Friday, December 19, 2014

Sanya concert and Advent 3

Back from a lengthy and very interesting trip to China. I had the great pleasure of again singing in the South Cathedral Choir in Beijing on the Second Sunday of Advent. But for the Third Sunday I was at a very interesting Forum in Sanya hosted by our friend Wang Boming and there was no church anywhere near.

This was the second time I’ve attended the Sanya Forum and there were some very interesting discussions but they were business and I don’t blog about these. However there was also a concert in the evening – the most remarkable feature of which was the performance by an 11-year old Chinese pianist of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20. This was done with considerable musicality, verve, skill and the Beethoven cadenzas. He will of course be even better when he is older!

Since there was no church available I worshipped in my room and composed a mini-sermon-ette on the set texts. I hope it is of some interest…

Meditation on the readings for 3rd Sunday in Advent.

Hope – expectation – something to look forward to – something to believe in. These are so important for us as we live our lives in a turbulent and troubled world.

The Jewish people in the 1st Century lived under oppression but in great expectation. Herod the Great had built the Second Temple, a building of extraordinary beauty and magnificence. One of the sages of Israel said “He that has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” The restoration of Temple worship was a wonderful sign of hope, even though Herod’s antecedents and behavior left an enormous amount to be desired. But the Land of Israel was under Roman Rule, and after the his death this became more direct. Taxes had to be paid to Caesar and, much worse, the very coins bore an idolatrous image – Caesar claiming to be Son of God. Although not in exile physically the exile was still continuing.

But there was hope. Daniel prophesied of the coming destruction of the evil empires who oppressed God’s people.  And Isaiah prophecies of a great liberation by God.
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.
The poor, brokenhearted, captives and prisoners were not some specific individuals within the community – the whole people of Israel saw themselves in this light.  This is very clear in the parts left out in the Catholic lectionary.  This is to be “comfort to those who mourn in Zion. – ie the whole of God’s chosen people.
Strangers shall tend your flocks,
Foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers
But you will be called the Priests of the LORD
They shall speak of you and ministers of our God
You shall eat the wealth of the Gentiles
And in their glory you shall boast.
Good news indeed!  But it requires a radical overthrow: instead of Jews paying tribute to heathen Romans the Gentiles should be paying tribute to the Jews.

So when John the Baptist begins his ministry people are full of expectation. Crowds flock to him in the wilderness. What is going on?  The Pharisees send people to find out. They are the main group of people dis-satisfied with the present situation. The Sadducees have possession and control of the Temple. The Pharisees believe that by deeper prayer and purity they can help bring forward God’s decisive action.

So they ask John “are you Elijah” because it was believed that Elijah (who of course was caught up to God in a whirlwind and traditionally never died) would return before the Messiah.  And he answers “no”.  Interestingly Jesus later says that John was, in a sense, the return of Elijah. But of course they were different people – it was Elijah who appeared with Jesus in the Transfiguration (along with Moses – the Law and the Prophets) and not John.

John says he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness prepare a way for the LORD. People sometimes make a big deal of the fact that the Septuagint tends to read this as crying in the wilderness, “prepare…” whereas the best reading of the Hebrew is  crying “in the wilderness, prepare…” but of course there are no inverted commas in Greek or Hebrew and the ambiguity can be taken both ways.

But what does this mean for us? How can we prepare this way in our wilderness today?  Well how can we put it better than Paul?
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophetic utterances.
Test everything; retain what is good.
Refrain from every kind of evil.
Inspiring thoughts, but how can this be done?  We can’t “pray without ceasing” and we certainly can’t “Refrain from every kind of evil”. Maybe we can try, but “If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us” as St John warns us sternly.

Of course Paul knows this better than anyone, so he continues:
May the God of peace make you perfectly holy
and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body,
be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.
We cannot make ourselves perfectly holy or blameless. Our efforts are pitifully inadequate. But it is God who will do this. 
The one who calls you is faithful,
and he will also accomplish it.

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