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Readings: 7 December 2012 - 2nd Sunday of Advent

30 November 2012

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Baruch 5.1-9 or Malachi 3.1-4; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6

O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

"In the 18th year of the reign of Elizabeth II, during the premiership of Harold Wilson, when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary and Michael Ramsey was Archbishop of Canterbury, the word of God came to Billy Graham at Wembley Stadium."

That is roughly today's equivalent of how Luke began his Gospel. It gives those of us who remember that time an idea of the time lapse between John's preaching and when Luke wrote. The point is not so much the detailed date but: "Pay attention! I am telling you about something that happened in living memory. A herald came with an urgent message from God."

Advent is a season of challenging prayers and vivid visual imagery that startles us with God's answers. Luke quotes Isaiah's vision of the earthworks needed to build a road across a wilderness, reconfiguring the landscape shovelful by shovelful.

Malachi has equally dramatic ideas of what God's coming means: God is in the precious-metals business, refining and purifying gold and silver by putting it through the fire to reveal its pure state; God is a consuming fire. In another stunning image, God is a washerwoman armed with fuller's soap - not soft, perfumed soap, but abrasive laundry soap that scrubs and scours. When Jesus was transfigured, Mark borrowed Malachi's image to describe Jesus's clothes becoming dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth, no washerwoman, could bleach them.

The disciples had a glimpse, in Jesus, of the sheer purity that is the benchmark for all humans created in God's image. That holiness is what God made us to share. God challenges us to be what we were created to be, and, in Advent, these flamboyant images of fire, scrubbing, and highway-engineering describe what it is like to prepare to experience the salvation of God.

Advent tells us we can expect God to probe all aspects of our lives and to clean us up; that the way we live now, individually and as Church and nation, will come under God's righteous judgement, when he answers our prayer for succour and deliverance.

God's purpose is always to restore the original beauty that has been lost by sin; so there is no contradiction with Baruch's more tender description of the battered city of Jerusalem taking off her garment of sorrow and putting on the beauty of the glory of God. All this and more is the saving work of God.

Malachi, whose name means "my messenger", condemned the laxity and corruption of the leaders of his day, and, in the continuation of the Luke reading, John calls the people who heard him a "brood of vipers". If they were around today, they would have much to choose from when speaking uncompromising judgement. To take but one topical example, that of financial institutions, they would ask not just about bankers, but about how you and I use our money.

Do we spend more on Christmas cards and gifts for our friends than on the poor and needy? If so, perhaps we need to ask how that relates to bankers' bonuses. Are we just giving bonuses to people who already have so much? It is good to give gifts to our family and friends, because friendship is a wonderful gift to celebrate and strengthen. But we can give to others at the same time through fairly traded, environmentally friendly, or hand-made presents.

We might add up what we spend on Christmas, and make an appropriate donation to charities on top, so that the people who have no one to give them a gift can receive a gift from us. That is a tiny part of what it means to prepare for God's coming among us.

Advent is a call to wake up and respond to God's initiative. "In the 61st year of the reign of Elizabeth the Second, when David Cameron is Prime Minister and Theresa May is Home Secretary and during the last days of archiepiscopate of Rowan Williams, the word of God comes to us:

Hark! a herald voice is calling:

Christ is nigh, it seems to say;

Cast away the dreams of darkness,

O ye children of the day!"

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