22 December 2019
Revd Nicholas Mercer
As many you know, a few months ago I gave a presentation to the Friends of Bolton Priory
It was about my spiritual journey intertwined with the practise of law
And although I covered key events in that journey, I spent little time speaking about Cyprus where I was the Command Legal Adviser for two years
But like many walks of life, both the Armed Forces and the Church have adopted corporate speak for a non-corporate world
And periodically, in Cyprus, as elsewhere, Heads of Departments had to provide an briefing for the Chief of Staff
In line with good corporate practise, we had to give a mission statement and an overview of the key issues in our departments affecting the Headquarters
My mission statement was relatively straight forward and I duly set out my stall
I was then followed by the head of the Chaplains Branch
To my amazement, he stood up and announced to the assembled staff officers that his departmental mission was
“To prepare for the second coming of Christ”
This radical and arresting mission statement nearly knocked me off my seat
It cut through all the corporate speak and, for me, swept everything else away in the briefing
The story is particularly relevant today as it echoes the words of John the Baptist to
“To make straight the way of the Lord”
In our readings for the past two weeks we have been introduced to John the Baptist
Last week we heard about him in prison
How he realises, in the darkness of his prison cell, that Jesus is indeed the Son of God
In the perfect illustration of Advent, he could see far more clearly than those around him
But there is much mystery surrounding the figure of John the Baptist
Who was he?
Was he a Essene?
One of a secretive sect of Jews who lived by the Dead Sea and practised ritual lustrations
Hence John the Baptist
Or, alternatively, was he simply a Jewish itinerant preacher in the first century AD?
Whoever he was, he is revered as a major religious figure in Christianity
Called a prophet and honored as a saint.
He has been called John the Forerunner and John the Baptizer.
But he is best remembered for the words, later used in the Broadway musical Godspell
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord”
John’s ministry is a “ministry of preparation” – preparing us for the coming of Christ
But what does preparation mean for us in this season of Advent on the eve of Christmas?
The first way his message can be understood is at it’s face value, simply to make the way clear for God coming into our lives
But if you turn the question around you have to ask yourself, what is it in our lives which obstructs us?
What is it that gets in the way of our relationship with God?
A few years ago whilst I was a curate in Dorset, I was asked to take a primary school assembly
Rather provocatively, I asked the children what they would do if they came downstairs on Christmas Day and found no parcels but only the baby Jesus under the Christmas tree
I think my question was a little unfair to children desperately awaiting their Christmas presents
One little girl put her hand up straight away
I immediately asked what she would do,
She replied very firmly that she would “throw him out of the window”
The teachers got very agitated and took her out of the assembly for what they saw as a rude response to my question,
But, unlike the teachers, I think the young girls response was very profound
What would we feel like if all the commercial trappings of Christmas were removed ?
The answers, I suspect, are many and varied but it makes a wider point
Life in all its complexity can get in the way of our relationship with God
You name it
Work, consumption, shopping are all strewn along our way
Preparing us, commercially, for Christmas
But to such a degree that we can end up missing the point entirely
But it is not just the commercial world which can disrupt this relationship
St Theresa of Avila used to complain that the routine of the nunnery disrupted her relationship with God
Sister Wendy suffered a nervous breakdown when placed in a school
It is what Thomas Merton called “the violence of busyness”
As a parish priest I have to ask myself continually whether I am “doing” or “being”
And we should all be asking ourselves the same question.
The second possible way to look at preparing the way for Christ is to take a much more radical approach
The phrase used by John the Baptist,is taken from the book of Isaiah, which was our first reading
The words in the Book of Isaiah say
“Prepare the way of the Lord – make straight in the desert a highway for our God”
This arresting image conjurs up an image of a runway or a highway in the desert
Imagine what that might look like?
A great big track heading off into the distance, forged by heavy plant
What it might look like in our lives?
It reminds me of another military story:
A certain General, had a fearsome reputation
When he came down a corridor, so I am told, you had to literally to press yourself against the wall so that his passage was unimpeded
Imagine “pressing yourself against the wall” to make way for Christ coming into your life?
Generally none of us are prepared to take the radical steps required
Last week, I mentioned the story of Jonathan Aitken- a man who lost everything in this material world
But even though he lost everything in the material world, he recovered his soul
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”( Mark 8:26)
His adversity drove a highway for God into his life
This is obviously a very dramatic illustration but this could happen in all our lives
Our career, marriage, money, reputation and health can all be swept away at a stroke
But, by being pressed against the wall, it might well allow Jesus down the corridor
But there is one other way to look at “preparing the way”
John the Baptist not only asks us to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives but he does it for others
To what extent do we prepare the way for others?
Whilst I was a school chaplain, I was very conscious that I was in a ministry of preparation
Each boy who entered the school would, by the time he left, know something of the Christian faith, something of Church and something its liturgy and worship.
I knew not their faith journey
But I was confident that we had begun to prepare each and every boy for the journey ahead of them
And the same applies to our Church here at Bolton Priory
It may not always seem obvious, but we too have a ministry of preparation -to prepare our children and grandchildren for the coming of Christ in their lives
Through our Liquid Worship, nativity plays, schools visits and the welcoming of children generally throughout the year
But there is another very important dimension that we might miss and that is the ministry of preparation for those who come after us
We are all relatively old and there will be a time when our numbers dwindle
As we look to preparing the way for Christ in our own lives we need to also thinkabout those who will come after us at Bolton Priory
Have we “prepared the way of the Lord” for them?
And so returning, once again, to the story of HQ BFC and the world of corporate speak that has impinged on all our lives
I have this wonderful image in my mind for 2020 as every business and institution starts the New Year ,
Can you imagine the surprise up and down the land if managers and staff alike were given the mission statement to “prepare for the second coming of Christ”?
What might the world look like?
What might we achieve?
Indeed, what might it look like if we made the same resolution at Bolton Priory?