting to know who he was, and by what authority he preached and taught.  

When John is asked if he is the Messiah, Elijah, or even one of the prophets, he denies that he is any of these, rather he quotes Isaiah in suggesting he is: ‘…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord’. In other words, John does not see himself as a prophet, but the one who prepares the way for the Lord (the Messiah).  

This response leads to the next concern (for the Pharisees who had sent the priests and Levites): why is John baptizing if he not the Messiah, Elijah or one of the prophets? Again they want to know by what authority he offers his ministry. John tells them (as Mark also made clear) that he was baptizing with water, but the one who would come after him; he is not worthy to untie his sandals.  

In the fourth gospel, one of the key themes is the idea of witness. In fact (Buggs) the word appears no less than fifty times in the gospel account. The term refers to the character and significance of the person of God. The very evidence (Buggs) that John (the author) uses for belief in Jesus is found in God’s revelation of the Divine. The same commentator reminds us that John came from a priestly line on his father’s side, and from Aaron (the brother of Moses) on his mother’s side, which probably made him familiar with both the prophets and messianic prophecies. Also, he may well have heard of the testimonies of his mother Elizabeth and her cousin Mary, the mother of Jesus. What seems very clear is that John himself did not journey with Jesus (as his disciples would do) rather what John knowns has come directly from God’s revelation to him.  

The New Testament reading from the letter of Paul sees Paul at his best. It is encouraging the faithful (either the Christians of Thessalonica or ourselves) in their daily lives. Paul says: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances. Here are three excellent ways to live our lives and practice our faith. The more often we can rejoice, pray and give thanks, the more often we will feel at peace in ourselves and at one with Christ. The more often we can put these ideas into action the more often our lives will seem full of purpose and fulfilling. The challenge is: we too often stop rejoicing, we don’t pray all the time, and we fail to give thanks in all circumstances. Well, that is how my life operates. And of course, this is about being human, about being selfish and sometimes it is because at times life is very hard and we don’t always feel we have reason to rejoice, pray and give thanks.  

We discussed this phrase at some length at Bible Study on Wednesday; it is a short sentence by which we can live our entire lives in faith. The idea is this: that whatever occurs we have to find a way to be joyful, not so much happy as joyful. This requires us to stop and think about what is happening to us and find the things that make a difference in our lives. Is it that unexpected e-mail or phone call from a friend, is it the sunrise or sunset, or a flutter or two of snow or enjoying a meal or thanking a loved one for what they do for us.  

At Epiphany this year we wanted to find a way to mark Christmas with joy when we aren’t able to come to church as we would normally do. Shelley Prendergast who is in charge of flowers and our church decorating suggested we provide a poinsettia to every family at Epiphany. So over the last few days, a team has been going out to provide everyone with their Epiphany plant; you can see mine behind me this morning. It comes to you with the love and prayers of the Epiphany community and we hope it brings you some joy this Christmas time.  

And although Christmas will be different this year, although there will be no church and no gatherings of people, the Christ of Christmas will still come to us, his love for the world will still be there for all of us to enjoy. So we all have motivations to be joyful this season. We all have good reasons to pray without ceasing for the world, for our communities, for our loved ones and friends. We have every reason to give thanks to God and each other in all circumstances.  

Morecambe and Wise would sing the Willy Nelson song at their Christmas shows and many other times too. It was a note of joy and promise. How much more can the birth of a child, born in stable, bring us light, hope, joy and promise, in spite of the pandemic and other challenges, for Jesus is our hope, our joy and love which we are called to share with everyone we meet.