40 Days of Baptism: 4

Today something different. A prayer from Stanley Hauerwas.

Lord of the flood, wash us with your Spirit
that we may be your ark of life, your peace
in the sea of violence. Water is life; water
cleans; water kills. Frightened, we are
tempted to make a permanent home on the
ark. But you force us to seek dry ground. We
can do so only because you have taught us
to cling to our baptisms, where we are
drowned and reborn by the water and
fire of your Spirit. So reborn, make us
unafraid. Amen.

 Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken (Wipf & Stock, 2003), p.21

40 Days of Baptism: 3

A third account of baptism, this time from Lauren Winner. Winner was an orthodox Jew who becomes a Christian. She tells her story in Girl Meets God.

I was baptized the first March I was at Cambridge, at a Sunday morning service in the antechamber of the chapel. I told Jo she had to use a lot of water, that I was descended from a long line of full-immersion Baptists, and the traditional Anglican sprinkling would not do. She made sure the water was warm, she doused me in it, and then she wrapped me in a big, striped bathrobe. “Like Joseph’s coat of many colours,” she said. Another Cambridge student was my godmother. She gave me the silver cross I wear around my neck. It is small and square, with slightly rounded corners.

A few days before my baptism, I met with Jo to go over the service. “Let’s just read through this,” she said.

Before actually baptizing me, Jo would ask a series of questions. The answers were printed out, right there I front of me, in my prayer book. Sitting in her room drinking tea, Jo and I practiced aloud. Jo’s role was to ask the questions like “Do you turn to Christ?” and I was to say, “I turn to Christ.” “Do you renounce evil?” she would ask, and I would say, “I renounce evil.” And so on.

We got the third exchange, and finally I said, “This is ridiculous, I can’t promise these things. Half the time I don’t trust God one iota. I can’t stand up there and promise that I will trust him forever and ever. Who on earth makes these promises?

Jo got up and went to the bookshelf. She found an American Book of Common Prayer, which is slightly different from the Church of England’s prayer book. “Here, maybe this ill make you feel better,” she said, flipping to the baptismal service. “In the American prayer book, you don’t just answer all these questions in the affirmative. You say, ‘I will, with God’s help.’”

I usually think the Church of England is much more together, insightful, and generally sane than the Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. But in this case, I think we Americans got it right. I will, with God’s help.

(taken from Lauren F. Winner, Girl Meets God: On a Path to a Spiritual Life (Algonquin Books, 2002), p.81.

40 Days of Baptism: 2

An account of baptism this time from the last decade. 

On the banks of Louisiana’s Ouachita River, the congregation of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, an African American congregation, gathers every year, after several days of fervent prayer meetings and vigorous revival preaching, to baptize new converts to the Christian faith. The older members of the church call this spot on the river “the old burying ground,” because of what Paul said about baptism: Romans 6.4. Here, in the flowing currents of the Ouachita, sinners are plunged beneath the waters symbolically to die with Christ, to be washed clean, and to be raised up to a new way of life.

On those days when the congregation of St. Paul’s gathers for baptism the Ouachita River is, of course just the Ouachita, but in the dram of baptism it becomes much more. It is the Red Sea, the waters through the children of Israel passed on their way to freedom and to the promised land. On baptism day, the Ouachita is also the Jordan River, the place of Jesus’ baptism, and it is the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22.1) through the heavenly city. “We gather here on this old river that drifts into the sea,” said the pastor of St. Paul’s, standing hip-deep in the water one baptismal day, “because we have come back here. Things may have changed uptown; banks may have gone out; shopping centers may have closed, but this old river just keeps on. So we thought the church would come back here and tell the Lord, we thank him for this old river.”


The candidates for baptism, wearing cotton robes sewn especially for them by the older women in the congregation, “the mothers of the church,” stand on the riverbank waiting. At the beckoning of the pastor, the deacons take each of them by the hand, one by one, and lead them down into the river, as the congregation sings old hymns and spirituals like “Take me to the water; take me to the water; take me to the water to be baptized.”

When those baptized come out of the river, they are taken to an improvised dressing room, from which they emerge dressed in dazzling white “Sunday clothes,” and they go back to the river to sing and pray while others are baptized. Then the whole congregation goes back to the church building for a festive ceremony in which these new Christians are “fellowshipped into the church.”

(This account is taken from Thomas G. Long, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral (Westminster John Knox, 2009), pp.79-80. For a longer account with more pictures see here)

40 Days of Baptism: 1

Lent begins. Over the next 40 days (although possibly not every day) I want to share different accounts of baptism - stories, remembrances, sermons, hymns, prayers. The idea for this came from here.

