Wonderful Counsellor: A Sermon for Advent

‘And the government will be upon his shoulders.’

I can’t read those words at the moment without thinking of the forthcoming

inauguration of President Trump

and my expectation of how little he will resemble

the one expected in these words from Isaiah.

The words we have read from Isaiah 9

were probably written for a coronation, very much like an inauguration,

for the new king about to be crowned.

They were written in the hope of a new wave of peace and prosperity.

They were written in the hope that the new king would be one anointed by God

as a wonderful counsellor, a carrier of God’s power, an everlasting father and a

prince of peace.

In the main the hopes of Israel were ultimately found wanting,

very much like our own hopes in those who give the possibility of newness –

Kennedy, Blair, Obama, Trump …

and so the promises were pushed forward, awaiting fulfilment one day.

What does it mean to expect one who will be wonderful counsellor?


In the context of Isaiah 9

It is a reference to one who will govern with great wisdom,

whose plans and policies will be wonderful for all the people

and so serve the flourishing of the nation,

in terms of peace and prosperity.

Again we look to those who govern us,

to initiate and put in place plans and policies

that will benefit the whole nation,

that will result perhaps not in wonder, but at least in higher approval ratings!


We don’t just read this passage in its immediate context,

but also in the light of the gospel,

For the early church came to read the Old Testament

in the light of Jesus

and Isaiah 9 was rich in royal messianic imagery

and readily seen as pointing to Jesus.

So the question we ask is what does it mean to see Jesus as wonderful



Wisdom is certainly associated with Jesus.

Luke’s gospel twice says that the young Jesus was filled with, and grew in, wisdom

and, according to Mark’s gospel, when Jesus starts preaching the crowd

are amazed and ask what is this wisdom that has been given him?

And in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, Jesus is said to be the wisdom

of God, although a wisdom that confounds the ‘wise’.

If Jesus is wise, he is also seen in terms of wonder in the sense that he is no

ordinary teacher or prophet.

Throughout the gospels, it is said the people were amazed, or astonished.

His teaching contradicted all usual assumptions.

His teaching confounded the authorities;

He engaged the powerless crowds,

He spoke of a world that was coming, and had come, in which the impossible was

made possible.

What is wonderful about Jesus, is the impossible becomes possible.

Jesus comes to re-describe reality.


Every Sunday the church declares the impossible is possible in God and with God.

There should be wonder every time we open the scriptures.

If you come to church and are never astonished at what is read, what is done,

then either you need to listen more carefully or the church is not announcing the


Stories of coming to baptism, of the saints of old, of lives befriended, surrendered,

transformed leave us in wonder and we see that Jesus is not a person just of

words – he is not only our teacher - but a person of action, of deeds, of miracles,

of changing lives.


If Jesus provokes wonder, he also provokes opposition,

because his counsel, his governance is not more of the same,

but a challenge to the pattern and order of the world.

Those in power to not respond with wonder,

but with counsel on how they might end Jesus.

They were happy with the possible, and feared the impossible

that Jesus announced.

In there is both wonder and opposition,

before we too quickly think of the world as not including us,

we must come to terms with our rejection of Jesus’ wonderful counsel.

We must admit to ourselves and even to each other,

where we have not stomached the teaching of Jesus,

where we have called it impossible, foolish, romantic.

The church, like the world, continues to wrestle with Jesus the wonderful Counsellor.

We continue to need to be convinced,

to have eyes and hearts transformed.

We dare to believe, we cling to gospel stories in hope that,

then is now, that this is that, that the past is present. [i]

And where we do this,

we will find opposition, we will find those who cannot tolerate,

who will not tolerate this Jesus,

those for whom there is too much to lose.

Where the church faces no opposition, it is probably because we have allowed

ourselves to be dulled to the call, the vision, the demand of Jesus to follow.

The church is called to embrace the wisdom of Jesus,

which announces the end of the world as the world knows it,

and which from certain angles looks like foolishness,

but it is the only reality.

Walter Brueggemann says this:

            The ‘increase of his government’ will not be by supernatural imposition

            or royal fiat.

