The Service of God is Perfect Freedom
Second Sunday in Advent: 7th December, 2014
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Ps 85; 2 Peter 3:8-15; Mark 1:1-8
Our readings today place before us two great prophets of freedom: the prophet Isaiah predicted freedom for his exiled people through the coming Messiah; the New Testament prophet John the Baptist, quoting Isaiah, predicted freedom for his hearers and the dawn of a Messianic age. Even in our age a truly prophetic voice emerges from time to time. This week we marked the first anniversary, on December 5, of a modern prophet of freedom — Nelson Mandela. Having spent a third of his life in prison, he understood all too well the nature and the value of freedom.
Freedom is a theme that is woven throughout the Old Testament scriptures, but the foundational freedom story of the Torah is of course the Exodus. The film "Exodus: Gods and Kings" opened this week, and on Friday my daughter Hannah and I went to see it. Hannah said she got bored half-way through, but I have to say I loved it. It is not a flawless film, but it certainly brings to life the monumental struggle for freedom faced by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Moses was their prophet of freedom, whose encounter with God at the burning bush drove him into the quest to set his people free.
The foundational stories of the Old Testament prophets of freedom are pivotal to the writings of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels. Jesus himself was a prophet of freedom, a freedom fighter even, and in Luke's gospel, at the start of his ministry, he makes it very clear: "The Spirit of the Lord ... has anointed me to ... proclaim release to the captives ... to set at liberty those who are oppressed."
In Advent we prepare as Christians for a time when this freedom will be manifest in a powerful new way: the second coming of the Christ. And through the mystery of Incarnation we experience this freedom here and now, but I wonder if freedom is what we really want, or are we afraid of it when we encounter it? The psychologist, Marty Seligman, prior to his development of positive psychology, spent years studying what he termed "learned helplessness." We become so used to confinement, psychological as much as physical, that when the doors are opened our natural inclination is to stay in our prison cell. We are afraid of freedom. It is easier to stay in the cage, to blame others for our imprisonment. It is easier to blame our Premier, our Prime Minister, our Vicar even (see this link.).
Our fear of freedom may be a fear of failure, although it is interesting to note that Nelson Mandela thought quite the contrary. On taking up office as President of South Africa in 1994 he quoted Marianne Williamson: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us .... We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not within some of us; it's in everyone; and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
True freedom has very little to do with the freedom to choose. The increasing gluttony of choice in our Western society has the opposite effect, it is paralysing. We are quite literally spoilt for choice. True freedom is found in what we choose. In the Book of Common Prayer, the Collect for Peace sums this up beautifully:
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The service of God is perfect freedom. So I do encourage you to serve God, to achieve freedom, in whatever way you can. Last night our Musical Director, Andrew Raiskums, and members of the choir did just that in their majestic performance of Handel's Messiah. A parishioner afterwards said to me, "It just gets better and better each year." It's true! But equally serving God last night were those offering hospitality in the Parish Hall during the interval. That is one of the great gifts of Christian community, there are ways for all of us to serve God, whatever our gifts. And in the service of God there truly is perfect freedom.
This sermon was inspired by an Advent reflection written by the Rev'd Eleanor O'Donnell, Senior Chaplain at Geelong Grammar School. (see this link.)
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.