Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

In the Book of Common Prayer the Collect for this 2nd Sunday of Advent reads:

BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

 A Prayer Book for Australia invites us to pray today thus:

God of our salvation,
you straighten the winding ways of our hearts
and smooth the paths made rough by sin:
keep our hearts watchful in holiness,
and bring to perfection the good you have begun in us.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose Day draws near, your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ …

Australian Baptist scholar Terry Falla offers us these words in a short prayer entitled “Tomorrows filled with promise”. (pg 250, ‘Be Our Freedom Lord’)

Awaken within us the richness of our origins

and the depths of our past that we may be a

people old in experience and young in hope.

All invite us into some rich and evocative imagery, made all the more wholesome if we are rooted and grounded not only in Scripture but in the liturgy and worship of the Christian church.

It begins with the cry of the herald Malachi (the name simply means “My messenger”) – the last book of the Old Testament. We’ve heard a snippet this morning, words which will be very familiar to anyone who knows Handel’s ‘Messiah’. The four chapters of Malachi recall people to the ancient Covenant made between God and the people of Israel. The Covenant was the founding agreement between God and an unlikely people. God promises to protect, provide for and love this people – in return they must worship God and be faithful to God alone. Understand that, and the Old Testament begins to make sense as a story, a series of unfolding sagas of God’s love and faithfulness unfolding in the face of continued and ongoing faithlessness on the part of the people.

From the time that alphabets began to be used, some three thousand years ago, scribes, scholars, thinkers and writers, have tried to put into words their experience and understanding of the Covenant. The holy people of God became a people of the Book – or better, books, for we should understand the Bible as a library containing a wide variety of different books with many different authors, written, compiled, edited and reworked many times over the centuries. Each new context, each new crisis, demanded the work of re-imagination as the ‘old old story’ came to be told and lived in new and ever-changing circumstances. Two particular points need to be grasped in this story:

  1. That God is the only God, there are no other gods
  2. That, for some reason known only to God, a particular people at a particular time and particular place were chosen to be God’s agents to the world.

The writer of the Collect in the Book of Common Prayer well understood the importance of the Bible, the Scriptures, and the need to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. The Collect from the APBA (a Prayer Book for Australia) is just as wise, but in a different way. In it the idea of the pathway is picked up, the same idea first spoken by Malachi, and later echoed by John the Baptist, that God is making a straight highway, one which can be easily travelled, one which leads to God. Immediately after the pouring of water in baptism this morning the newly baptised make a short, but highly symbolic, journey along a straight highway – the aisle of the cathedral. It’s a journey that each of us can make – a journey that Advent invites us to make.

 This theme of journey is such a significant one in Christianity. The first words of Jesus to his future disciples are an invitation to join him on a journey: “Come”, he says, “follow me!” John the Baptist, the one who went before Jesus to prepare the way, pointed to the way, the highway made by God. What a rich image that is. In its original context in the prophet Isaiah 40: 3 the people of Israel, the people of that ancient Covenant with God, had been languishing in Exile in Babylon for a generation and more. A change of fortune and a new ruler meant the opportunity to go home. Isaiah 40 begins with the words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God..” The time of waiting is over. It is home time. And a new road has been built to take you there. The journey begins – or rather, it continues, for it began a very long time earlier. That journey took people from the ancient city of Babylon (in present day Iraq) back to Jerusalem and the Temple which Malachi was so passionate about. On their way they would have travelled through modern day Iraq, Iran and Syria.

 Much later those who followed Jesus Christ, believing him to be the Messiah, were known as the followers of “The Way”. The great New Testament preacher and evangelist St Paul made very good use of the excellent communication networks and roadways the Roman built. His three missionary journeys began at Antioch, at the time a great Roman city in the Province of Syria. It was in this city that the name ‘Christian’ was first used of the followers of Jesus Christ. Today it is a much less important town in the southernmost part of Turkey, known as Antakya – not that far from the Syrian border where so much of the fighting we hear and read about happens. On his travels along the Way St Paul invited people, not into the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, but into baptism, an outward and physical expression of their faith in Jesus Christ.

 Today there is another great highway, this time out of what are sometimes called the ‘biblical lands’ as people stream, thousands upon thousands, pushing ever westwards, searching for a safe place to call home. The story is again reinterpreted, re-imagined. Isaiah dreamed of Jerusalem. Malachi had the Temple. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus Christ as the Way. St Paul invited people to ‘put on Christ’ in baptism. Today’s refugees, exiles like their forebears in Babylon, long for the same things – a safe place to call home, light in the darkness, peace, shalom, salaam. A place where they can sit and watch their children’s children play in safety. This is their hope.

 Last week we lit the first of the Advent candles – the candle of Hope. Today we lit the second – the candle of Peace. As we continue our journey through Advent – towards the celebration of Christmas and the birth of the Christ-child yes, but more importantly towards that second and final coming of Christ in glory – may our lives be shaped by the scriptures, made smooth from sin, moulded in holiness. And may we be ready to welcome not only the Christ-child into our lives, but the newly baptised, the frightened, the hungry, the stranger, the refugee.

 Let me end this somewhat rambling sermon, filled, I hope, with threads of promise for further exploration, by reading/praying the whole of Terry Falla’s prayer, part of which I quoted earlier. (Don’t forget you ca pick up a hard copy of this sermon today, including the prayer, or find it online in a day or two.)

 Tomorrows filled with promise

An Advent Prayer

 God of our ancestors, prophets and apostles,

of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Miriam,

of Mary and Joseph, of Anna and Simeon,

put within us this season of Advent

the longing for your coming that burned

in those who journeyed before us.

 Awaken within us the richness of our origins

and the depths of our past that we may be a

people old in experience and young in hope.

 Come to us as the breaking of the dawn, and dispel

the darkness of our desolation and abandonment

with a sense of expectancy and joy.

 Help us to turn to you with eyes newly open,

with hope reawakened, shrugging of the layers

of care and doubt that have closed about us.

 Lord, prepare us for your coming as pilgrims

of the future, looking for the promise of your

word: the Saviour of the world. Amen.

Terry C Falla