The first account of baptism comes from a Baptist church in the 18th century:

This day the two churches of Walden and Cambridge met by mutual consent at Whittlesford to administer the ordinance of baptism. This church sometimes administers baptism in public (as now) in the presence of many hundreds of spectators; so John the Baptist administered it: sometimes in private; so St. Paul administered it to the jailor, though never in the night, because we are not only not persecuted, but we are protected by the law. Circumstances must determine when a private, or when a public baptism is proper. Previous to this, twenty-five persons had professed their faith and repentance to the church at Walden; and twenty-one had done the same at Cambridge; and all had desired baptism by immersion. Dr Gifford, at ten o’clock, mounted a moveable pulpit near the river in Mr Hollick’s yard, and, after singing and prayer, preached a suitable sermon on the occasion from Psalm 119.57. After sermon, the men retired to one room, the women, to two others, and the baptizer, Mr Gwennap, to another, to prepare for the administration. After about half an hour, Mr Gwennap, dressed as usual (except for a coat, which was supplied by a black gown made like a bachelor’s) came down to the waterside. He was followed by the men, two and two, dressed as usual, only, instead of a coat, each had on a long white baize gown, tied around the waist with a piece of worstead-binding, and leaded at bottom that they might sink: they had on their white linen caps. The women followed, two by two, dressed as usual, only all had white gowns, Holland or dimity. Their uppercoats were tacked to their stockings, and their gowns leaded, lest their clothes should float. Mr Gwennap sang an hymn at the waterside, spoke about ten minutes on the subject, and then taking the oldest man of the company by the hand, led him to a convenient depth in the river. Then pronouncing the words, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, he immersed the person once in the river. Robinson stood in a boat, and, with other assistants, led the rest in, and, having wiped their faces after their baptism, led them out. Mr Gwennap added a few words more after the administration at the water-side, and concluded with the usual blessing.

Church Book, Stone Yard Meeting, Cambridge, 10 April, 1767.

English Baptist Records 2: Church Book: St Andrew's Street Baptist Church, Cambridge 1720-1832 (Baptist Historical Society, 1991), pp.41-42 cited in Christopher Ellis, Gathering (SCM, 2004), p.200.

2016 Whitley Lecture

The Whitley Lecture is an annual lecture given by Baptist in the UK. This year's lecturer is Joshua Searle, who teaches at Spurgeon's College. It's title is: 

Church Without Walls: Post-Soviet Baptists After the Ukrainian Revolution

Recent events in Ukraine have forced post-Soviet evangelicals to address a question they had long avoided: ‘in what way is the gospel not only the source of personal salvation, but also the source of social transformation?’ This lecture advances the provocative argument that instead of calling the people to repent and make peace, the church itself should repent for betraying the people, and for failing for so many years to speak truthfully to those in power and to stand on the side of the oppressed. The lecture concludes on a hopeful note by showing that despite their limited numbers, Baptists can be in the vanguard of a new movement (a ‘church without walls’) for the reformation of the church and the renewal of society, which moves towards an open future with hope for greater freedom. While drawing on the author’s experience of living and working in Ukraine, this lecture also addresses vital issues that affect the global Baptist community, such as the missional imperatives of social justice and solidarity and the limits of political authority.

You can here the lecture here:

– Cardiff (SWBC) on Wednesday 27th January, 13:30–15:00

– London (Spurgeon's College) on Wednesday 3rd February, 11:15–12:45

– Oxford (Regent’s Park College) on Tuesday 23rd February, 16:00–18:00

– Manchester (Northern Baptist College) on Monday 14th March 19:00–20:30

– Bristol (Bristol Baptist College) on Tuesday 12th, 19:30–21:00

Or buy a copy here.

Some Book Delights forthcoming for 2016

The most awaited book in Pauline scholarship is surely now Beverly Gaventa's commentary on Romans. Later this year she publishes When in Romans: An Invitation to the Linger with the Gospel According to Paul, which will accompany her early Our Saint Paul and get us closer to the final commentary appearing. This new book will probably collect her essays on various texts and issues in Romans over the last few years.

Douglas A. Campbell is working on a new book, which might see the light of day before 2016 is finished. This new book is an attempt to set out Paul's theology as he reads it and in a style that will reach a wider audience than The Deliverance of God

In 2014 at SBL, Ben Blackwell and others organised a set of papers on Paul and Apocalyptic, and they will be published this year as Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination

NT Wright never has a year off and before the end of the year he will have published The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus' Crucifixion, which sounds another addition to his 'series' of studies that include Surprised By Hope, Virtue Reborn and How God Became King.

