Deacon 40; 16th December 2018

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20

Song of Isaiah 12: 2 – 6

Philippians 4: 4 – 7

Luke 3: 7 – 18


About six months ago I received an email from Stuart Langshaw. He asked me whether he could have some sort of liturgical role today – the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination as a priest. My reply was immediate – not just some sort of liturgical role – but celebrant of the day, presider at the Eucharist – on one condition: that I could serve as his deacon! So here we are, like the grandfather’s clock, ticking up ninety years of ordained ministry between us: Stuart a priest for fifty years, me a deacon for forty. Unlike the grandfather’s clock though, we’ve not stopped and both are, we trust, still striving to live lives faithful to the calling of God as best we can.


And it’s that call of God which drives us, keeps us going, encourages and cajoles, and energises and exhausts. For when God calls, and we listen and open our lives to God, there’s no turning back. Of course neither Stuart nor I have been alone in this. Each of us has been blessed with the extraordinarily beautiful love, understanding, sacrifice, patience and support of our wives and families; that of the communities of God’s people we have strived to serve, and the guidance and confidence of our respective bishops and archbishops over the years.


The three-fold ministry of the Anglican Church has a long pedigree. At least as early as the beginning of the 2nd century there is a clearly defined model of ordained ministry, people set apart by the church for the specific roles of deacon, priest and bishop. The underlying basis for all ministry, whether lay or ordained, is baptism. It is in baptism that we first publicly acknowledge the call of God to turn to Christ and thus away from evil. Along with all who have been baptised, deacons, priests and bishops are called to “study the Bible, take part in the life of the Church, share in Holy Communion, and pray faithfully and regularly.” (Baptism and Confirmation Liturgy APBA pg 93)


Out of this foundational call in baptism, a few within the church are called to the ordained ministry: as deacons, charged specifically with preaching and teaching, and seeking out the lost, the last and the least; as priests, gathering the faithful around the Lord’s Table as we share in Eucharist and administer the sacraments; as bishops, with a particular calling of leadership and pastoral care of the carers, and concern for the truth of the Gospel proclamation. None is more important than the other, all have their basis and foundation in baptism, and all contribute, as we read in Ephesians, to “the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4: 12 – 13)


The Christian pattern of ministry does not stand in isolation, nor was it invented with the birth of the Church. Its pedigree goes back into the First/Old Testament and the leadership calling of God to people like Abraham, Moses and Miriam, and the fiery prophets such as those from whom we have heard today – Zephaniah and First Isaiah. The prophets particularly had an important diaconal role in calling attention to the plight of the underdog – the biblical group referred to as ‘widows and orphans’ or simply ‘the poor.’ It was the growing unease at the witness of injustice during 8th century Israel that saw people like Amos and Hoseah speak out against the excesses, the exploitation, and the abandonment of the Lord’s ways for other more seductively attractive practices. In many ways our 21st century life-style mirrors that of the 8th century before Christ, and that of many centuries in between. While we rightly revel in the beautiful poetic language of rejoicing in today’s readings, we should not overlook the setting in which today’s few verses from Zephaniah and Isaiah occur.


Both come at the end of some pretty dire predictions. It could be argued that Zephaniah contains some of the darkest writing in the Bible. And yet, time and again, as happens today, there is this sudden burst of light and joy coming through. Often the message is very simple. Despite all these things, despite all the turning away from God, God still loves. No wonder Zephaniah can say “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” And that following twelve chapters of condemnation of the people of Judah, the Song of Isaiah (Is 12: 2 – 6) can resound with the confidence of one who knows that “God is my salvation … the Lord is my strength and my song.”


It is with this confidence that St Paul writes when, from his prison cell, he pens a letter to the Philippians encouraging them, even in the face of almost certain persecution and suffering, to “Rejoice – rejoice in the Lord always.” We have to read right to the end of today’s Gospel passage – listening to John the Baptist’s dire warnings and strong language of people being like a brood of vipers, axes cutting down trees, and poor fruit being thrown on to the fire – before realising it is all a precursor to the proclamation of Good News, the Gospel of God. It is this Gospel, this Good News, embodied in a tiny baby named Emmanuel, God is with us, that we share joyfully, gratefully, exultantly, at Christmas.


And it is Emmanuel, the God who is with us, Jesus the Christ, who calls us, one and all, into the life of the baptised, a life of loving and caring and rejoicing. Perhaps we should say too that it is Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus the Christ, who constantly recalls us into the life of the baptised, who enables us to come before God in humility and confession and know that, despite our wandering, our distractions, our shameful acts, our distortions of truth, God still loves us and keeps on loving, no matter what. And that really is a matter for rejoicing and for lighting the pink candle on the Advent wreath.


Stuart, thank you for your faithfulness in the service of Our Lord, as a priest and deacon (for priests remain true to their first calling to serve), and of the people of God – the countless young people you have influenced and inspired during your many years as a school chaplain, the congregations you have served in your so-called retirement, and the Archbishops you have supported in your recent role as bishop’s chaplain. I thank you for your support of me as Dean, and your ministry in and to this Cathedral community in so many different ways.


For myself, as I mark the fortieth anniversary of my deaconing, I give thanks for all the people who have shaped me during this ministry – the people of St Mathias Welkom;  of the Cathedral of St Andrew and St Michael Bloemfontein; St John the Baptist Harrismith and Transfiguration Phomolong; the university chaplaincy at Rhodes and the Cathedral of St Michael  and St George Grahamstown; the Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin Johannesburg; the staff and girls of St Margaret’s College, Christchurch; St Luke’s Oamaru New Zealand; the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist Hong Kong; St James Lower Hutt; the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul; and now the Diocese of Adelaide and St Peter’s Cathedral.


But above all, thank you to a faithful parish priest who enabled a six year old boy to hear God’s call – and set me on a journey like no other.


Chorus (Tune: My Grandfather’s clock)

But we’ll not – stop

We’ll serve the living God

Till the last trump sounds!