Instead, it will come about through daily intentional engagement

            of his subjects,

            who are so astonished by his wonder

that they no longer subscribe to the old order of power and truth

            that turns out to be in the long run,

            only debilitating fraudulence.

            It requires an uncommon wisdom

to interrupt the foolish practice of business as usual. [ii]


I wonder what it would mean, what it would look like,

for us to embrace the wonderful counsel of Jesus –

this ‘uncommon wisdom’. [iii]

It is almost impossible for us to see the world other than as we have it,

It is almost impossible for us to act in the world other than as we have it,

We are so entangled in the world,

            that to see and act in accordance with Jesus’ wisdom,

            seems beyond our reach.

And so why our first prayer must be,           

            God grant us the gift of eyes to see,

                                    ears to hear,

                                    hearts to respond,

                                    hands to act,

            that are in accordance with the mind of Christ,

                        that is, his wonderful wisdom.

The uncommon wisdom of Jesus

            will call us to live a different way of life,

            just read the Sermon on the Mount.

Or look to his ministry where we see it so clearly modelled for us:

            in how he makes time for children;

            in how he chooses to visit Zacchaeus, a tax collector;

            in how he calls the wrong type of people to be apostles;

            in how he doesn’t give up on his disciples;

            in how he responds to those who question him;

            in how he resists temptation by bring well versed in scripture;

            in how he extends forgiveness to those beyond the pale;

            in how he refuses the use of violence even when be faced with arrest;

            in how he is gentle with the woman at the well

                 and the woman who had been bleeding 12 years;

            in how tells stories which defy neatness and instead offer continual wondering;

            in how he does not ignore the cry of those who need mercy like Bartimaeus;   

            in how he sees beauty and not waste in Mary’s use of expensive perfume;

            in how he challenges the grip wealth can have on a heart;

            in how he brings freedom to a man bound by demons and chains;

            in how he sees faith in those outside the Jewish faith;

            in how he doesn’t disown the law, but brings it to his proper end;

            in how he sees his life as something to be laid down on behalf of others;

            in how he sees the cross not just tragedy, but glory.

This is an uncommon wisdom,

            which is both wonderful and wondrous,

                        and at the same time it is the politics of God

                                    an economy of grace,

                                    in which Christ is the key. [iv]


[i] This of course picks up the work of Jim McClendon.

[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Names for the Messiah, 16-17.

[iii] There is a reminder here also of a work by a Baptist minister John Peck who wrote with Charles Strohmer, Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World.

[iv] Here I am deliberately echoing the titles of a series of books by Kathryn Tanner.

'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).

You know it's Advent when ...

an angel turns up at your door and says you’re going to have a baby.

John Lewis make an advert that makes you shed a tear.

a star in the night sky begins burning brighter, almost as if it wants you to follow it.

a strange bearded guy starts shouting ‘repent’ and ‘get ready for the Lord’.

Cliff Richard releases another single!

you open a door each morning and eat some chocolate for breakfast.

a group knock on your door and start singing an out of tune and mumbled ‘We wish you a merry …’

there’s a different party in every week of December to go to.

the Government want you to go back to your place of birth so they can do a census.

your neighbours or friends invite you to come to church.

you see people spending silly money on presents for their children.

a candle flickering in the darkness is a sign of hope.

an angel says your wife’s pregnant even though you’re both in - you start to question whether it was a good idea to invite all the family round at the end of December … for another year!

you wonder once again at the possibility of God.

there’s a new Harry Potter new Hobbit new Star Wars film out.

your children come home from school singing the same tune over and over again.

- you’re trying to work out whether it should spelled Immanuel or Emmanuel.

- the Baptists go all Church of England and get the candles out!

the Salvation Army Brass Band suddenly seem to be everywhere!

you’re looking for a tea towel, and find that someone is wearing it on their head.

- you arrive at your destination and find there’s no room at the inn.

you get cards through the letter box and its not your birthday.

it becomes ok to put children on a stranger’s knee as long as he’s wearing red and got a white beard.

