Monday, 26 November 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 2 December 2018,
the First Sunday of Advent

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves’ (Luke 21: 25) … the setting sun and the waves on the beach in Ballybunion, Co Kerry, last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday (2 December 2018), is the First Sunday of Advent.

This is the beginning of a new Church Year, and the beginning of a new cycle of lectionary readings this year, Year C, drawing mainly on Saint Luke’s Gospel.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary as adapted for use in the Church of Ireland for next Sunday are:

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; Psalm 25: 1-10; I Thessalonians 3: 9-13; Luke 21: 25-36.

These readings can be found HERE

‘This most tremendous tale of all, / Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Introducing the Readings:

The English Poet Laureate John Betjeman loved to tell the story of a Japanese prince who arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford, as an undergraduate in 1925, the same year as Betjeman came up.

The President of Magdalen, Sir Thomas Herbert Warren (1853–1930), was known as a poet too, albeit a bad poet although he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He was also an insufferable snob, and Jeremy Paxman says he ‘was perhaps the greatest snob in England.’

When Prince Chichibu arrived at Magdalen in 1925, Herbert Warren hoped he would soon be followed by his elder brother, the future Emperor Hirohito. The prince told Warren he was a direct descendant of the sun goddess Ametarasu, and let him know: ‘At home I am called the son of God.’

Warren took a deep breath, coughed and put the prince in his place: ‘You will find, your highness, that we have the sons of many famous fathers here.’

The Gospel reading next Sunday (Luke 21: 25-36) tells the story of the arrival of the Son of God on earth, not as a child in a Christmas nativity story or in a decorative crib, but ‘with power and great glory.’

We are warned to be on guard for that coming of Christ and his Kingdom so that our hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch us unexpectedly, like a trap.

But, as we prepare for the coming of Christ, are we trapped?

Are we trapped in the commercialism of Christmas?

There are 12 days of Christmas. But not one of them is in November. Yet for many weeks now, we have been inundated with Christmas catalogues and advertising.

I hope I am not like the Grinch or an insufferable snob. But I cannot go into a shop anywhere in this city for some weeks now without being polluted with cheap Christmas jingles that are a travesty of the original Christmas carols they represent.

Does the decoration of our shops, even of our churches, lead our eyes to the coming Christ or away from him?

To return to John Betjeman: he spent time in Dublin during World War II as the British press attaché, and was an active parishioner in Saint John’s, Clondalkin. In a lecture to the clergy of the Church of Ireland in 1943, he said the ‘fabric of the church is very much concerned with worship. The decoration of a church can lead the eye to God or away from him.’

Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, with a wry, comic verse often marked by satire. He is one of the most significant literary figures of our time and was a practising Anglican, and his beliefs and piety inform many of his poems.

It is appropriate then to invite us to consider Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas.’ In the first few verses, he describes the frivolous ways we prepare for Christmas:

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

Magdalen College, Oxford ... waiting for the son of God? John Betjeman was an undergraduate, and CS Lewis was his tutor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Jeremiah 33: 14-16:

The Prophet Jeremiah preached around the time that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC. In bad times, he told of God’s love for his people. The restoration of the city is mentioned earlier in the chapter (verses 6-9): ‘... this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory ...’

This Sunday’s reading is a passage that was edited or written centuries later.

Here we hear that it is a certainty that a time will come when God will complete his obligations and fulfil the promise he has made through his covenant with his people (verse 14).

Here, in verses 15-16, we hear an earlier prophecy (see Jeremiah 23: 5-6), but this time with a difference. In the earlier version, we heard of Judah and Israel, but now we hear of here it is Judah and Jerusalem. The ‘righteous branch’ (verse 15) is a king or messiah of David’s line; both kings and the messiah were expected to be just and righteous. Judah will be restored to prosperity, and Jerusalem will be protected.

In the verses immediately after this reading (verse 17-18), we hear the promise of the permanence of the Davidic monarchy, and of priests offering sacrifice. God’s covenant with his people is forever, or at least until the end of the age, until the start of the messianic era. God will never break this promise and covenant, even when the people stray from it.

‘Make me to know your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths’ (Psalm 25: 3) … a pathway through the woods in the Devon estate in Newcastle West, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Psalm 25: 1-9:

In Psalm 25, the psalmist seeks deliverance from personal enemies. He trusts in God, and he asks that God may never allow the ungodly or the treacherous to claim victory over him.

He wants to be taught to follow God’s ways, and to find God’s everlasting compassion and love, despite his sinful ways in the past.

Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki, a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I Thessalonians 3: 9-13:

Saint Paul’s first letter to the Church in Thessaloniki may be the oldest book in the New Testament. Saint Paul, along with Silvanus and Timothy, founded the church there during his second missionary journey, and Acts 17 recalls how he was forced to leave the city because of persecution. He wrote this letter from Athens to the Church in Thessaloniki to strengthen the new Christians in their faith.