Richard Hays, who underwent treatment for cancer last year, is scheduled to publish Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels this year. It is a sequel of sorts to Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul and is the fuller version of the shorter Reading Backwards that came out in 2014.

Outside of biblical scholarship, fans of Rowan Williams will be able to enjoy a collection of essays On Augustine, although I'm more interested in Being Disciples, a sequel to his excellent Being Christian.

Robert Jenson has new introduction to theology A Theology in Outline: Can these Dry Bones Live? (Oxford), based on the set lectures he used to delivered to undergraduates at Princeton.

Baptists should be looking forward to Steven Harmon's Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future (Baylor) and the third volume of James McClendon's Collected Works (also Baylor). This final volume will be a collection of sermons. 

James K. A. Smith is publishing You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Baker) which will pick up themes from Desiring the Kingdom and work them for a wider audience.

As the likes of Sarah Coakley and Katherine Sonderegger are working on systematic theologies (first volumes already out), Graham Ward publishes How the Light Gets in: Ethical Life (Oxford), which is the first in a four-volume project systematic theology.

Also to look forward to is a new book from John Flett: Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (IVP) and Alan Kreider on the growth of the early church in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Baker)


Faith: A Sermon

 I want to talk this morning about ‘faith.’[i]

It's a word that crops up a fair bit in the letter to the Romans.

It’s a word that crops up a fair bit when we talk about being a Christian.

Being a Christian is about having faith,

and having faith specifically in Jesus Christ.

It is faith, according to Paul, that justifies us.

We are justified by faith.

We are saved by faith.

Faith is a big deal.

It is at the heart of the Christian life.

There’s been a debate that’s been going over 30 years now

amongst New Testament scholars about faith.

The debate has been about whose faith are we talking about

when we read certain verses in Paul’s letters.

Is it our faith or is it Christ’s faith?

One of those verses is Romans 3.22,

which as you read it your Bible says:

‘This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’

What you may notice is the small ‘h’ after the word ‘in’ which takes you to a footnote at the bottom of the page and gives you an alternative way of translating the verse:

‘This righteousness is give through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ

to all who believe.’

The original NIV translation didn’t provide that footnote, but it’s been included now, showing that there is now a real debate over how to read this verse and others like it.

The traditional ‘faith in Jesus Christ’ still dominates,

although the King James Version has ‘the faith of Jesus Christ.’

Historically up to the Great Reformer Martin Luther all Bible translations rendered the phrase ‘faith of Jesus Christ’, since Martin Luther nearly all Bible translations have spoken of ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’[ii]

Why there is a debate and why you have two possible versions is that the Greek does not tell us whether the faith belongs to Christ or to us,

It is left undefined.

What difference does it make? Why does this matter?

Well I want to suggest it makes a big difference

because at its heart it addresses the question how are we saved?

The gospel that Paul proclaims

is one which focuses on the faithfulness of Christ,

what we might call Christ’s fidelity, his obedience:

       In chapter 5 he says:

‘through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous’ (Rom 5.19)

       and in Philippians he says:

   ‘he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross’ (Phil 2.8)

The faithfulness of Christ is most clearly demonstrated in the cross.

Where the rest of humanity is disobedient,

                        is under the power of sin and death

                        is helpless, ungodly and enemies of God (Romans 3.9; 5.6, 7, 10)

Christ comes in order to suffer and die

                        for our salvation

                        and this is an act of obedience, of faithfulness and love.

What Christ does is also an act of God, who sends, and does not spare

                        his own Son out of love for us (Romans 8.32).

The gospel is good news because Christ saves us.

            Christ liberates us, frees us, delivers us

                        through his faithfulness, not our faith.

This is what we mean by grace.

            All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

            and (says Paul)

            all are justified, i.e. saved, freely by his grace

            through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ (Romans 3.22-24).

This act of salvation is grace all the way down.

            And this means it is:[iii]

          Unconditional – it doesn’t come with any terms and conditions

          Boundless – it is not limited to a particular people group; instead there are no limits on its reach

          Undeserving – it is given without concern for merit or worth

                                    and as such it is

          Generous – it is a gift of love

          Creative – this is a new birth, this is a transformation

          Effective – it does what it claims; we really are free

            One of the places Paul is clearest on this is in Ephesians:

                        For it is by grace you have been saved,

                                    Through faith –

                                                And this is not from yourselves,

                                                            It is the gift of God …

                        For we are God’s handiwork,

                                    Created in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2.8, 10)

            The words ‘through faith’ means the faithfulness of Christ,

                        that is God’s all-surpassing gift.

