Sermon - Sunday, 3 December 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 3 December 2017.

Scripture: Isaiah 64: 1-9 / Mark 13: 24-37

Text: Jesus said, “What I say to you I say to everyone, watch!”                  (Mark 13: 37)


Since it began in 2001, the HIV programme has been one of the Church of Scotland’s most innovative and successful programmes.

Rooted in the conviction that the healing and compassionate love of God was given face and voice in the life and ministry of Jesus, the programme brings faith and action together.

With funds raised predominantly from local congregations – you will recall the several Souper Sunday events we have held – today the Church of Scotland supports 30 different HIV/AIDS projects, some in Scotland, others in partner churches around the world.

Earlier this year, during our official visit to Kenya as guests of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, a daughter church of the Church of Scotland, Margaret and I visited one such project.

Located in the slum area of Kibera on the edge of Nairobi, as well as a school the local PCEA congregation runs a health clinic.

Each day several dozen children attend the clinic to be given their medicine, something to eat and to enjoy a programme of activities.

Small, lethargic, their eyes and faces dull, the impact of their poverty and of the HIV virus all too obvious, these children are the poorest of the world’s poor, looked after typically by a grandmother or grand aunt, their parents already dead.

Yet because of the support being offered by the Church, these children were among Kibera’s lucky ones, lucky to have medication, food and people to love and care for them.

As you can imagine, as much as it was a privilege to visit Kibera and to see the work of the Church, and glad of the support coming from the Church of Scotland, it was also a challenge – and not just the goat stew lunch which I am afraid did for the pair of us for the next couple of weeks – but a challenge to be in a place of absolute poverty and to spend time with children and young people who experience absolute poverty.

As you can also imagine, our Church’s HIV programme has not been without its challenges because by its very nature it engages with people who are drug users or prostitutes, people in prison, and those whose life-style might well be considered the antithesis of the Christian norm.

And that includes people in Edinburgh, often professional people, who despite the outward appearance of success, are stressed, desperately lonely and who engage in casual sex or use drugs in a misguided attempt to find friendship and fulfillment.

Challenging, controversial; yet isn’t that where the church needs to be, isn’t that where the gospel calls us to be, among the people described as outcasts and sinners, the very people to whom Jesus gave so much if his time, energy and love.

Light and darkness, healing and sickness, hope and despair, life and death: today is the first Sunday of the season of Advent.

Today the church turns towards Bethlehem in anticipation of the birth of the Christ child, the one who comes as a light shining in the darkness.

O come all ye faithful, come let us adore him: soon that will be our song as with wondering eyes we join with angels, shepherds and magi in celebrating the birth of Mary’s child, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Advent is a season of waiting and watching and wondering as in the coming weeks we hear again of ancient prophecy being fulfilled in the lives of an older woman called Elizabeth and her young cousin Mary.

Advent is also the season where, in the words of another carol, the hopes and fears of all the years are met, met by the healing, transforming, life-giving care and compassion of God.

So is it not a little strange that instead of giving us something bright and cheerful about a child being born and a son being given, the Bible passages for the beginning of Advent are bleak, menacing and full of cosmic foreboding?

Isaiah describes the people of Israel returning from exile in Babylon to the city of Jerusalem – only to find the city in ruins, the holy place of their dreams, hopes and faith devastated.

The returnees also find themselves neighbours with those who had not been taken into exile, fellow Jews who were now as foreigners to them.

The imagery is intense – a people unclean, their righteousness like a filthy cloth, their iniquities like the wind threatening to blow them away.

Equally intense is the gospel’s imagery of the sun darkened, the moon not giving light, stars falling from the sky, heaven shaking as the Son of Man appears trailing clouds of power and glory, and angels sent to gather people together from the ends of the earth.

Advent is not for the faint hearted – and yet at its heart is a profound message of hope.

As they have studied this text, the Biblical scholars have noted that Mark’s Jesus draws upon the poetry of Israel’s prophets to describe the end of an era.

Images of darkened sun, moon and stars are all intended to suggest that something important is about to happen, something new, something that will change forever the course of human history.

Moreover the two parables urge disciples to pay attention.

Just as the fig tree in leaf is a sign that summer is near and that the figs will soon ripen, so disciples are encouraged to read the signs of the times – for in the life, teaching and ministry of Christ the kingdom of God is near.

Yet whereas the parable of the fig tree suggests disciples may discern Christ’s coming as clearly as the arrival of summer, the second parable insists that we cannot know the day or hour when the householder will return.

So instead of knowing exact dates and times, disciples are tasked with remaining vigilant, wakeful and watchful.

Mark’s gospel was written somewhere towards 70AD, probably shortly after the great fire that destroyed much of ancient Rome.

It was written at a time of trouble and persecution for the early Christian community and, in the words of this commentator,

… was crafted with theological integrity, rhetorical purpose and literary care as the author sought to address those who would continue the gospel’s witness amid circumstances of great difficulty. [1]

Reading the passage today there are many puzzles which remain unresolved, not least Jesus’ assertion that this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.

Quite what things Jesus had in mind is not immediately obvious.

What is obvious however is throughout his ministry as the wandering preacher and teacher and healer, Jesus showed his disciples what it means to seek healing and wholeness in their relationships with one another and with God.

A crippled man is told to pick up his bed and walk, a dead girl is restored to life and a woman is cured of her bleeding, blind Bartimeaus is given back his sight, a Roman centurion’s servant is healed, a storm is stilled and a great crowd is fed with a few loaves and fish.

Or to put that in other words, the story of God is played out in the midst of the ordinary and sometimes difficult circumstances of everyday life.

It is a story of concern, a story of kindness, a story of healing and wholeness, a love story with hope at its heart.

C.S. Lewis, author of such classics as the Chronicles of Narnia and the Screwtape Letters, captured something of what Christian hope looks like in the face of challenge and danger when he wrote;

If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things –praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. [2] 

Advent Sunday, the first Sunday of the Christian year, the day the church turns towards Bethlehem, a season of waiting and watching and wondering, and while for some the coming weeks will be a time of joy and celebration, for others it will be a dark time of loneliness and loss.

The gift of faith is its capacity to speak to every aspect of human experience for with its intense imagery the gospel calls us not to be mere spectators in the coming kingdom of God but active participants.

What Jesus said to one he says to all, to remain alert, to be watchful, and in all the joyful, messy and sometimes painful reality of life to find hope, hope in the miracle of birth and new life found lying in a manger.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm Preaching the Gospel of Mark Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2008, pxiv

[2] C S Lewis, On Living in the Atomic Age,1948.)