- you hear the words ‘and lo it came to pass …'

The End of the World: A Sermon for Advent Sunday


In 1987 the American band REM released their song

‘It’s the end of the world as we know it.’[i]

I was seven at the time,

but I guess, for those who we then a little older,

it may have felt like the end of the world,

the Cold War was still in full flow

and of course in the UK Margaret Thatcher was still PM!

The belief that the world is going to end is something that has been present throughout much of history.[ii]

In Jesus’ day, the Jews were praying that God would bring the end of the world,

which in other words meant the end of the Romans –

this was the great hope!

Three hundred years later,

many Christians thought the end of the world had come,

when the Roman Empire became Christian,

and what must have felt like the whole world becoming Christian –

this was heaven on earth!

For those in the middle ages,

the end of the world was thought of more in terms of whether you were going to heaven or hell –

this produced more fear than hope!

In the 17th and 18th century and rise of science and the idea of the individual,

the end of the world in terms of something God might do

became less widely believed

as God himself became less central to how people viewed the world –

this generated the myth of the great progress,

the world getting better and better,

no end of the world was expected or much feared.

And in the last century

the end of the world became something humanity could achieve itself with the advent of nuclear weapons or environmental catastrophe –

fear of a different kind, not fear of God, but fear of the bomb.

‘It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine’

sang REM.

Christians are an end of the world type of people.

The purpose of Advent,

it’s horizon, is the end of all things.

Don’t get overly fixated on a stable in Bethlehem,

but on the one who came and is coming again,

this time in glory and majesty.

Christians are an end of the world type of people,

because we look to God,

who created the world,

with a purpose, with an end.

Christians are end of the world type of people,

because we believe we have already seen the end of the world

and it is Jesus.

Christians are end of the world type of people,

because the purpose of the world

is found in Jesus,

and so we pray ‘come Lord Jesus come’.

Advent is a reminder that we are always approaching the end.

The end is always in sight,

because we believe Jesus is in sight.

The end of the world is not far away,

because Jesus is not far away.

And at the same time, the Advent prayer is always

‘how long, O Lord, how long?’

For while the end of the world is known in Jesus,

it is not yet fully realised.

The end has not yet fully come,

for we know that today good and evil still flourish together.

We know the presence of

injustice, oppression, violence, hatred, indifference and vengeance.

So we pray

‘How long, o Lord, how long?’

Our reading from the second letter of Peter

speaks to the end of the world.

It answers those who disbelieve,

those who ask, where is this “coming” promised?

those who see only a world that is unchanged from its beginnings.

Peter says,

the end of the world is coming.

Don’t doubt it and don’t doubt God’s intention.

God is the creator God,

creation is not eternal, it will not last for ever,

it had a beginning and it will have an end.

            The question is not will it end, but what kind of end?

God is the God of judgement,

evil will not prevail, remember the flood,

the world was destroyed by water.

The end of the world is coming

and all will be revealed, laid bare,

made known.

The end of the world will draw together all that is good,

and redeem all that is bad.

The world’s end,

            is heaven and earth reconciled,

            is God all in all.

In apocalyptic language Peter speaks of the world ending –

            The day of the Lord will come like a thief.

            the heavens will disappear with a roar;

            the elements will be destroyed by fire;

            and the earth and everything done in it

            will be laid bare (2 Peter 3.10)

This does not the mean the world will be annihilated or obliterated.

            It does the world will be judged,

            and the elements will be destroyed,

            but the earth will remain.

What seems to be the meaning here, and its not entirely clear,[iii]

is that judgement will bring about the destruction of all that is evil.

The evil of the world that has acted like a parasite,

will be melted away by fire,

so that the world might be renewed;

            a new heavens and earth might emerge like a phoenix from the ashes.

The end of the world is not ultimately annihilation,

            but redemption.        

The end of the world is a new beginning.               

            It is purification, it is transformation,

                        a transformation in which Peter says ‘where righteousness dwells.’

            This righteousness is Jesus.

            In other words, to borrow words from the Book of Revelation,

                        the new heavens and new earth

                        will be where God dwells his people for ever (Rev. 21.4)

For Peter the end of the world is always almost here.