What of our faith?

Am I saying our faith doesn’t matter?

                        By no means! (as Paul might say)

            But our faith

            it is a consequence of our salvation,           

                        it is a product of grace.

There’s a story of a priest coming to see a theologian on a personal matter

                        which eventually boiled down to the priest saying

                                    ‘The problem is, Dr. Barth, I’ve lost my faith;’

            to which the theologian, Karl Barth replied,

                        ‘but what on earth gave you the impression it was yours to lose?’[iv]

            It might be better to speak not our faith

                        but our sharing in Christ’s faith.

It is not I believe and so I am saved,

            It is I am saved, and so I believe.

            There is no ‘if-then’ to the gospel,

                           such as: if you believe, or if you repent, then you are …

                        but rather ‘because-therefore’

                           because you recipients of grace or objects of mercy, therefore

you already are ….[v]

                        Faith is not a feeling, it is an attitude of trust,

                           a form of knowing and being known,

                           a life of faithfulness.

            Faith comes from our sharing in the life of Christ

            It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit who draws us into the life of Christ

            We are saved through faithfulness for faithfulness (Romans 1.17).

When we start to understand faith as first belonging to Christ

            and the a gift to us,

it should alter the way we see ourselves and

the way we approach evangelism.

     In terms of ourselves

            We should not think too highly of ourselves.

            We should not made the difference between us and those who are not Christians too big.

            We should see ourselves only as those who have been woken up to what God has done in Christ.

            We are all addicted to Sin,

                        We are those who are in rehab … in God’s hospital the church:

                                    ‘There for the grace of God go I’

            We have not healed ourselves,

            We have not conquered our addiction,

               We have been and are being freed from our addiction.

               Grace has found us

                     and we now walk and breath the fresh air of new life in the Holy Spirit

                   but Sin continues to tempt us and call us back to our previous life.[vi]

In terms of evangelism

            Our role is simply to be witnesses to a life free of addiction.

            Too often evangelism is done by trying to convince people

                        over and over that they are a sinner and should believe in Jesus

            as if a person is able just to decide ‘I believe.’

The more faithful way to evangelise is befriend people,

            to not see them as objects for conversion,

                        but as those loved by God,

                        as those for whom Christ died and rose.

We live in ways that are sensitive to others,

            at the same time without pretending to be something we are not.

The opposite of evangelism is make our Christian life so private that it makes no visible difference.

We live to share the story of the gospel,

            the story of Jesus through words and deeds,

            acknowledging that we are not finished,

                        but works in progress

                                    learning to live under grace.

We learn to be people of prayer

            People who pray something like:

‘Loving God,

as you revealed yourself to Paul

                        as you have revealed yourself to me,

reveal yourself to [insert name]

                                    that they might come to know

                                                the freedom and truth

                                                that is in Christ Jesus.’                                  

Evangelism is not the same as being a salesman,

            the gospel is not something we sell

Evangelism is allowing Christ to live us

            that we become free samples of Jesus.[vii]


[i] Nearly all I’ve learned about faith I’ve learned from the work Douglas Campbell.

[ii] Douglas Harink, Paul and the Postliberals (Brazos, 2003), p.26.

[iii] This explanation of grace is a combination of John Barclay (Paul and Gift, Eerdmans, 2015) and Douglas Campbell (The Quest of Paul’s Gospel, T & T Clark, 2008).

[iv] Quoted in J. Lou Martyn, ‘The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians’, Interpretation 54 (July 2000), p.250n.

[v] See Fleming Rutledge, ‘Sentences and Verbs: Talking About God’ in Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology (Cascade, 2012), p.18 who attributes it to Philip Ziegler.

[vi] The language of addiction I’ve borrowed from Douglas Campbell.

[vii] I offer that phrase to Nick Lear, Regional Minister, Eastern Baptist Association.

The Ox and the Donkey: A Christmas Day Sermon

‘The Ox and the Donkey’

Luke 2.1-20

Christmas Day 2015

Belle Vue Baptist

We’ve just heard read the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke’s gospel.

Familiar words.

Its one of those bits of the Bible,

that if I asked you to shut your Bibles and your eyes and tell me what happens,

I think most of you could get pretty close to the words Luke uses.

