‘You are the potter’…being shaped by Advent.

potter-clay

‘You are the potter’…being shaped by Advent.

Sermon for Adel Parish Church – Advent 1

Isaiah 64: 1 – 9; Mark 13: 24 – end

How are your plans for Christmas coming along?

I imagine – could I see you – there will be wry smiles, or people throwing things at the screen. Planning anything at the moment feels like aiming at a moving target.

We find that hard don’t we? We like certainty, we like to know where we’re going. Uncertainty makes us anxious…it’s hard to look to the future when we have no idea what it will be like.

Today we bring that uncertainty to the first Sunday of Advent, with its theme of hope. Perhaps we’re left wondering what it is we’re hoping for.

Of course, we know Advent is about preparing for the coming of God, the birth of the Christ child. We know it’s not about shopping, presents, stuff. But without the music which helps us enter the mystery, or the special people in whom we encounter Christ our hope to meet Christ this Christmas might feel dimmed.

Those words we heard from Isaiah, spoken for a people in exile, seem especially relevant today when we feel exiled from normal life, from a normal Advent and Christmas. Isaiah struggles to reconcile the ancient stories of God’s powerful presence, with the people’s experience of God’s absence.

‘Come down, like you used to do’, he implores God. ‘Come and sort out our problems and rescue us.’ Our prayers might well be similar…’send a vaccine…make this go away’. I’m sure these are good things to pray for…but there’s a verse at the end of the reading that I think tells us more about Advent hope.

After his demands for God to act, Isaiah says: ‘Yet Lord, we are the clay, and you are our potter.’

‘We are the clay and you are the potter’, a beautiful image that alters my picture of how we might live in hope this Advent.

The focus is moved from passive waiting for God to come and sort things out, to creative waiting, a time of being changed by God.

From what I know of Adel, there’s probably at least one expert potter listening to this, and most of us will have seen a film of a potter at their wheel…the miraculous turning of a lump of clay into a beautiful, useful pot.

It’s quite a slow process, the potter has to be patient and work with the clay, slowly shaping it into the pot they’ve planned. Sometimes it goes wrong, the pot collapses, or the wheel becomes unbalanced. But all is not lost – the potter picks up the clay and starts again.

Those are two images of hope I’ve found useful at the beginning of this strange Advent.

Firstly, we might hope and pray for a sudden drop in cases, the quick roll out of a vaccine before Christmas. But whether or not that happens, God can be at work in our lives, moulding them gently and patiently into lives where there is room for Jesus.

We’re not just waiting, passively for Christmas to arrive or not. If we submit ourselves to God the potter, he can begin to change us into people ready to accept Christ, people who might begin to turn our bit of the world into a place fit for Christ.

Secondly, like the potter with the clay, if things go wrong, if our lives go astray from God, he will always start again with us. Advent is not just a new church year; it’s a reminder that God waits for us to make a new start with him. Whether this Advent is the first time you’ve really thought about welcoming Jesus into your life…or you feel you come with the same old faults you’ve asked God to help with time and again…God the potter is ready to work with whatever clay we offer him.

That’s a real story of hope.

If, like me, you’re of a certain age, the words ‘potter’ and ‘clay’ may have brought to mind the famous ‘potter’s wheel interlude’ from the early days of BBC television. Back then, breakdowns were frequent. The BBC needed to reassure the audience their TV was still working, and hang on to them until the programme could restart.

They needed to fill the gap – with something people wouldn’t switch off – but that they wouldn’t mind leaving once the fault was fixed. They chose a potter at a wheel, making a pot.

There was something almost Advent like about that waiting. To paraphrase Mark’s gospel…we didn’t know the moment when the programme would restart. But in the meantime – we were drawn into something creative.

In these uncertain times, it’s perhaps good to be reminded in Advent that we aren’t waiting passively for a God who comes down in power and might. We’re hoping for a baby in a cradle, who comes to invite, to teach, to persuade, to love us into new people.

Advent hope is about letting God the potter gently mould our lives so we’re ready to hear the message Jesus brings.

And that means making ourselves available.

We have some offerings that might help…

…our ‘Advent windows’ on the side of church – a different personal reflection each week on our Advent themes, put together by some of our artistic members.

…our Advent course – a chance to reflect with others – please get in touch if you’d like to be involved.

Or you may prefer to find your own resources – bible readings, poems, paintings –  find a quiet space to sit and let God in.

Whatever you do – I hope Advent will be a time of creative waiting.

A final word about that BBC potter’s wheel: apparently ‘Viewers who stayed alert noticed that the potter never finished the pot, but just kept remodelling it.’

