Good morning everyone! So, here we are at the end of the church year, on the last Sunday before Advent, also the feast of Christ the King. And this has been a year like no other year we have ever known, a year when the normal rhythms of life have been disrupted to such an extent that it can be hard to recall what ‘normal’ felt like. All those little freedoms which have now been curtailed - the freedom to meet with family and friends, to greet them with a hug on the street, to walk into a shop unmasked and undirected by one-way systems, to sing in church, just to be in church for our customary worship and to have communion offered, and taken, in both kinds. The major events of Holy Week and Easter weekend have gone unmarked in our churches, and as we look to the coming church year there is still no certainty about what our Christmas services may be able to offer, or if there is any prospect of current restrictions being relaxed or lifted in the New Year. Indeed, from the news bulletin this morning it would seem that 2021 is going to start with even tighter restrictions for many people. It is easy to feel profoundly downcast with so much that is negative going on in our world.
But as Christians, we are people of hope, and hope is the handrail to which we must hold fast as we clamber over the negativity of the current situation. The Old Testament reading today is from Ezekiel, and Ezekiel was among those captives who were taken to Babylonia about a decade prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. His prophecies were written to encourage the Jews in exile, and his emphasis, unlike many of the other Old Testament prophets, is on offering comfort to the Jewish people, rather than judgment. For many of us, the inability to gather with those we love feels very much like being in exile, as we have had to learn to live with the necessity of separation, and we are probably all much in need of some kind of comfort. And we can hear that comfort in the words of Ezekiel: ‘For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep... As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness... I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak... I will save my flock...’
This comfort carries on through into the Gospel reading from Matthew, where Jesus characterises himself not as a king, but as our shepherd, and offers us this promise: ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...’
There is much in the past year which has been profoundly negative, but as we hear the words: ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’, perhaps we may be reminded of some of the year’s more positive aspects. The opportunities which we have been given to slow down and reflect on how we live our lives, on what really matters, and perhaps to reset some of our values to be more mindful and considerate of others. When we think back on the year, we may also remember how it has renewed appreciation and respect for so many who serve their communities - our nurses and doctors, paramedics, teachers, care workers and shop staff, cleaners and waitresses, the people who maintain our utilities and the infrastructures on which our lives rely so heavily. We may feel more blessed now by a kind word or a smile than ever before, and more inclined to offer our own.
This morning’s hymn always gives me a lump in my throat and a massive uplift in my heart. I hope that in our new church year we may be able to return to services which allow us to sing, to share in communion in both kinds, to exchange the peace unmasked, and smiling. Hope is comforting, and as people of hope we are comforted. I wish us all comfort and hope for the coming season of Advent, as we watch, and wait.