Don’t worry I’m not going to put my theory to the test.

These are very familiar words.

And if I asked you to describe the nativity scene,

I’m pretty sure we know what would need to be in there.

Mary, Joseph and Jesus of course.

A stable with a manger.

An ox and donkey.

Some shepherds with maybe one or two sheep.

Three magi with their camels parked outside.

A star over the stable.

This is the scene on the increasingly rare Christmas card,

this is the scene of numerous paintings of the Nativity by great painters,

this is the scene at the end of the BBC’s version of the Nativity from a few years ago.

And of course its wrong.

Yes, we read of Mary, Joseph and Jesus lying in a manger.

We don’t actually read of a stable, but this is surmised from the presence of the manger.

We don’t read of any animals.

We do read of some shepherds arriving.

We don’t read of any stars.

We don’t read of any magi or wise men or three kings and any camels – they turn up in Matthew’s gospel and the suggestion is Jesus is no new-born by then, but perhaps at the age of beginning to walk.

Our version of the Nativity story is a creation,

it’s a mash-up.

I’m not saying this is wrong and we shouldn’t do it,

but wanting to draw attention to how we have sought to sentimentalise the story,

to make it almost fairy-tale like,

when it was anything but.

Over time and legend,

we’ve taken the danger, the trouble,

the scandal, the poverty

out of the story.

Familiar words have made us over-familiar with the story we celebrate.

Having said all that,

I want to come back to the ox and donkey.

Why on earth do they come to appear in the story?

Well the answer emerges from early Christian readers of the nativity story

who saw Luke’s emphasis on the manger – he mentions it three times:

‘lying in a manger’

and from an verse from the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah chapter 1 verse 3 reads:

‘the ox knows its master,

     the donkey its owner’s manger,

but Israel does not know,

     my people do not understand.’

Early Christians read the Old Testament a lot.

A lot more than we probably do.

They read it through the eyes of the gospels.

This verse from Isaiah finds it fulfilment in the birth of Jesus.

Luke’s repetition of ‘manger’

is an echo to this verse,

and so of course an ox and donkey must be present at the nativity.

Why does Luke want us to think of Isaiah 1.3?[i]

Because this word of judgement against Israel

            - Israel does not know or understand -

is now being repealed in the birth of Jesus.

Those who did not know,

through the shepherds are now beginning to come to know –

as they ox knows its master,

so the shepherds come know the birth of Jesus as the coming of God.

The mystery of God’s faithful love

is being revealed,

is being announced.

Or perhaps it’s the opposite,

perhaps the echo is to remind us that God’s people,

will continue not to know,

will continue not to understand,

that in Jesus, God is in the midst.

They will remain ignorant of Jesus’ identity,

and so point to all those who miss who is the manger,

those who refuse to accept or believe the tender mercy of God.

God does not force himself upon us,

for he comes as vulnerable and defenceless baby.

Or perhaps the presence of the ox and the donkey

is a sign of God’s care for the Christ child.

One writer imagines,

‘the ox and the donkey kneeling down,

putting their mouths to the manger,

breathing through their noses on to the Child,

because they knew that at that cold time

he needed to be heated up in that manner.’

I love the image of that.

It takes us back to our animal service in October,

and the reminder that animals know how to show affection and care

and Jesus receives their affection in this moment,

they know who is before them,

they recognise who is lying in their manger.

Or perhaps the presence of the ox and the donkey

should be seen as a sign that the whole of creation

shares in the joy of the birth of Jesus.

That perhaps those who are included in those on whom God’s favour rests

is all creatures.

God’s salvation is for all the whole cosmos,

and so just as shepherds represent the poor and lowly,

and the magi represent the nations,

the ox and donkey represent the creatures of the earth.

All come to worship and bless the birth day of Christ.

This short verse from Isaiah,

and the presence of the ox and the donkey in our nativity scenes,

present us with the question of whether

we know our master,

of whether we recognise the owner of the manger?

Will we draw near and offer our love to the one

who is God’s love made flesh?

Will our familiarity with the nativity story,

give way to a new reception

of the Lord of shepherd and maiden,

of carpenter and prince,

of ox and donkey,

of the one born king of angels

and king of all creation?

The long wait is over,

God has arrived,

born of Mary.

Now is the time for singing and dancing,

now is the time for mooing and braying,

now is the time for joy and feasting.

Glory to God in the highest heaven

and on earth peace to those

on whom his favour rests.

See what God has done,

it is marvellous in our eyes!


