Church on the Move

Advent 1, 27th November 2016

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 2: 1 – 5, Psalm 122, Romans 13: 9 – 14, Matthew 24: 36 – 44

New Zealand’s Wellington Cathedral of St Paul is a vast concrete building built in the 1950s and early 60s. Because the risk of earthquakes is well-known the whole building stands on a concrete platform – designed to ‘float’ as the earth moves. It is literally a church on the move! Some years ago I had a photo taken of the junior choristers, the trebles, riding down the wide central aisle on their scooters. It became something of an iconic photo for me – and we used it often under the title “Church on the move.” (Lest any of today’s choristers get ideas let me hasten to add that this was a once-off event, with the express permission of the Dean – but it was such fun!)

The Church on the move! How about that for an Advent slogan? The first two of today’s readings quite specifically talk about God’s people ‘on the move’. In the early verses of that great prophetic book called Isaiah we are offered the impossible-sounding image of the nations of the world flocking to Mount Zion and the Temple in Jerusalem. I say impossible-sounding for it’s absurd to think that the nations of the world, with all their differences, peculiarities, entrenched positions, covetousness of what others have, suspicions of the intentions of neighbours, dislike of anyone who looks or thinks or speaks differently – it’s impossible to imagine that they could all come together and want to go to one place. Or is it? That is exactly the vision of peace that Isaiah dares to voice.

Psalm 122 is a pilgrim psalm and gives us a picture of a singing people climbing the hill to the Temple, excitement mounting as they get closer and closer. Not quite as grand as that of Isaiah, the psalmist nonetheless envisages that the tribes of the Lord, the whole nation of Israel, will come together in unity. As I ponder our gathering next Saturday to elect a new archbishop, my prayer too is that there may be unity and a common mind. Sadly my experience of electoral synods in several very different parts of the Anglican Communion is that all too often there is very little unity and a great deal of disunity as factions seek to have their own man or woman as bishop. All the more reason to pray earnestly this week for synod members – and especially for those you elected to represent you at Synod – Baden Teague, Allan Perryman, Christine Beale, Kevin Stracey and Joe Thorpe; not forgetting the clergy licensed to the Cathedral – Jenny Wilson, Lynn Arnold and myself. We are seeking, so we pray, a shepherd after God’s heart who will walk in God’s ways and with loving and tender care watch over God’s people. As a diocese, we are a church on the move, and we dare to pray the prayer at the time of choosing a bishop.

This vision of Isaiah’s, and the picture of pilgrims ascending Mount Zion in the psalm, suggests something quite outrageous and counter-cultural. It’s not just a coming together of the peoples of the world, it is a coming together in order to be taught God’s ways and for people to then walk in God’s ways. It’s about those lofty ideals of justice, mercy and peace. It’s about taking seriously the Ten Commandments where God is honoured as creator of all that is, both seen and unseen; and where we love our neighbour – giving that descriptor its very widest definition. Justice and peace in the Bible are never things that happen in isolation, but always in community.

The vision is that God is the dispenser of justice; God is the one who judges, arbitrates the disputes of the world. If that were the case, so the vision goes, there would be no need for armies, for power politics – and swords could indeed be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. Notice how peace in the Hebrew Bible is not simply an absence of war but the very positive working to make the world a better place – hence the ploughshares and pruning-hooks. “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem” sang the psalmist and the pilgrims. It is said that Mother Theresa sent her nuns out for the day’s work with the injunction, “Go and do something beautiful for God.” Imagine if, this Advent, those of us worshipping here this morning were to adopt that expression – make it our slogan for the next four weeks. Go and do something beautiful for God – this day and every day. There is the church on the move.

If the Old Testament readings are about pilgrims, justice and peace, what of the New? Not unlike Isaiah St Paul reminds the Romans of the Ten Commandments – not all of them in the short passage we heard this morning, but those that particularly relate to our dealings and relationships with other people. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not covet. These, says Paul, following the teaching of Jesus, are summed up in the single command, which itself comes from the Book of Leviticus (19: 18) “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

There is a great sense of urgency in the second section – you know what time it is, it is now the moment to wake from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers, the night is far gone, the day is near. As so often in Paul’s writings, he offers a contrasting way of life, which we hear in the second half of today’s readings: living in the light or the darkness, living honourably or in revelry and drunkenness, gratifying the desires of the flesh or putting on the Lord Jesus Christ! The church on the move is well aware of the urgency of putting on Christ – or is it? Is that why we need an Advent season? To shake us out of our complacency? Advent Sunday sees the liturgical colour change – from green to purple. It marks the beginning of things new – new liturgical year, new Gospel to focus on, new vision.

There is a shift we could notice. Where the two readings from the Old Testament looked forward to a future time when God would usher in that special time of peace, the New Testament assumes that God’s peace has already come – in the form of Jesus Christ. Remember how Jesus, on entering the synagogue in his home town read these words from Isaiah 61: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind …” and so on. Jesus is the church on the move, and his invitation is for us to join him, to make a difference, do something beautiful for God – today.

But there is also the strong expectation in the New Testament of the 2nd coming of Christ – the final judgment. This is what Jesus is on about in Matthew’s Gospel. “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son but only the Father.” (Matthew 24: 36) It’s a call to be ready at all times. To be ready for the unimagined, the impossible, the longed-for. Noah and his ark, the people getting on with their lives and not bothering about the future – and then, from nowhere it seems, two will be in a field, one taken and one will be left. Two women grinding meal together – one taken, one left. Like the owner of the house who was ready – at all times – to protect his house from the thief, so it is with God’s people. But are we alert, awake, ready?

And what does it mean to be ready? Read on in Matthew’s Gospel and we find a parable told by Jesus about the last judgment. The people, he says, are separated like the sheep from the goats. Those who joined Jesus in bringing to fruition God’s kingdom of justice and peace – who actively gave the hungry food, water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner – these are the ones on the move, these are doing something beautiful for God now, today. Not waiting for tomorrow, or the next pay day, or till I grow up or get rich or retire. These simple acts of caring, suggests Jesus, are what is called for. It is these acts that can be likened to beating swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning-hooks. This is putting on Christ. This is the hope of Advent.

Yes, Advent is preparation for Christmas, but not so much preparing for the birth of the child – he has already come – but moving on in the light of Christ, into doing, daily, those beautiful things for God. And Mother Theresa understood so well that to truly love God was to truly love our neighbour – in her case, in the very practical spending of time with the poorest of the poor in their dying moments.

Earlier today, shortly after lighting the first Advent candle, we prayed thus:

God whose kingdom is righteousness and peace; give us grace to act justly, to love kindness and to walk humbly with you in Jesus’ name.

May we all say Amen. And may we be that church on the move. Amen and Amen.