Advent thoughts

advent-1Our minister, Ken Howcroft, preached at the anniversary service of his previous church in Rome on Advent Sunday. As he is not leading a service at Solihull during Advent, he wanted to share his thoughts with us.

The other theme in Rome, as you will see, was about migrants. In the congregation was someone from Holland, who had been working in the camps at Calais, and had come to Rome as they were closed. Methodism has an ability to transcend boundaries and link the world together. In relation to this, Ken also points us in the direction of the advent material of the Joint Public Issues Team, and their video, A Very British Nativity. Click the link to see this material.

ADVENT SUNDAY 

60th ANNIVERSARY OF THE CURRENT FORM OF PONTE SANT’ ANGELO METHODIST CHURCH, ROME

27 November 2016

Readings:            Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 122; Matthew 24:36-44

It is good to be back here. It is good to see old friends and new ones. I am grateful to your minister, Tim, for the invitation to preach; and Marion and I are grateful to Tim and Angela for their hospitality. Sharing in this service with Tim is a delight. You could say that it shows that churches are learning from the techniques of the supermarkets: you buy one minister and you find that you get another one free!

It is also good to see all the work and life of the church flourishing here. As many of you will know, we left in 2014 because the Methodist Church in Great Britain called me back to be its President. At the Conference where I was inducted into that role, and then on my presidential visits to the various part of the Methodist Church in Great Britain in the following year, I often spoke of how much this place meant to me; and of how the people here in particular, and in the Italian Methodist Church and its Waldensian partners in general, are examples to others in their faithful commitment to being God’s people in a particular place. Ordinary people in ordinary situations achieving extraordinary things by the power of the Spirit – often, it has to be said, without realising it.

So I want to begin by saying “thank you”, from me personally but also, I dare to say, on behalf of the whole body of Christ. It is really good to be celebrating this church anniversary with you today. Of course, the history of this Protestant Church here at Ponte Sant’Angelo takes us back towards the years following the risorgimento and unification of Italy in the middle of the 19th century. It takes us back to links with Gavazzi, the Italian Free Church and the early Methodist missions to Italy. But what we are celebrating today is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the congregation here as an English-language church related to the wider, autonomous Italian Methodist Church. That wider church was “Italian” because it was both in Italy and also mainly Italian-speaking.  I have described it as “autonomous” because within a few years of the establishment of the English-language congregation here, the wider Italian church had become independent of the Methodist Church in Great Britain.

That took place at its first Conference in 1962. A specially painted medallion was given to a representative of each of the participating local churches. I have one here. This was the one given to the minister of this church at that time, the Revd Reg Kissack (you can see his picture in the rogues’ gallery upstairs of former ministers which probably by now includes me). During my presidential year, I visited the Methodist Church in the Isle of Man where I was taken to a residential care home to meet his widow, now well into her 90’s. She gave me the medallion provided that I promised to pass it on to your current minister, Tim. That I did soon afterwards. I did, I promise! The fact that I am showing it to you now is because I have just borrowed it back from Tim in order to refer to it here. If nothing else, its story shows that we live in an interconnected Methodist world!

So we meet today in worship to give thanks to God and to celebrate this church, the body of Christ in this place, both past and present. But on this day we are also celebrating Advent Sunday, when we begin to prepare for the coming into our world of God’s love embodied in the form of Jesus Christ. And at the moment that world seems to be as disastrous, and dangerous and divided as ever. Earlier in this service we heard about the work of the churches and others dealing with the migrant crisis in Lampedusa and elsewhere. We heard from the President of the Methodist Church in Italy about the Mediterranean Hope project through which the united Methodist and Waldensian Churches in Italy and other church partners are trying to respond to the crisis. I was deeply moved by the citation from the International Anglican Centre in Rome read by Archbishop David Moxon which commended the work and witness of this church in these matters. I was nearly turned to tears when he presented you with a Lampedusa Cross made out of the wood from the smashed and broken boats of people rescued from the sea: a cross of splintered wood with flakes of paint.