[i] These reflections were helped by Richard Harries, A Gallery of Reflections: The Nativity of Christ (Lion, 1995), p.36.

'It's beginning to look a like Advent': A Sermon

The radio and the world have been singing:

‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas’

for more than a few weeks now.[i]

In the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

it’s never Christmas, it’s always winter.

These days we’ve done the reverse,

it’s never advent, it’s always Christmas.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

is about the liberation of Narnia from winter,

it’s liberation from the evil rule of the White Witch.

I wonder if we need a liberation from a perpetual Christmas,

a liberation from the powers that seek to make us their disciples

of greed and waste.

It is in this way that the church stubbornly sings an advent song:

‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christ is coming’

and the tune is not such a jaunty one.

The song or prayer can be found in the scriptures.

Paul prays ‘Our Lord, come’ (1 Cor 16.22)

and the Book of Revelation ends, ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (Rev 22.20).

This prayer is one of the earliest prayers of the Christian faith,

but is hardly prevalent today.

I wonder if we’ve settled too much,

and Advent comes to make us restless for Jesus once again.

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

This is the song of the church.

This is the mystery of our faith,

and the third sentence is just as important as the first two.

The Jesus of Christian faith is also the Jesus of Christian hope.

Salvation is left unfinished if Jesus stays in heaven.

Advent looks forward as well as back.

Too often we spend all our time looking back to the stable,

and not enough looking forward to the coming of Christ again.

We like Christmas

because who doesn’t like a story about a baby.

We’re not sure about the Parousia,

to give the word that is often used to talk about Christ’s coming in glory,

and little wonder in the language Jesus uses to describe it.

One theologian has said ‘we can’t fathom the Second Advent of Jesus Christ,

and we stammer when we try to speak of it.’

One reason for our reluctance to talk about the Parousia

is that only a certain kind of Christian talks about the Parousia

and they tend to talk about it a lot

and often in fairly aggressive ways

and we’re pretty sure we don’t want to be associated with them.

What this means is while for some Christians it’s all they talk about,

for others we never talk about it.

What does it mean to declare ‘Christ will come again’?

It means when God renews the whole universe, Jesus himself will be present,

and not just a bystander, an onlooker,

but as the centre and focus of what God is doing.[ii]

There is no God apart from Jesus.

Jesus is the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.

‘We do not know what is coming,

but we know who is coming to us.’[iii]

It means we live been a ‘now’ and ‘not yet.’

It means God’s great act of salvation in Christ

is finished but not yet complete.

It means Jesus didn’t come to give us an escape route from the world,

but to the see world renewed,

to see heaven and earth bound together in eternity.

The story of Jesus is not yet finished,

because of the story of creation is not finished,

but the story of creation can only be finished,

with the coming again of Jesus.[iv]

Christ’s coming, his advent in glory,

is the ending of history, the completion of the story.

This ending, this completion is not in any doubt,

the Jesus of Bethlehem, of Galilee, of Calvary, of empty tomb,

has redirected the world towards its end in him,

and that course is fixed.

The future of creation is bound with the future of Jesus.

This is the meaning of hope.

The coming of Christ again means

that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus

is undoubtedly universal in scope.

What is clear is that the coming of Christ again

will not be quietly in some insignificant village

to insignificant parents.

It will not be a birth, Christ will not be born a second time,

It is Christ in glory who will come, who will appear,

and every eye will see him.

There will joy and there will be trembling.

The truth of who Christ is will be revealed for all to see.

The universal Lordship of Christ will be made known.

The universal love of Christ will be made known.

The universal end of evil will be made known.

The way and truth of Christ will be made known.

All of history and reality will be illuminated in glorious revelation.[v]

This is the meaning of hope.

The coming of Christ again means

that the church lives in patient hope,

lives with longing.

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

We are not a memorial community.

We do come to worship at the shrine of some dead figure.

We do not gather to pay tribute to a fallen hero.

We are not a club are the comfortable and complacent.

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

We need Advent to remind us that this is not it,

to remind us that Jesus has not left us,

to remind us that the point of Christianity is to not that we might escape this world,

but that we might wait with faith and hope for the renewal of this world.

What this means is that Advent is most Jewish of Christians seasons.

In Advent we all become Jews once more.[vi]

We await the Messiah.

The promised and anointed one.

We know he’s coming and we know his name,

but we don’t know when he will arrive,

so like the Jews of Babylon we wait and pray and hope.

Isaiah says:

            I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem;

            They will never be silent day or night.