Time is always pregnant with Jesus.

We are not in some kind of dead time, waiting for everything to happen,

we are in God’s time, in which he is patient.

We are in God’s time in which a day is like a thousand years,

and thousand years is like a day.

We are in the time of God’s patience.

While we pray, ‘how long, o Lord, how long?’

God is slow, not because he won’t keep his promises

to right every wrong,

to heal every wound,

to free every captive.

He is slow, because he is patient,

He is slow in order that the world and the church might wake up:

            He is patient with you,

            not wanting anyone to perish,

            but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3.9).

God’s patience is for the sake of God’s mission.

            ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ as the hymn goes.

A slow and patient God means a slow and patient church.[iv]

A slow church is not the same as a fast-asleep church.

            It’s easy to fall asleep – remember the disciples in Gethsemane.

            It’s easy to fall asleep when we out of touch or not in tune to the time we are in.

            The end of world is near, this is no time to curl up on the sofa.

            Advent is a reminder to wake-up to God and God’s end.

            You can’t pray ‘come Lord Jesus come’ if you’re asleep

            and you can’t pray ‘how long, o Lord, how long?’ if you’re asleep.

The church is called to be slow, but not dead.

            Are we asleep as a church?

            What’s waking us up?

            What’s causing us to long for the coming of Jesus?

            What’s urging in us to long for God to make things right?

            Where is God calling us to rise from our beds to do his bidding?

A slow church is also not the same as a frenetic church.

            It’s easy to full our lives with activity,

            it’s easy to exhaust ourselves with doing,

            it’s easy to get obsessed with success.

The end of the world is near

            and we turn to thinking that we need to be Jesus,

                        that salvation is something we do.

            We never slow down, we never allow ourselves the patience

                        to see that God is patient.

Advent is a reminder that God gives his people all the time they need.

            Therefore if patience marks the character of God,

                        it should mark the character of our lives:

                        a godly life is a patient life.

Advent is a reminder that God slows us down.

The church is called to be slow, not frantic.

            Are we rushing around too much?

            What’s slowing us down?

            What’s causing us to see that Jesus is already near us,

                        that the end of the world in kingdom terms is already among us?

            What’s urging us to pay attention to the mercy of God?

            Where is God calling us from doing to praying?

It’s the end of the world as we know it,

            and we feel fine,

because Jesus is here and on his way.

We can be patient for our God is patient.

We can be confident for God’s promises are sure.

We can be joyful for a new heaven and earth is already and not yet.



[i] The song can be found on the album Document.

[ii] This journey through history owes much to Sam Wells’ sermon entitled ‘The End of the World’ preached on the 30 Nov 2014, http://www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/wp-content/uploads/30-Nov-2014.pdf.

[iii] I’ve been helped by J. Richard Middleton’s discussion of these verses in A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker, 2014), pp.189-200.

[iv] This section I owe to Stephen Picard, Seeking the Church (SCM, 2012), pp.216-217.

Walking Backwards to Christmas

Nativity-with-Burning-Bush-1991-Albert-Herbert-1925-2008Stephen Cottrell has written some fantastic books in recent years - 

The Things He Carried: A Journey to the Cross

The Nail: Being Part of the Passion

Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting on the Paintings of Stanley Spencer

The Things He Said: The Story of the First Easter

 All written for Lent and Easter.

Walking Backwards to Christmas is his first book for Advent and Christmas. 

It's brilliant. In resembles The Nail as it offers a series of monologues from different characters in the story. However rather than telling the story from beginning to end, he tells it from the end to the beginning, beginning with Anna in the temple (Luke 2), and the journeying backwards through Rachel  (a mother who has lost a child to Herod's massacre), Herod, Casper, David (a shepherd), Martha (innkeeper), Joseph, Elizabeth, Mary and back further to Isaiah and finally Moses. Cottrell's inspiration comes from a painting by Albert Herbert, pictured on the front cover called Nativity With the Burning Bush.