What is the world coming to? The migrant crisis seems to be becoming worse than ever. In Syria, cities are being destroyed and hospitals bombed. Terrorism in the name of some interpretations of Islam is growing, and the fear of such terrorism increasing out of bounds. In the United States, an angry election seems to have left people bitterly divided without any signs of healing. In Britain, following the referendum over Europe, the situation is the same. Who knows what is going to happen in France with the National Front in the Presidential elections next year? Or in Italy with the referendum in a week’s time? Wherever you look people have become cynical. They feel that politicians are serving their own interests, not those of the people. So, if they vote at all, they vote to serve their own interests against the politicians, not realising that in doing so they are acting according to the same values as those whom they criticise.

It is in this context and against this tide that churches like this one try to witness to a way in which individuals and institutions, and governments and nations are prepared to give their lives for others and the common good! A way that is the way of Jesus.

Living in that way of Jesus seems harder than ever. The current messes, wars and disasters could be enough to make you think that the world as we know it is coming to an end. But the first thing that the passage from Matthew’s gospel tells us this morning is that not only is it the case that we do not at the moment know when the world is going to come to an end, it is also the case that we cannot ever know if or when it is going to happen. So thinking about it and worrying about it is a waste of time, because it is the wrong question.

The real question is, where is the love of God, constantly creating, recreating and bringing all things to perfection? Where is that love appearing and working in our world? We need to be constantly on the lookout for it. Because it will happen in the ordinariness of our everyday lives. As Jesus says in that gospel passage, it will happen in the midst of people eating, drinking, getting married and having relationships, working, preparing food etc etc. One danger is that we become so caught up with the idea of the end of the world that we forget about those things. We cease to get on with life. We cease to engage with the world around us. The other danger is the one that Jesus is pointing to here in this passage from Matthew’s gospel: we become so caught up in ourselves and the everyday things of life that we forget to look out for God.

Looking out for the coming of God is what the lookouts, watchmen or sentries are doing in the passage from Isaiah that we heard.  That passage comes at a time when things looked, to put it mildly, very bleak. Israel was in ruins. The land had been overrun by foreign powers. All the best people had been shipped off into exile. The land and the city – Jerusalem – were in ruins. The irony is that there were probably not any walls or observation towers that the sentries could defend. All they can do is keep a lookout on behalf of the people.

And what they will start to see, says Isaiah, is God’s love starting to come towards them, bringing the exiles home, starting to rebuild them as a people, making a difference in their lives. That is what the church, this church and every church, is meant to be doing. Getting on with everyday life but keeping a lookout for the coming of the love of God. Not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the whole people.

How will we recognise God’s love when it comes? How will we discern it in the midst of our lives, in the mess of human affairs? One thing that we need to recognise and hold on to is that the love of God that comes to us in the form of Jesus in the future will not be different to the coming of God’s love in the form of Jesus in the past. Some 2000 years ago God was incarnated and dwelt amongst us; in other words, God’s love was embodied in the form of Jesus. Jesus was born as a tiny baby, vulnerable, and apparently defenceless. He was placed into the hands of others. He grew up to live in the same way, allowing himself to be handed over into the power of others, even to the point of death on a cross (see Philippians 2:5-11). In other words, his only power was that of self-giving love. The resurrection does not change that. Rather it affirms that this is the way of God’s love. It is not the case that Christ came to us in the past in defenceless humility, but that in compensation for that, as and when he comes to us in the future, he will come in vindictive and destructive power. Rather, he will come in the same self-giving, suffering love.

Those are the signs for which we must look. Those are the ways that we must try to embody in our own lives, as individuals and as groups – and not least as churches like this one. They are the ways of God’s self-giving, suffering love.

In Advent we prepare ourselves to celebrate and receive the various comings of God’s love in Christ. We prepare for Christ coming to us and the world in the future in the same way that he came to us in the past. But we also prepare for a third coming of Christ to us and to the world. That is his coming to all of us now, so that we might become like him, and become a new expression of his body expressing God’s love in the world. As we do that, he will find us ready when he comes again.

So we need to prepare. We need to be looking out for signs of the coming of God’s love in Christ: coming in the past; coming in the future; and coming to all of us now. Remember that when watchmen or lookouts see something coming they have to decide whether to respond to it as friend or foe, to accept it or reject it. We have that choice, here today, about God’s love coming to us in Jesus. Pray God that we can open our hearts, our minds, our souls and our lives and receive him. May God bless you all.

Come Lord Jesus come.

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