            You who call on the LORD,

            Give yourselves no rest,

            And give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem

            And makes her the praise of the earth (Is 62.6-7).

The task of the church is ‘to remind Christ,

            and to keep reminding Christ,

                        to remind Christ without ceasing’,[vii]

            of the world’s need and his promise.

                        ‘Come Lord Jesus!’

                        ‘Your kingdom come!’

At the same time the call of the church is also to tell the world,

            and to keep telling the world,

                        to remind the world without ceasing,

            of the good news of Jesus and of his coming.

                        ‘Change your life and believe the good news’

                        There is a point, an end, to life and it is Jesus.      

I started with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Let me end with The Lord of the Rings by C. S. Lewis’ friend Tolkien.[viii]

The third book (and film) in The Lord of the Rings is called

The Return of the King

and so we pick up this theme of a world that is under deep threat

from powers of evil,

that must be freed

and the rightful king will be revealed and enthroned.

Before this coming of the king can take place,

and the restoration of his kingdom,

the people of middle-earth must undergo great tribulations

with patient endurance and steadfast commitment.

The Lord of the Rings is an advent story.

It is waiting for the king,

it is waiting for the final battle to be won,

it tells the story of a company of people – a fellowship –

making their way across the world, like the church.

At the dying of one character he says

he is going to the halls of waiting,

until the world is renewed.

We are in the halls of waiting,

alert, watching, enduring, steadfast,

waiting for the return of the king

and the renewal of the world.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Advent,

it’s beginning to look a lot like Christ is coming.


[i] I was helped with this beginning by Bruce Puckett’s sermon for the First Sunday in Advent at Duke Chapel on Nov 29, 2015.
[ii] N T Wright, Surprised By Hope (SPCK, 2007), p.130.
[iii] Cited in Richard Bauckham & Trevor Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology in Contemporary Context (DLT, 1999), p.117.
[iv] Bauckham & Hart, Hope Against Hope, p.118.
[v] James Alison, Raising Abel (SPCK, 2010).
[vi] Rowan Williams, Open to Judgment (DLT, 1994), p9ff.
[vii] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (WJK, 1998), p.222.
[viii] These reflections were helped Fleming Rutledge, The Battle For Middle-Earth (Eerdmans, 2004), p.41-42.

Judgment and Promise: A Sermon on Isaiah for Advent

The season of Advent
is shaped around the twin themes of judgment and promise
and so the book of Isaiah is a perfect reading companion.
It is, as it has been called, the ‘fifth gospel’ – it prepares the way,
it sounds in advance the gospel message of Jesus.
Isaiah is a book with three parts.
The first part contains chapters 1-39 and is the work of the prophet Isaiah in the eight century BC.
The second part contains chapters 40-55 and is the work of a prophet in the sixth century BC, in the midst of exile.
The third part contains chapters 56-66 and is the work of a prophet in the fifth century BC after the return from exile.
While these three parts reflect three different points in Israel’s history,
the book hangs together so that we can read it as a whole.[i]

First Isaiah (ch.1-39) is largely an exercise in prophetic judgement.
We think of prophecy as predicting the future,
but the prophets of the Old Testament work more in the vein of criticism.
like newspapers have commentators,
who offer their weekly view on the issues of the day,
so Israel’s prophets uttered their judgements
            on the nation’s politics, economics, and worship.
                        They speak not in their name,
but in the name of the God who calls them and appoints them.
Isaiah announces that judgement is coming
            because of the lack of trust that king and people have in God
            and because of their disobedience,
their failure to live according to the ways of God.
First Isaiah confronts
the false faith, the unjust policies, the fake worship           
            that he finds amongst king and people.
If you continue, he says, judgement will come,
            this will be the consequence of your sin.
First Isaiah reminds us that the task of the preacher and the church is to challenge the status quo,
            both within the church itself and the wider society in which it is situated.
To name the ideology that fails to acknowledge the sovereignty of God,
                        that works against justice     
                        that is stuck in complacency
                        that believes God is on their side irrespective of their actions.
First Isaiah comes to us as an Advent voice to wake us to the reality of judgment.
                        It is coming, it is on it’s way.
The church becomes so comfortable and complacent that we don’t know what to do with judgment,
            We don’t know how to receive the long passages of judgment that are found amongst Israel’s prophets.
            We have made God so friendly that we consider him harmless
                     so that like Jerusalem in Isaiah’s day we think there is nothing to fear.
            We have made the grace of God cheap.

