A joyful third Sunday of Advent

My prayer painting done in Advent 2019 has been aiding my prayers throughout Advent so far this year. It sums up a longing for Emmanuel to come, for the refreshment of spiritual drink and the healing and new life described by Isaiah in images of a desert flowering.

I only preached once and have to admit to re-using a sermon from 6 years ago that I preached at a baptism. It didn’t take much tweaking to be useable.

Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

John the Baptist was in prison because of his beliefs and proclamation of God’s kingdom.  Nelson Mandela was also imprisoned for his beliefs and actions in bringing about justice.  Fortunately for him, he kept his head, unlike John who lost his, and was eventually released.  There was much rejoicing when that happened.  And you would have thought that when the news of his death was released that there would be scenes of tears, sadness and much grieving. 

Usually when someone famous dies, we see tears and sadness. Remember the reaction to Princess Diana’s death. And how sad we were when the Queen died. However, that wasn’t the reaction to South African’s upon hearing of Nelson Mandela’s death last week. In one TV studio there was a group of South African men and women dancing for joy – not because he was dead, but because of how he had lived and the joy and freedom he brought.

Little did his mum know when she brought little baby Nelson into the world what a difference he would make.  He was brought up in the Methodist church and in his autobiography, “The Long Walk to Freedom” he talked of his early experiences with Christianity.  He praised its engagements with the society around him saying “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.”

Some people think of heaven and the joy we will receive there.  And that keeps them going through the difficulties of this life.  But Christianity can and should make a difference to the here and now and bring joy to our lives.  One of the memorable things about Nelson Mandela was his smile, his joy and his love.   And of course the lasting legacy of the end of apartheid in South Africa.  Many others before him, for example, Wilberforce in this country working towards the abolition of slavery, have done great things for the world because of their Christian convictions and faith. And in our time of course the late Queen Elizabeth was well known for her smile, her faith and her service to us all.

Her mother would have had no idea when she was carrying the unborn Elizabeth that she would grow up to make such a difference in the world. Neither did Nelson’s mother know what difference her baby would make.

Every mother (or at least I presume every mother) has a sense of awe and wonder at the thought and experience of another life growing within her.  The first movement – was that fluttering the baby or a something I ate?  Then the very definite, unmistakable kicks and movements that can at times be painful.   We wonder who this person will be.  Will they be sporty or will they be arty.  Will they be poor or rich?  The bible assures us that God does have plans for each and every one of us –

Psalm 139 – You knit me together in my mother’s womb…… you saw all the days ordained for me before any came to be …… I am fearfully and wonderfully made

Jeremiah 29 – For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper, not to harm, to give you a hope and a future. 

God speaks those words and promises to his people, and when we become follower of Jesus, they are the promises he makes to us too, because as Christians we are his people.

We might not know the future of our children or grandchildren.  But, Mary, on the other hand, did get a glimpse into the future of her son which we have recorded in The Magnificat otherwise known as Mary’s Song.  (Set for today instead of the psalm).   We sang a version of it in the hymn Tell out my soul.

Mary’s song is a song of praise to God who has chosen her, even though she is lowly.  She sings of the future as if it’s already happened.  God has sustained the weak and needy while opposing and bringing down the rich and powerful.

Throughout the bible, we read of God’s desire to help the poor and vulnerable. The prophet Isaiah 35:1-10 set for today – be strong, do not fear, Here is your God, he will come and save you. The eyes of blind opened, deaf ears unstopped lame leap. He paints a lovely picture of a desert springing into new life.

God longs to bring restoration, reconciliation, healing to people’s lives.  Jesus came to bring life in all its fullness.  God so love the world that he sent his son Jesus into the world – to be one of us.  Did Mary know HOW Jesus would bring about God’s salvation?  Probably not exactly how, but she did know that he would.

She and her cousin both had famous boys: Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist and Mary had Jesus the Messiah.

And in today’s gospel we read that when John the Baptist heard about Jesus, he sent word to see if he was the long awaited Messiah.  

 And Jesus sent word back to him – yes, and look at the evidence…. the blind see, the lame leap for joy…..

God sent John to prepare the way for Jesus. His mission in life was to point people to Jesus, not to take the glory for himself. So he was able to die knowing he’d finished his life’s work, his mission was completed. And as you are part of the Christian Church you also have a mission to bring God’s love, justice and joy to the world.

But before we can change the world, we need to be prepared for change in ourselves. Sometimes people who follow Jesus – Christians – are seen as anything but joyful – killjoys more like.  But the true sign of Christian maturity IS joy and being the bringer of justice to the world around them.  That joy is often the result of going through difficult times, with God’s help.

For many years I had a quotation above my desk – “The difference between real joy and mere pleasure is that joy is the taste of suffering transformed.” It kept me going when the going got tough. It was given to me back in 2010 when I was going through some difficult times.

When we allow ourselves to open up to Jesus, inviting him into our lives and asking him to change us, then we find increased joy in serving others.  Our work to change the world starts in the small daily acts of kindness.  The saying: “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves” doesn’t just apply to finance.  If we start with the small things, then they add up and before you know it, the communities we live in, Denstone, Rocester, Croxden and Hollington, are better places in which we live.   People will be fed, the lowly lifted up, the oppressed set free.  We are feeding spiritual and physical hungers, for example, in the work of the food banks. But there are countless other ways too that I’m sure you can think of.

One of Nelson Mandela’s famous quotes was also an expression of a deeply Christian idea – “until I changed myself, I could not change others”. That expression of being born again, the need for internal revival before one can lead others to their own change, was just one of many expressions of faith Nelson Mandela shared throughout his life. 

We all need to be changed in our inner beings.  And that means inviting God to do the changing.  Not by our own will power but by surrendering our wills to God’s will.  That’s what is at the heart of being a Christian, being willing to be changed so we can change the world around us.  And that is how God brings joy to the world:  through Jesus and through those who put their trust in him and follow him.

Jesus says to each one of us: Will you come and follow me if I but call your name…. our final hymn sums it up …

Will you use the faith you’ve found
to reshape the world around
through my sight and touch and sound
in you, and you in me?


We had prayers for healing at the distribution of communion. This made re-using this sermon very appropriate. I haven’t been able to find the sermon I preached 3 years ago when I did the picture for the 3rd Sunday in Advent readings. I must have preached from rough notes and didn’t file them. I don’t feel drawn to it this year, but here it is:

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