Cottrell's imaginative imagining of each character's feelings and choices pushes the traditional story in new directions. Particularly powerful are the chapters on Anna, Rachel, Martha, Elizabeth and Mary - the grief and pain, the conviction and faith.

I used edited selections for our Carols by Candlelight service. It's probably too late to read this book now in Advent, but would make a great read for the 12 days of Christmas, or to wait until next year. 

Let the things that make for ... (A prayer for advent)*

May the things that make for hate decrease
and the things that make for love increase

May the things that make for war decrease
and the things that make for peace increase

May the things that make for greed decrease
and the things that make for generosity increase

May the things that make for speed decrease
and the things that make for patience increase

May the things that make for fear decrease
and the things that make for welcome increase

May the things that make for poverty decrease
and the things that make for equality increase

May the things that make for loneliness decrease
and the things that make for community increase

May the things that make for slavery decrease
and the things that make for freedom increase

May the things that make for the damage of creation decrease
and things that make for the care of the world increase

May the things that make for indifference and apathy decrease
and the things that make for concern and compassion increase

May the things that make for lies and pretence decrease
and the things that make for truth-telling increase

May the things that make for enmity decrease
and the things that make for friendship and forgiveness increase

May the things that make for death decrease
and the things that make for life increase

May the things that make for sin and evil decrease
and the things that make for the kingdom of God increase

May the things that make for idolatry decrease
and things that make for worship of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ increase

*inspired by a Walter Brueggemann sermon, 'Outrageous God, Season of Decrease' 

Living in Advent with John

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference in Amsterdam,

where a Baptist theologian named Curtis Freeman

offered some lectures titled ‘Undomesticated Dissent’

which were reflections on what it means for a people whose

story is Baptist, who were birthed in dissent from the status quo,

who refused to conform to the imposition of religion from the state.

Freeman said that Baptists understood dissent to mean

-       a deep suspicion of the powers

-       a fierce conviction of the lordship of Christ

-       a hopeful imagination of God’s coming kingdom


I share this because perhaps John the Baptist was the first Baptist.

He was certainly one, like Elijah before him,

who dissented from the accepted order of the world.

When Luke introduces us to the adult John,

he lists the powers of the day –

Casaer, the governor of Judaea Pontius Pilate, the local kings Herod and Philip,

the high priests Annas and Caiaphas

and then he names John son of Zechariah, who was living in the desert (Luke 3.1-2)

Luke’s point is to identify John as God’s alternative ‘power’ in the world,

John is the one to whom the word of God comes.

John is one who expresses deep suspicion of the powers

to the Pharisees and Sadducees he warns them

‘the axe is already at the root of the tree’

and that claiming Abraham as their father will not be enough to save

them, unless they repent (Matt 3.9-10)


John is one who expresses a fierce conviction in the kingdom of God

and in the coming one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

John is one who recognizes the Lordship of Jesus –

‘after me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose

sandals I am not fir to carry’ (Matt 3.11)


John is one who expresses a hopeful imagination in the kingdom of God.

            His message is get ready for the kingdom of God is coming:

                        a kingdom that will turn the world upside down,

                        a kingdom that will reverse the current course of the world

                        a kingdom with good fruit as its sign.


This Advent as we live with John,

allowing him into homes,

as he intrudes into our daily life,

hear his voice of hope, of demand, and of summons,

allow him to make you suspicious of the powers            ,

            whether they be the multiple sentimental Christmas adverts,

            whether they be a politics that wants to lay blame and spread fear;

follow him in sharing and living with the conviction –

                        the certainty and passion – in the power of the coming Christ;

and imagine with hope the coming kingdom

pray for it, long for it, see it, live for it, and even, perhaps like John, be

ready to die for it.

25thingsforadvent and more ...

The last few years it appears we've started taking advent a little more seriously. 

This year sees a number of different online advent resources - e.g. see children society 

In the past, I've organised an advent blog here (lots of good reflections), but this year I'm curating a new mutli-voice advent blog called 25thingsforadvent, starting tomorrow.

There's great stuff at the proost website, especially Si Smith's advent calendar (which we're making use of at church).