If First Isaiah sounds the warning of judgement,
Second Isaiah (ch 40-55) announces hope.
Not hope as some kind of empty optimism that things will get better,
but hope that emerges out and within the experience of grief.
Second Isaiah writes to a people that have been brought to their knees.
Some suggest that between the end of chapter 39 and the beginning of chapter 40,
we should read the book of Lamentations,
if we are to understand what has happened to the people of Israel.
In Lamentations we read Israel’s account of its pain and loss and humiliation at the destruction of its home and its exile into Babylon.
The first words of Isaiah chapter 40
            announce a song of comfort, of good news, of salvation, of hope.
The judgement of First Isaiah results in punishment,
            but through the words of Second Isaiah this punishment is now seen as Israel’s suffering vocation.
   It is Second Isaiah that contains the songs of the Suffering Servant (Is 42, 49, 50, 53)

Second Isaiah allows Israel to see that exile is not the last word,
            God does not judge and punish as an end in itself,
                        but for the purposes of a new exodus,
                                    a new salvation,
                                    a new understanding that God is not always for Israel,
                                                but God is always with Israel.
Second Isaiah also allows Israel to hear its story a fresh,
            free of the false versions that First Isaiah denounced.
                        Israel can once again see that God is
                                 The God of Abraham, Sarah, Noah and David (Is 41, 51, 54, 55)
                                                and because of this he is their God.
                                                God has not abandoned them.
                                                God remains with them.
                                                God is Immanuel.
Second Isaiah comes to us as Advent voice announcing hope to a people without hope,
            to a people who have ceased to believe another world is possible,
            who have ceased to believe that God is at work,
            who doubt whether the powers of evil can ever be defeated,
He offers hope, and comfort,
and with that he dismisses all others gods or powers as no gods and no powers in the face of the awesome Creator God of Israel,
who declares you chosen, beloved and precious (Is 43-44).

While First Isaiah warns of judgement,
and Second Isaiah proclaims good news and hope,
Third Isaiah envisions a new world,
            an alternative world.
What does this alternative world look like?
            It looks like a world where the foreigner and the outcast are welcomed and embraced,
            where God’s temple will be a house of prayer for all nations (Is 56).
            It looks like a world in which fasting is turned into the act of feeding the hungry and giving the homeless a home (Is 58).
            It look like a world that proclaims good news to the poor,
                        healing for the broken-hearted,
                        freedom for the captives.
            A world of jubilee, where forgiveness and redemption are enacted (Is 61)
The new alternative world that Third Isaiah imagines
            is ‘an assault on all controlled thinking that insists that the world is presently organized in the only way that it could be.’[ii]
            Third Isaiah culminates in the astonishing vision
                        of God’s promise to create a new heavens and a new earth,
                                    a new Jerusalem
                        in which
                           never again will there be in it
                                    an infant who lives but a few days
                                    or an old man who does not live out his years;
                                    the one who dies at a hundred
                                    will be thought a mere child … (Is 65)
Third Isaiah comes to us an Advent voice of imagination:
            Imagine another world says Isaiah,
            imagine another way of relating,
            imagine another way of living.
Where the church and wider society lacks imagination,
            lacks the space, the time, the desire to imagine differently,
                        Isaiah says let God open your eyes to his newness,
                                    to his kingdom.
                        Don’t settle for what is,
                                    imagine what will be.
                        Don’t settle for a world of war,
                                    a world of greed and profit
                                    a world of fences and walls
                                    a world of austerity
                                    a world of scarcity
                                    a world of self-interest
            See what God is promising
                        A world of peace and justice,
                        a world of reconciled relationships,
                        a world of generosity and freedom,
                        a world of feasting and abundance.
            Advent is a time for dreaming and imagination.

First Isaiah says speak the truth
Second Isaiah says do not be afraid, have hope
Third Isaiah says learn to dream again[iii]
            For God’s promised end has come and is coming
            Jesus has come and is coming
            God’s judgement on evil and promise of new creation.


[i] This sermon has been helped by Walter Brueggemann, ‘Unity and Dynamic in the Isaiah Tradition’ in Old Testament Theology: Essays on Structure, Theme and Text. Ed. by Patrick Miller (Fortress, 1992), pp.252-269.

[ii] Brueggemann, ‘Unity and Dynamic’, p.267.

[iii] I’m borrowing these words from the titles of Sam Well’s three collections of sermons: Speaking the Truth (Abingdon, 2008), Be Not Afraid (Brazos, 2011) and Learning to Dream Again (Canterbury, 2013).