Sermon Preached by
the Reverend Charles Royden
at the annual carol concert for Age Concern at Priory Methodist Church
16th December 2001
Today is the third Sunday of Advent and Christians all around the world will be thinking of John the Baptist. It is a Sunday dedicated to the one who stood in the desert and proclaimed that the Messiah was coming; he wanted people to make ready their lives for the coming of Jesus. In this third week of Advent the Christian church is encouraged to remember not just that Jesus came as our Saviour born a baby in Bethlehem, but also that Jesus has promised that he will come again as our judge.
It is because Jesus is coming again that we need to be prepared, in a sense we are all called to be like John the Baptist, proclaiming the Advent of Jesus and calling for his way to be made ready.
I wonder how many of you have been able to watch the recent television series ‘Band of Brothers?’ It tells the story of some American soldiers in the Second World War, it has actually now just finished. One of the best episodes told of events which took place at dawn on this day in 1944, the Germans started their last major counter-attack of the Second World War. They took advantage of heavy mists that lay over the Ardennes region on Germany’s border with Belgium and Luxembourg. The Germans were thought no longer capable of launching a major offensive, yet they managed to reach 50 miles within the Allied lines before they had to retreat. One of the leaders of the American forces of this "Battle of the Ardennes" (also called "The Battle of the Bulge") was General Omar Bradley.
Some years after the end of the Second World War, and as some nations were spending vast amounts of money on stock-piling nuclear and other weapons, General Omar Bradley spoke the following words:
"We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom, and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we do about peace; more about killing than we do about living."
General Omar Bradley mentioned the "Sermon on the Mount". Those words of Jesus include the "Beatitudes", which are a set of 8 statements of choices which lead to a person being happy or blessed.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
In a way General Omar Bradley was being like John the Baptist. He challenged people to think differently. The Beatitudes for example are a complete reversal of normal human standards: God’s ways are different from many of the accepted norms of society, and that has always been the case. Society has never thought that the meek were blessed, or that there was blessing in mourning or poverty.
I would guess that some of you, because you are older and wiser will have ideas which are out of step with society today. I am guessing but I think that you will often feel that society needs to radically change or reverse, the way it is doing things.
Let me give you one or two ideas.
As I was growing up my mother always used to spend time telling me how hard I must work. Now whenever she speaks to me she tells me I have to stop working so hard. Her priorities have changed. She thinks that we are all going round like mad things and we have to slow down or we will be ill.
Do you often think that life has become too much of a whirlwind? Is everybody not running themselves ragged?
Many people today are ruining their lives because they are striving after too many material possessions. One of the most important lessons I have learned from my contact with people is that the happy ones are not the ones with all the wealth and possessions. The happy ones are those who have learned to be content. True happiness is measured in contentment with what we have got, not aspiration for what we have not.
Our lives are not measured by how much material wealth we have amassed. As a wise lady of mature years said to me this week,
‘It is really all very pointless spending our lives accumulating things. We can’t take them with us when we die.’
When we die, what do we want people to say of us ? We don’t want to have the Vicar say ‘he had a lovely BMW.’ We want them to say
‘he was a kind man,’
‘she was a caring woman who helped me when I was lonely.’
These human virtues of kindness and compassion these are things which we need to work hard as a society to recapture.
I am often told when people die that they would have done anything for anybody, I would much rather hear that they did everything for everybody. But truthfully very few people do. We are mostly concerned for ourselves, then for our families, for our own. The idea of community is threatened today in our society.
For many people the whole idea of community is an anathema anyway. I have spent my time in Bedford trying to help establish the church as a centre for community life, only to be told by others that they do not want community. They like their hedges and walls and privacy. But that four-bedroomed detached way of life is all very well until there are children who need to go to pre-schools, or babies and parents who want toddler groups or elderly people who enjoy a place for lunches.
People are doing less for others, caring less for others. There are fewer and fewer volunteers coming forward to take up positions as scout leaders of guide leaders or what ever. That is why an organisation like Age Concern is so important and why the people who work in Age Concern and other charitable cause like Age Concern need our support and encouragement.
This Christmas time we all need to ask ourselves what we are doing to make the world a better a place, to prepare the way of the Lord.
There is a story of a church which had two women members of the congregations who were relatives, but although they came to church and said their prayers each week they never spoke. Long ago in the distant past one of them had said or done something and the other had taken offence, and they fell out. The vicar asked them what it was and they seem to have given explanations, it was so long ago they had probably forgotten. And so the Vicar said one day in a sermon that Christians should live different types of lives. Christianity was about forgiveness and if anybody in the congregation had fallen out with anybody else, and he cast a sideways glance across the church and caught the eyes independently of these two women, they should go home immediately after the service telephone that person and say sorry and be reconciled.
He then rang up one of the women that evening and asked her 'Elsie,' he said. 'What happened? Have you anything to tell me?' ‘Well Vicar,’ she said, 'I went home after the service as you suggested and I went and sat by the telephone. But did she ring ?!'
It is no use saying things should be different if we do not play our part. How many people tell me that they think Christian values have become less important in our society, and I question them and it transpires that they stopped going to church themselves years ago. And it really is no good saying that you don’t have to go to church to live a Christian life, because if church numbers across our country continue to decline then we will continue to have to cut the numbers of ministers that we can afford, churches will close and there will be no public representation of Christianity in our country.
This Christmas we must all try to think of ways in which we can be prepared and help prepare the way of the Lord; be modern day John the Baptists. It may be that we have to ring somebody up and try and rebuild broken relationships. It may be that we can start going to church. It might be that we can offer some of our time to support community groups or a charitable organisation like Age Concern, it might be that we could leave them a legacy - I saw that on their website.