This weekend we are celebrating the second Sunday of Advent. Our readings for this week will be:
Malachi 3:1-4 (NLT)
“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
2 “But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes. 3 He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. 4 Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in the past.
Luke 3:1-6 (NLT)
It was now the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, the Roman emperor. Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea; Herod Antipas was ruler over Galilee; his brother Philip was ruler over Iturea and Traconitis; Lysanias was ruler over Abilene. 2 Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. At this time a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness. 3 Then John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River, preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. 4 Isaiah had spoken of John when he said,
“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
Clear the road for him!
5 The valleys will be filled,
and the mountains and hills made level.
The curves will be straightened,
and the rough places made smooth.
6 And then all people will see
the salvation sent from God.’”
Ever since I started at St Paul’s, as a congregation, you have cared deeply about the young people of our community. I arrived shortly after your youth worker Kim moved to a new job. For five years, you supported her in caring about local teenagers. As I arrived you were trying to recruit a replacement – but after a couple of attempts no one applied. You kept going trying to meet the needs of young people in our parish, but lack of energy, lack of contacts and lack of volunteers meant that gradually and sadly various things ended. Then the dream of the Arbury Road Cafe, which would have been a perfect location for youth work, frustratingly fizzled out. Almost seven years after my arrival, what was once a full-time youth ministry was now our youth group – which is still absolutely brilliant – and sporadic warm contact with a local high school.
Now, hear me say this clearly, what we have today is still something many churches across the Church of England would be delighted to have. To have a youth group of a dozen teens supporting one another and learning about life, values and faith together is a remarkable thing, and I cannot thank Steve, Sarah and Emma for all they have done to keep this going and to Deb, Nigel, Latoya and Sarah for ensuring it can continue. Also, to have a local senior school who welcome their local church, however intermittently, is a great gift, and I am so grateful to the overstretched staff and especially to Jo’s efforts during her curacy to keep that relationship going.
But, I do know that in many ways, these years will have felt like wilderness years for those of you who see the needs of young people in our community and wish we could do more to help. If we feel God has called us to serve Stockingford in this way, why has it all been such hard work? Such an uphill struggle? Why have we gone backwards, rather than forwards? Did we not hear God right? Perhaps this wasn’t what God was calling us to after all…
This experience might help us as we think about the two readings we heard today. The first from Malachi, the final book of the Old Testament, gives us that great promise – God is coming to us! The God they eagerly await, the God they long to see, will come! This is God’s word to them and it is true. But then there is a 400 year gap, and God hasn’t come. In fact, the temple – rather than welcoming the Almighty God – has been invaded by the Seleucids and made a centre for a hodge-podge of Jewish and Pagan worship. There was guerilla warfare, an uprising, a massacre and harsh suppression of Jewish worship. You can forgive the people for wondering if they had misunderstood. Had God really said that God would come to God’s people? Had they heard right? Was God talking to them?
One of my children’s favourite picture books was called Owl Babies. Three little owls – Sarah and Percy and Bill – live in a hole in a trunk of a tree with their owl mother. One night they awake and their mother is not there. The owl babies wonder where she might be, share their fears and try to comfort one another. Finally they close their eyes and just wish their mother would come. And then – she came.
I am reminded of this as we turn to our Gospel reading. After centuries of waiting, wondering, worrying and wishing, into a specific moment and specific place in history, God came. They had not misheard. The promise was true. God was on God’s way, God was at work, and it was time for God’s people to get ready. After all that time when it felt like nothing was happening, there is an urgency in the ministry of John the Baptist – get ready, prepare, shake off your despondency and complacency, shove away your cynicism, get ready for something amazing!
Two weeks ago, I popped into our local high school for a chat with their part time chaplain about a school carol service. Hosting this service in church over the last six years – when covid has allowed – has been one of our ways to maintaining that school-church relationship. Six years of moving chairs, giving out chocolate and eating mince pies. Six years of smiling and saying yes to as much as we possibly could. It was always a joy to do this, but it felt such a little thing to be able to offer. Anyway, I went along to the meeting looking forward to a catch up with a great colleague, but not expecting anything out of the ordinary. But God had other plans.
Firstly, after some really tough years, the school is in a really good place – all those prayers we have prayed for your local schools over many years, well, they are being answered. Hallelujah! Their excellent headteacher, has now been promoted to look after a number of schools and a lovely new head of school and deputy head are in place. The new head and deputy came along to my meeting with the chaplain, were very excited about the year 7 carol service, wondered if they could arrange something to do with the year 8s at Easter and 9s at Harvest. Oh, and while we were on the subject, they wondered if the church might be able to offer a safe hangout space for stressed year 11 students during summer term – you know, just a friendly space with encouraging caring adults about? Ideally in the church building, as a community space away from school, and they would be happy to introduce to the Year 11s to it and promote it…
Well, I walked away from that meeting half dazed. Seven years of waiting, working, wondering, wishing and when I had no expectation left, this happens. God is still calling St Paul’s to serve the young people of our community, just in different ways and different timescales to the ones we imagined. But now this is happening – can we be ready?
Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, not just for individuals but for us as a community. After seven years of waiting, after two years of pandemic, if God is offering us new opportunities, can we be ready to accept them? It will mean new people getting involved. Those who already run the Stay and Play and Messy Church and SPOGs are already busy enough. But all I ask today is that you pray – pray for the opportunities God seems to be offering, pray for God to call people to care passionately about this work, pray for God’s abundance to emerge from perceived scarcity and pray, pray, pray for our local schools and young people, that they may be sustained and enfolded in the love of God.
One of my Twitter friends shared this quote this week: Never let the wait make you doubt what God said. Let’s hold fast to all God has called us to be, and when the time is right, be ready…
Dear Lord Jesus,
I thank you for our local school. I pray that your Holy Spirit will move throughout them
so that they are places of peace and joy. Give the teachers and staff the skills they
need today to do their jobs well and give them supernatural energy when they
need it. Help all the children to listen carefully, concentrate and understand. Be
with those children especially who need extra support or struggle to keep on
track. Send your Holy Spirit over the playground may it be a place of laughter and fun,
a place where no one is left out and children are kind to each other. Protect our
children from harm and give wisdom to those who manage and make decisions.
By Yvonne Campbell
General Secretary Congregational Federation
Member of Wavertree Congregational Church in Liverpool