Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent: Don’t give up – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 4 December 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Romans Ch 15: v 4 – 13; Matthew Ch 3: v 1 – 12)

At my school once a week we would have various sporting activities. The one I disliked the most was the cross country run. Once, as we were nearing the end, I was steadily gaining on the boy in front. As he realised my approach, he speeded up but I also went faster. It became a battle of wills – until he gave up. I reached the end a triumphant 35th instead of 36th. I can’t quite remember the total number of boys taking part in the run but it was probably about 38 or 39!

St. Paul writes to the Romans in today’s epistle reading and reminds them about the scriptures “which were written long ago for our instruction in order that, through the encouragement they give us we may maintain our hope with perseverance.” The scriptures, for us, tend to mean the NT – the gospels, letters, Acts of the Apostles and Revelation but of course in St. Paul’s time there was no NT and we may speculate that there might have been simply some collections of writings, sayings of Jesus, accounts of some of his parables and miracles perhaps and maybe the beginnings of St. Mark’s gospel. For St. Paul the scriptures were the OT which is why he writes that they were written long ago for our instruction and unsurprisingly he finds inspiration in them. What the OT heroes had in common was a dogged determination to carry out the will of God.

Of course, they were weak like King David who could not resist the beautiful Bathsheba and engineered the fall of her husband in battle; they ran away like Jonah, though that story may well have been an encouraging tale rather than the reminiscences of an actual prophet; they felt their unsuitability for the task like Isaiah trying to resist the calling to be a prophet saying that he was a man of unclean lips or they would rather the responsibility rested on someone else like Moses telling God that he was hopeless at public speaking and another more gifted person would be much better. But in the end they carry on. The OT does not cover up the character flaws of its leading statesmen, kings and prophets. It gives us an unvarnished description of them, warts and all. But despite their failings their great characteristic was that they refused to give up – and God helped them.

We can find many examples in the letters of St. Paul of people who did not give up. But St Paul himself is not kindly disposed to those who do not persevere. John Mark left his missionary companions at Pamphylia, returning to Jerusalem though we are not told why. However, when later, St. Paul was organising a journey to revisit the various places where he had established Christian communities he was not in favour of taking John Mark with them because of his lack of perseverance. It fell to the more forgiving Barnabus, whose name means “the son of consolation”, to sail with John Mark to Cyprus while St. Paul took with him Silas, who had not blotted his copybook. St. Paul himself, of course, is a prime example of someone who persevered. He faced many trials and tribulations but continued with his missionary work. We also revere the saints and find in their life stories a record of all the difficulties they had to go through.

We find the same pattern in the Gospels and perhaps most of all in the problems that Jesus had to face. The gospels chart the attacks on his character and his message, which Jesus had to endure from his enemies. On recent Sundays we have heard how the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to trap him with trick questions. Jesus persevered to the end but that end was his death so we are wise not to underestimate the power of such hostility.

What then of ourselves and our own expectations about this life. Many times when I was visiting someone in hospital they would often say “I don’t know what I have done to deserve this, I’m sure.” It is something of a stock phrase but betrays an assumption that we would like to have a sort of contract with God. We live reasonably good lives as Christians (in our opinion) and rather expect, in return, that everything will go well, for we expect God to do his bit and preserve us from misfortune and difficulty. This desire for a charmed life contrasts strangely with the lives of OT figures, with the life of Jesus himself and with the lives of Christians down the ages. When the going gets hard is the time not to give up but to persevere.

Giving up is easy. Some people give up thinking about God. They are left with the childish stories of their youth and reject them and with them the mature adult thinking that our beliefs demand. But you will not be in that group for here you all are in church. But it is just as easy to come to church and yet still to have given up. Some will want the church to stay where it is in a comfortable and static rut and opt for no change. Others may claim that they don’t have the time or the resources to help in the work of the church. Perseverance is not the easy option.

We all have particular temptations to sit back and give up. St. Paul calls us to our feet and not only reminds us to keep going but points us to what we too often ignore – the power of God to help those who don’t give up.

Advent is a time for a fresh look at ourselves and our approach to our faith. When we come to the season of Lent the same soul searching is required. But the two seasons have a different feel to them for while Lent has Easter as its end point, Advent is looking towards Christmas. Advent is shorter than Lent and somehow seems less harsh because during these weeks we are making our preparations for the Christmas celebration.

Traditionally each Sunday in Advent has a particular focus. There are several themes for this Sunday including the Bible and the prophets. We may combine the two by looking with St. Paul at the examples scripture gives of how people who did not give up were helped by God. And there’s only one thing to do with examples – and that’s to follow them.