Reflection for Advent IV

By Rt. Revd. David Oakley
Bishop of Northampton

[Please note that the following is transcribed from the above recording and hasn’t been fully checked for accuracy.]

He was in the world and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God who were born not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.

Our lives as disciples of Christ grows from our listening to the Word of God, our prayer, then, as individuals and as a community, grows to bear fruit within the rich soil of the scriptures. St. Jerome, the early translator of the Scriptures from their ancient languages into a Latin which could be understood by the people of his time, said this ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ. Whatever we do in our lives as disciples begins with listening to the words of Jesus. The disciples began to follow Jesus because they heard his word of invitation and challenging. Though this word could sometimes be, the disciples responded and began their journey of discipleship, sometimes faltering and getting things wrong. But listening to the words of Jesus like a beacon in the darkness, bringing them safely back to him. Lives were changed because people heard Jesus speak words of mercy and forgiveness to them, as they said to each other. This man speaks with authority. Great signs and miracles were performed because people trusted the word of Jesus. They listened to him and resolutely continue to listen through the storms and darkness of their lives. St. Paul expresses this beautifully. Faith comes from what he said and what he’s heard comes through the word of Christ. There is then a direct link between the word of Jesus and how the Kingdom of God is established and grows in our world. This is because Jesus is the kingdom of God here amongst us. And so the gospel is the word in which the seed of faith is planted and bears fruit in our lives. But as we hear even in the prologue to John’s Gospel and as we hear throughout the gospel, it was not so for every person who heard of Jesus of Nazareth. There were many obstacles to overcome very early in the gospel. We hear that Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found him about who Moses, in the law, and also the prophets wrote: Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel’s response is loaded with centuries of prejudice “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  If Galilee was a backwater, then Nazareth was the least of that region.

To be fair to Nathaniel, and many others in his time, there were many expectations concerning the Messiah, where he would come from, what he would be like and what he would do. Jesus simply did not fit that profile. Nicodemus is an example of someone who is intrigued by Jesus of Nazareth, who comes to Jesus by night because he fears for his reputation. His opening pitch is worth considering. Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God. But Nicodemus is making a big mistake, he cannot know anything. His knowledge is worthless because, as Jesus will point out, he needs to be born again before he can have true knowledge of Jesus. There is evidence that both these men, Nathaniel and Nicodemus, were able to overcome their prejudice and their lack of real knowledge. One becomes an apostle and the other is definitely sympathetic to the Jesus movement. Earlier in the gospel, two of the Baptist disciples are following Jesus, John the Baptist, having said, look, here is the Lamb of God. This looking, which John is asking his disciples to do when it comes to understanding Jesus is an invitation to contemplation. Saint Teresa of Avila, who re-founded the Carmelite order in the 16th century, was a great mystic and contemplative, she said that contemplative prayer is nothing else than a close sharing between two friends. And so, in this gospel moment, Jesus turns to the two disciples who are following him and asks, what are you looking for? They said to him, Rabbi, which translated means, teacher, where are you staying? He said to them, Come and see. The Greek verb can be translated, and maybe this is a better understanding of what the Lord said, come and you will see.

In other words, it is only by spending time with Jesus that we really come to understand who he is to authentic knowledge of him. Later, Andrew, who is one of the disciples who asked Jesus, where do you stay, will approach the Lord again with Phillip. Both of these apostles came from Bethsaida and are wanting to help some Greek speaking Jews to meet with Jesus. Jesus’s response is very intriguing. We might be expecting the Lord to say something like, oh, yes, bring them in and we will have a cup of tea and a chat. In fact, what Jesus says is this “The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This is what it means to meet with Jesus, to encounter him as the crucified one who laid down his life in obedience to the father and was raised through the glory of the Holy Spirit to new life in the resurrection. This is another reason why people struggle to really know Jesus, we cannot know the Christ unless we know him as the crucified one, the apostle Paul helps us to understand why the cross is such a problem. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom. But we proclaim Christ crucified – a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Being a follower of Jesus is no easier today than it was in the time when the Gospels were first written. It is possible that we in the church today might echo those words of the fourth gospel. He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him. We, too, have our own ideas of what God should look like and what he should do in our world today. Idolatry is the temptation to make God in our image and likeness, like Nathaniel, our hearts are filled with prejudices like Nicodemus. We want to encounter Jesus within our own comfort zones of knowledge.

Like the Greek speaking people later in John’s gospel, we want to meet with Jesus, but perhaps on our own terms and certainly without the pain of dying to ourselves and our ways of doing things.

Advent is a time for going out into the desert, the children of Israel always return to the desert. Most of Judea is a desert, but this is more than about the physical place of the wilderness. In the desert, the people are purified. They listen to God in a different way. They encounter the immediacy of God without destruction. They also encounter the shadows and darkness of their own relationship with the Lord. They enter the cycle of sinful disobedience, feeling the effects of walking away from their covenant relationship with the Lord repentance and being brought back to God’s saving actions. Most of the Old Testament, as we have it now, was written after the exile experience, when Israel knew loss and yearning for Jerusalem. Perhaps we read those narratives of the exile, the prophecies which precede the deportation to Babylon, the years of living in a foreign land, and the slow, painful return to Jerusalem. And we treat this as ancient history. I sense this might be a mistake, the word that God speaks to us today is always filled with his unconditional love and compassion for us, his people. The Lord knows how weak we are. His word is also a teaching word, inviting us to dwell within the word and to recognize how we need to move forwards back into the promised land of life within the communion of the Blessed Trinity. Someone once suggested there are three ways of regarding Jesus. Firstly, many who met him were able to see in him only one man, among others. They passed him on the roads of Palestine without realising who he was. They said, “is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”, astonished, perhaps at times by his preaching, they ranked him among the enlightened or among the political revolutionaries.

None of these, however, saw past the mere externals. Secondly, others looked upon Christ with a more penetrating vision, they were able to discern exceptional qualities in him. They perceived in his teaching a surprising wisdom for a man who had not been formally educated in his holiness of life. They sensed something truly unique in his deeds. They saw a power that was not that of man. They thought him a prophet. Who did men say the son of man is? And they said, “some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” They did not know the source of his extraordinary power. And thirdly, finally, there were those who looked upon Jesus with the eyes of supernatural faith, they believed in the mystery of the word made flesh and the miracle of his life was made manifest to them. They alone truly knew Christ. Thomas answered him, “my Lord and my God.” During these days of Advent, may we come to know Jesus with the eyes of supernatural faith? May we bow down before him and worship, for he is truly the incarnate word of God amongst us, and we should do him homage.

Rt. Revd. David Oakley
Bishop of Northampton