ADVENT 3

Last week we had a great king sweeping into the country; mountains were levelled, valleys were filled to make his journey smooth and fast. This week we are at the other extreme: we are called 'brood of vipers'; the axe is laid at the root of the trees, the chaff is gathered and thrown into unquenchable fire. What does it mean? Is it true? Yes, Jesus did come into the world but hardly in the manner John describes. Jesus slipped in quietly, had a short ministry and departed leaving the land looking just as it had before. As for the destruction of evil, well, it is true that in the last 20 centuries millions of people have been killed in the most horrid circumstances but they weren't all evil; many of them were very good. Some chaff may have been destroyed but evil remains with us and flourishes: bad people get rich, wars keep breaking out, ordinary society seems to run largely on self interest, greed and lust. Did John the Baptist get it wrong? Or is this simply prophetic hyperbole? Or are we, or I, simply missing the point? What is the point? Well, I suspect the point is a quite simple one: God is here. He is here already in the form of Jesus Christ. He is constantly active, constantly doing things but we simply don't notice. We are blind, like the dwarves at the end of CS Lewis' Last Battle; we simply can't see the amazing things going on around us.

Some of you have heard this story before, but twenty years ago George, Peter, Paul and I were at Agapia monastery. On a blazing hot afternoon George invited us for a little saunter through the woods to a hermitage. This turned out to be a forty minute climb up a rugged road with the sun beating down! At the beginning of our climb we met a nun, who joined us. She talked incessantly, told us she had a bad heart, walked slower and slower and talked faster and faster. I said to the others we needed a donkey. Paul said 'This is Romania, a donkey will appear'. At that moment round the corner came a horse and cart into which we bundled the old nun! In Romania that happens all the time.

Last year in Zimbabwe we drove hundreds of miles in a few days, from Harare to Masvingo, from Masvingo to Chiredzi, from Chiredzi to Chipinge and from there down to the Sabi. It was hot dry remote countryside and on the way to the Sabi my petrol tank fell out. It could have been a disaster. It could have burst into flame. Anywhere else on our journey I would have had no idea where to turn for help but we now had a priest with us who knew that just round the corner was a mechanic, who fixed my car and sent us on our way.

Even here in England amazing things happen. Each month with Tariro, I get a request for a large amount of money. If I don't send the money the children will go hungry. If I do send the money will there be enough left for next month? I send it and by next month more money has come. If I didn't send it would the money dry up?

This may sound simplistic as if I believe God always sorts out our problems with a horse and cart, a mechanic in the middle of nowhere, or some money. He doesn't always. There are only too many problems he leaves us to sort out. The point I want to make is that this is not simplistic but it is simple. God is here. God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. He doesn't need to flatten mountains or fill valleys to get to us. He is here and he always has been. The world wouldn't exist if he didn't hold it in being; we wouldn't draw breath if God left us alone. We look around and see an ordinary world, beautiful in places, damaged in places, mostly pretty ordinary but if we could see it as it really is, filled with God, charged with the grandeur of God, we would be overwhelmed. Hopkins catches it well when he sings "I kiss my hand to the stars, lovely asunder starlight, wafting him out of it and glow glory in thunder". God is waiting at every corner to greet us " I greet him the days I meet him and bless when I understand".

When we look around us, both in the Community and out, it is not hard to see problems, problems which seem about to overwhelm us. Money plays a big part in that. Will Greece or Romania ever escape from their economic crisis? Will economists ever manage to run countries in a way that really helps the poor? Will we ever find the money to do the buildings we want; or will we find a different answer to that problem? Will the Anglican church ever stop fighting amongst its own and use that energy to further the Gospel of God? The problems go on and on.

St Paul was no stranger to problems. He had the Corinthians to worry about after all. He speaks of the great labour of 'the care of the churches' he has founded. His life led him into situations where, he tells us "Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;  In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness". Yet today he can tell us "Do not worry about anything but....let your requests be known to God." Is it really as simple as that? Well maybe it is.

In her recent book on prayer, Sister Wendy Becket tells us that "Prayer is the simplest thing out". We worry about prayer; we read books about prayer; we search for methods of prayer, we think there is some key to prayer that will enable us to pray properly, a formula that will finally guarantee success. She says, if you want to pray you are praying. Just get on with it. The fact is that we always want to make God more complicated because it is a way of keeping him at a safe distance. We resist the knowledge that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, because that is so threatening. Is there no hiding place from God, no place where I can do what I want, or think my own thoughts? No there is not but that is not bad news; it is good. In a sense it is very easy to be a good Christian: just put God first, always. That is what we are supposed to be doing in this monastic life. However, as we all know, as soon as we start putting God first we find ourselves faced with all sorts of things we don't want to do; things which are difficult to do without completely disrupting our lives. Christianity is really very simple but it is the simple things which are hardest to do. So it is time for me to stop talking and let Zephaniah have the last word:

"Do not be afraid O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love, he will exult over you with loud singing, as on a day of festival". Let's look forward to that. Amen

            Nicolas Stebbing CR