While he was in Thessaloniki, Saint Paul predicted that some Christians there would be persecuted. This has now happened. He has sent Timothy to ‘strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so no one would be shaken by these persecutions’ (verses 2-3).

Timothy has now returned to Saint Paul in Athens, and has brought with him ‘the good news of your faith and love’ (verse 6). Indeed, their faith has encouraged Saint Paul who is now facing persecution himself.

‘Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith’ (I Thessalonians 3: 10) … candles in a church in Thessaloniki at night-time (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Now, in this Sunday’s reading, Saint Paul considers the prayer for him by the people in Thessaloniki to be a debt to be repaid (verse 9). Even though he lives night and day in gratitude to God and in dependence on God, all the joy their faith brings to him is hard to repay, yet he still gives thanks. He prays that he may visit them soon them face to face, and to deepen their knowledge of the faith and to teach them further.

Then, in verses 11-13, Saint Paul prays to God on behalf of the Christians in Thessaloniki:

● that he may visit them again;
● that they may have an abundance of love for other Christians and for all, as Paul, Timothy and Silvanus have for them;
● that their hearts may be so filled with holiness that they may be ‘blameless’ or free from sin before God when Christ comes again with all the saints.

‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near’ (Luke 21: 29-30) … fresh summer figs in a supermarket in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 21: 25-36:

Earlier in this chapter, Christ has spoken about the destruction of the Temple, and of events expected at the end of the era. Christians will be persecuted by religious and civil authorities, there will be ‘wars and insurrections,’ natural disasters, and Jerusalem will fall.

Now he foretells unnatural events in the skies and in the seas, with fear and foreboding across the world. People will fear what will happen next, but the Son of Man, Christ himself, will come from heaven, with power over all events and happenings. Just as the fig tree comes to fruit and is a sign that summer is coming, all these events will be signs that the kingdom of God is near. In winter, the fig trees look dead, but in spring they sprout.

Christ advises us to be vigilant and to be prepared for that day, so that we may stand before the Son of Man on the day when Christ comes again.

‘Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory’ (Luke 21: 27) … an image of Christ the King in a stained-glass window in the Cathedral in Seville (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Looking at the Advent Gospel:

The uncertainty of ‘Brexit’ and the uncertainty created by the Trump presidency means many people, not just in the UK and the US, but throughout the world feel insecure and threatened and are looking for hope. But it is hope that cannot be found in the shops and the magazines, in the jingles and the baubles. Those things have little to do with the coming of Christ and his kingdom, or how we can show that we believe in his coming and show in our actions what we think are the priorities of the Kingdom of God, how they challenge the present state of the world.

The Gospel reading on the First Sunday of Advent (Luke 21: 25-36) speaks not of baubles and fripperies but speaks frighteningly about the state of the world today, telling us how ‘on the earth [there is going to be] distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.’

It might be more accurate, and true to the original Greek to translate this verse so that it speaks about the people on the earth being perplexed by the sound and the echoes of the sea and the surf.

It is not difficult to think of the people from many nations who are confused and endangered by the sea and the surf and the waves: the people fleeing war and violence and mass murder in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, or who are being washed up against the European shores of the Mediterranean.

David Hamid, an Anglican suffragan bishop in the Diocese in Europe, recently warned that this is the ‘largest crisis that Europe has had to face since World War II.’

Last week, I was in London at a meeting of the Trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). It was a residential meeting at the Kairos Spirituality and Conference Centre in Roehampton, and was followed by a one-day meeting with USPG volunteers in Birmingham Cathedral. During those three days, I heard again and again of the work USPG is doing with refugees throughout the Diocese in Europe, from Morocco in North Africa, through Europe and the Mediterranean into Turkey and Asia.

Rebecca Boardman of USPG’s Global Relations spoke in Birmingham Cathedral of USPG’s work with the Diocese in Europe as it works with migrants and responds to changes in migration, focussing on this work in Greece, France and Morocco.

As she pointed out, migration has always existed, and the Bible is a story of people on the move. It is not a new trend in Europe, but since 2015 received major attention in Britain and Europe.

Today, in 2018, an estimated 68.5 million are forcibly displaced worldwide, including migrants and refugees, and this figure may be underestimated. Often they are forcibly displaced because of climate change, crop failure and an increasingly hostile environment.

Nor are migrants always crossing national borders. Of the 68.5 million people, 40 million are internally displaced, meaning almost 60 per cent of migrants remain in their own country, and many unwilling to leave their own country.

Germany hosts about 1 million, but Turkey hosts 3.5 million refugees, while the UK has only 20,000 to 30,000 people – a hugely incomparable figure.