Perhaps a good picture of Advent hope as the beginning of a lifetime journey. A journey of letting God gently make us more Christlike.

Sheep or goats – a matter of power? Sermon for Adel Parish Church ‘Christ the King’ 2020

what-flock-sheep-disguise-wolves-surround-alone-conceptual-illustration-152623979

Sheep and goats – a matter of power?

Sermon for Adel Parish Church – Christ the King 2020

Matthew 25: 31 – end

This week we come the end of the church’s year, and the Sunday called ‘Christ the King’. The year that started with us anticipating the birth of the Christ-child in a humble stable, ends with us proclaiming him King – with power over heaven and earth.

Royalty is a bit out of fashion these days. We have great respect and affection for our Queen – but the notion that some should have power because of an accident of birth has largely been abandoned. However, democratic elections still result in some people having great power over the lives of others.

I want to start today with two pictures of power, both in the news in recently.

The first came in the reaction to the death of Peter Sutcliffe; and the apology issued by the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, on behalf of the force, for language used at the time of the killings.

The second has been the spectacle of the President of the United States attempting to cling on to power after the people failed to re-elect him.

Both the US President, and our police forces are given power on our behalf. The mission of the Police is to… ‘make communities safer by upholding the law fairly and firmly’. The US President swears to ‘preserve, protect and defend the constitution’. Both suggest an obligation to all people – especially those who most need protection – something apparently ignored in these two cases.

In 1970s Yorkshire, high ranking police officers talked of ‘innocent’ and ‘respectable’ victims of Peter Sutcliffe, implying that others were neither of those things. Implying perhaps that these deaths were less tragic, less worthy of police time.

In what he’s said since the election, I’m afraid the US president appears to want power mainly for its own sake, not to help the powerless. Over the last four years those in power seem to me to have used it to protect and support people like them, whilst dismissing others as unworthy.

In both these cases power has been used to judge, rather than serve.

Today’s gospel reading also begins with a striking picture of power and judgement…Christ in glory, attended by angels, seated on a throne. There’s no mistaking who the king is. And the judgement seems fairly straightforward too – there are sheep and goats – surely it’s pretty obvious which are which.

I imagine those listening to Jesus thought this too. Probably they were fairly confident about who the sheep were… …religious people…followers of Jesus…people like them. Because it’s not just US presidents and police chiefs who use their power to support their own.

But of course, it turns out not to be that simple.

This king, it seems, doesn’t use his power to benefit those like him, whilst ignoring the others. And he doesn’t want his followers to do that either. For me the interesting thing about this picture, is that the difference between sheep and goats is not at all obvious. Even individuals themselves seem surprised at which group they belong to.

This is a picture of Kingship using power for the good of all – especially those who need it most. Followers of this King are called especially to the poor, the needy, the prisoner, the stranger…those on the outside.

We might wonder what is specifically Christian about this…good people of all faiths and none spend their time and money helping of others.

Well for me this goes beyond an instruction to charity. In this passage, Christ says to the people, “I was hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, a prisoner, a stranger…the way you dealt with such people is the way you dealt with me.”

This is a completely different exercising of power. Christ comes not just to help the weak and powerless – he identifies totally with them. As Christians we are asked not just to help the weak and vulnerable we come across – but to meet our king and saviour in those people.

Christ says – when your life is disrupted by the powerless – when you have those uncomfortable encounters with the homeless, with refugees – that’s the place you can be sure to find me. It gives those people at the bottom of our society new dignity – and in a way, power, because it should change the way we look on them.

“Whatever you did to one of the least of these,” says Christ, “you did to me.”

There’s a sobering thought. When we come across someone in need and powerless, whatever we do – we’re doing to Christ…whatever we do, the positive and the negative. It’s not about our stated beliefs, or mission statements, but how we react when caught off guard. How we use our power over others.

After reading this I’ve been haunted a little by a plea for help to which I did not respond. I may have been right, that it wasn’t really something within my capacity…but I can’t help wondering…would I have responded differently had I thought it was Christ on the other end of the phone…

Of course, we cannot help everyone we come across in the way we might want, but we can control the way we look, smile, speak or ignore. We can try to look for Christ in those, the least of his children.

As Christians, though, we have not only this enormous challenge, we also have a promise. We may be lucky enough never to be cold, hungry or in prison…but at times we all feel helpless and overwhelmed. At times we are those ‘little ones’. And it is in these moments above all others that our King is with us. If we are in despair, Christ not only loves us, he dwells in us.

And when we are weak, vulnerable and powerless, we are the place where others can meet with Christ. There’s a thought for the turning of the church’s year!