A sermon by Canon Veronica
The Church of England has decided to post some encouraging messages for Advent under the overall heading “Comfort and Joy”. Not particularly original as a phrase you’ll agree, but then Advent is an ancient season in itself! And I expect many of you will now be humming away, trying to link up the refrain “Comfort and joy” to the first line of the carol in which it is embedded!
Yes – in our (temporarily shelved) hymnbook it can be found at number 254 (although the words are slightly different from this traditional version):
God rest you merry, gentlemen,
let nothing you dismay,
for Jesus Christ our Saviour
was born upon this day,
to save us all from Satan’s power
when we had gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy!
Of course the final verse will be especially difficult for us this year, as it seems to encourage us to go against current Government ruling when it says: “Now to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place, and with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace”… !
But nevertheless, despite all the sadness and restrictions that COVID-19 has brought over these last nine months or more, we are here and we can hear again the resounding words of the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,”… and that she is able to walk freely away from all that threatened to confine and imprison her, and she is able to go home safely. All obstacles to her thriving have been taken away, there is a smooth level path and “all people together” will be able clearly to see the glory of God revealed (as St Paul would later say) in the face of Jesus Christ.
The same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob stoops down in all humility and comes to feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them close to his heart, and gently lead those who have so recently been through the painful labour of giving birth to new life, and who seek to nurture the next generation. Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep”, meaning not just those of this fold, but the whole human race.
John the Baptist in today’s Gospel (Mark 1:1-8) calls all who would listen to “prepare the way of the Lord” – to turn around, whether they considered themselves worthy or unworthy; all John’s hearers, just like all Isaiah’s audience in exile, whether faithful or unbelieving, all were called to take radical steps, to get themselves up to a high mountain and proclaim that a new Kingdom of gentleness, kindness, forgiveness, peace and joy was about to begin!
If you look on our Facebook page or on our website (link below), spend a few moments watching the short “Comfort and joy” animation encouraging us to celebrate what is at the heart of Christmas, necessarily pared down considerably as are all the trappings of the season this COVID year, and poignantly noting that in many or most households this Christmas there will be an empty chair around the table.
Isaiah and John the Baptist today call us to see beyond our limited horizons and to look out towards the great and mighty Wonder that is at the heart of the Gospel – that God stoops down in gentleness and vulnerability to bring us hope and light just when we feel plunged in the depths of despair or overwhelmed by dark waves of sadness. “I have baptised you with water” says John – which meant for his followers the distinctly uncomfortable experience of being completely plunged beneath the waves of the sacred River Jordan and repenting of all their sins, great or small – but having then been brought back up to breathe in the welcome rush of air above the surface of the river. John the Baptist confirms to the newly baptised that Jesus the Son of God “will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”
But what does that mean? For an answer, since being a shy teenager in March 1967, I have turned from time to time back to a letter I was sent whilst at boarding school, from the parish priest who had been Vicar of the parish where I and my family had worshipped (St Paul’s Haringey in North London, where my father had been the church organist) and where on Christmas Eve 1960 my Dad had suffered a severe stroke on the way home from playing the organ at Midnight Mass. This proved to be fatal, as he died in hospital the day before Epiphany 1961. Six years later, the Vicar (now at a new parish) wrote to me to offer me this encouragement in my Christian journey:
My dear Veronica,
I will have you in my thoughts and prayers on Thursday when you are confirmed. I hope it will be a wonderful day, with a memorable and happy service, and that thereafter you will never doubt the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in your life even though times might be hard. You are old enough to be told that the times are going to get harder for Christians; our numbers are going to shrink, we are going to be increasingly considered old fuddy duddies, and to live a good Christian life is going to become more complicated. BUT God will not leave us comfortless (and you know, don’t you, that “comfort” means “strength” in the Bible). The power of the Holy Spirit which you will receive in his fulness on Thursday is greater than all the powers of evil and indifference. Ours is a great and loving Lord to whom it is more than worthwhile to offer one’s life.
God bless you now and always,
True “comfort and joy”!
(Incidentally, the late Derek Bond’s pastoral skills were later acknowledged by his being consecrated as Bishop of Bradwell.)
The Holy Spirit is known as “the Comforter”, the Strengthener who offers us eternally the inspiration for our lives. Today, 6 December, is also the feast of St Nicholas – patron saint of sailors, amongst others – and we will do well to remember today that we can all, in small or greater ways, offer a lifeline to others as we voyage together through the often turbulent seas of this world. “Speak tenderly,” says Isaiah – be gentle, reach out and offer even small acts of kindness to your companions along the way, old and young alike, and through even the smallest of gestures of love and care, like offering a friendly word, writing an encouraging letter, or simply smiling at a stranger who seems disheartened. In these ways we may embody the grace of God as highlighted in our post-Communion prayer for today, and maybe help others to know themselves forgiven and able to finally come home.
Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that, when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him
with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Comfort and Joy on our website