In 2015, the photograph of Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach woke Europe up to the plight of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean. That year [2015], about 1 million arrived in Greece, mainly on the Aegean islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios and Kos, from Turkey. By 2018, the number of people moving through Greece has fallen to 17,000, even though the same problems remain in Syria, Afghan, Iraq and other countries.

Many people are prevented from moving on from Turkey because of the impact of an agreement between the EU and Turkey. Borders across Europe have started to shut down, barbed wire fences have gone up, and there is a knock-on impact.

There are common European asylum agreements about redistributing people across Europe, but Britain has opted out of all these agreements, has its own legal framework.

The number of people crossing into Greece dropped significantly last year [2017], and more people are crossing into Italy, and now from Morocco into Spain. The route is moving from the East Mediterranean to the West Mediterranean, and the routes have become more dangerous, with people taking more risky and dangerous journeys, and reports of people trafficking, sex trade and slavery in Libya, Turkey and other countries where people are held back.

The Diocese in Europe works in 40 countries, from Morocco in north Africa through Europe and Turkey into the former Soviet Union. Many of the churches are small chaplaincies, with few people able to give substantially, and USPG is engaged with a number of critical locations in the diocese: Athens, Calais, and Tangier and Casablanca.

The numbers travelling through Europe rose rapidly in 2015, and Father Malcolm Bradshaw, then the Anglican chaplain in Athens, saw tents appearing in the main squares close to Saint Paul’s Church. The Diocese in Europe responded by calling on USPG to work with the Anglican presence in Greece.

The context in Greece changed substantially. Many people have been resettled or re-homed and have access to jobs and the opportunities to sustain themselves. The work in Greece has strengthened co-ordination between churches, with long-term key partnership with the Greek Orthodox Church. Working together for the past three years has gone beyond meeting humanitarian and has brought the Churches to work together.

In France, Canon Kirilie Reed has been appointed the chaplain and Refugee Project Officer in Pas-de-Calais, with the support of the Diocese in Europe, the Diocese of Canterbury and USPG.

In Morocco, USPG is supporting Saint Andrew’s Chaplaincy in Tangier, where Father Denis has been seconded from Nigeria to work with west Africans and provide pastoral support and care, as well as working with the Roman Catholic church in Tangier.

Other work supported by USPG includes supporting a church working with Sudanese refugees northern Finland, and a women’s hostel in Istanbul.

I listened throughout last week to these stories of how USPG and the Diocese in Europe are trying to be lights of hope in this dismal, dark winter.

The Advent candles on the Advent wreath represent the Patriarchs, the Prophets, Saint John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary, all pointing to Christ in the midst of darkness, despite the disasters of famines, earthquakes and wars.

We can be beacons of hope. We can show in how we live our lives this Advent that we believe, that we want, good to triumph over evil, and to show that the Light of Christ shines in our hearts.

In the last three stanzas of his poem ‘Christmas,’ John Betjeman proclaims the wonder of Christ’s birth in the form of a question: ‘And is it true...?’

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

‘God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 21: 25-36:

25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

‘The Son of Man coming in a cloud’ (Luke 21: 27) … the window in the Mortuary Chapel in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Athlone, depicting Christ in Judgment, by Earley of Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical Colour: Purple (Violet)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Note: This collect is said after the Collect of the day until Christmas Eve.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Liturgical resources:

The liturgical provisions suggest that the Gloria may be omitted during Advent, and it is traditional in Anglicanism to omit the Gloria at the end of canticles and psalms during Advent.

These additional liturgical resources are provided for Advent in the Book of Common Prayer (2004):

Penitential Kyries:

Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)


Salvation is your gift
through the coming of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and by him you will make all things new
when he returns in glory to judge the world:


Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:

‘God our deliverer, awaken our hearts to prepare the way for the advent of your Son’ (the Post-Communion Prayer) … Christ in Glory depicted in the mosaics in the apse of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for this Sunday in Sing to the Word (2000) edited by Bishop Edward Darling include:

Jeremiah 33: 14-16:

642, Amazing grace (how sweet the sound!)
323, The God of Abraham praise

Psalm 25: 1-9:

11, Can we by searching find out God
17, Lead me, Lord, lead me in thy righteousness (Treoraigh mé, treoraigh mé, a Thiarna)
652, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
712, Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord

I Thessalonians 3: 9-13:

675, Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?
343, We love the place, O God

Luke 21: 25-36:

567, Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go
668, God is our fortress and our rock
126, Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding
127, Hark what a sound and too divine for hearing
131, Lift up your heads, you mighty gates
132, Lo! he comes with clouds descending
369, Songs of praise the angels sang
488, Stand up, stand up for Jesus
73, The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended
140, The Lord will come and not be slow
509, Your kingdom come, O God

‘Lo! he comes with clouds descending’ (Hymn 132) … the East Window in the Round Church, Cambridge, depicts the Risen Christ in Majesty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Christ in Majesty at the Last Judgment … a fresco in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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