Where I come from in England we have a saying about buses: you wait a long time for one, and then several arrive at once! I have heard this said about bishops too. This year has seen quite a few new bishops arrive, and it has also been a year of bidding farewell to bishops. It is a particular joy for Myles and I to be able to be with you all just a couple of weeks before our own return to the UK as I prepare to take up my new role in the Diocese of Leeds. It is a joy to be here. Henry, be assured of our continued prayers and good wishes for you and for your family as you take up this role.
To be a bishop is to take on a mantle that is heavy and light: heavy because the burden of vocation and ministry is always weighted with the magnitude of God, but light because we do not carry it alone. I’ve always loved a phrase of GK Chesterton that says ‘angels can fly because they take themselves lightly’! In a similar vein, I also learned some wisdom from Bishop Afa in July when we were in Tonga – that in Tonga people don’t drive fast, they fly low! Now I’m not impying that bishops are angels by default, but I think we can learn something from our winged companions in the faith! Never take ourselves too seriously.
There is something in the vibrancy of faith in this place that celebrates the joy of being alive; even amidst the struggles of life, God blesses us with good things if only we would see it that way sometimes.
This is also the second Sunday in Advent, and Advent is a very good time to start something new. Our readings today give us some clues about what that all means. Mark's presentation of John the Baptist and his prophetic words give fresh colour and texture to the ever-urgent Gospel message, a message that John proclaims and anticipates in the person of Jesus Christ. Mark crafts his incarnation narrative in just a few key verses with careful attention paid to both the rootedness of the message and its timelessness.
Remember this Henry: your ministry as a bishop participates in rootedness and timelessness. Fixed yet always on the move.
There are no shepherds, wise men, no angels, no annunciation in Mark, just the rawness of a message, a word not yet fully formed, anticipated, flung into our midst in the most bold way imaginable; a word that will endure forever (as the prophet Isaiah tells us). It's not a message for polite murmurings you might say, it is an announcement that there is a changed state of affairs: the political, social and cultural scene have changed beyond recognition; watch out, take note, be encouraged, join in, because this is a message that requires all of us to play our part as disciples. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that although comfort and reassurance lie at the heart of God's work amongst us, this is held in tension with the idea that what lies ahead might not be what we expect, indeed, it might require a level of discomfort and unease.
And there are surely signs of discomfort and unease all around us: our creation groans with the burden of climate change, and we are bound up in that. We cannot be complacent, as Archbishop Winston has heralded so many times.
But wait, the world so often says! This is Advent. There is time on our side and for that matter, it's only Advent 2, can we not wait until we reach weeks 3 or 4, maybe then it'll be time to sit up and take notice? It’s only the middle of December, so surely we can slow down just a little bit? After all, we are on island time are we not?! Our reading from the second letter of Peter tells us that ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years.’ The Lord is patient. And yet, waiting requires attentiveness, (a thousand years are also like a day); the Gospel requires us to take notice, not just of what its words are telling us, but how those words are lived out among us.
The alarming imagery of the Epistle is not meant to evoke fear, but is rather a reminder that time and history are the plains upon which God is working out his purposes. Our lives are lived, actively against the backdrop of God’s presence, pulling us forward, not spiralling out of control; every day is a day drawing closer to God. Bishops are called to be both holders and heralds: holding God’s people in patient hope, but ensuring that God’s people move and do not stay still.
Waiting lies at the heart of this Advent season, as we abide in the time now and not yet.
Mark is in a relentless hurry to tell us his story; he is so impatient there isn't even a word for 'the' in the Greek, the Gospel simply starts with the word 'Beginning' or maybe 'Genesis', for you see, Mark invites us to see that this is part of a much bigger narrative of faith that began at the beginning, literally, with creation. Mark paints a broader picture for all his urgency, he allows us to ‘think big’ whilst embracing the intimacy of watching John, larger than life, summon the wilderness into life with new words and new possibilities.
All of our waiting comes to a focus in the Eucharist. Christ in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension is the hope by which we live our lives as disciples.
As we are continually formed in Christ’s image and as the Holy Spirit moves us onwards even when we feel like our journeys are hard or haphazard, or we feel adrift in the wilderness: a lone prophetic voice; we do so because God wants us and those we encounter on the way to embrace the Gospel as good news. For us, gathered here this morning, this means listening to God’s word proclaimed and enacted through our sharing the Eucharist together in this church building. Scripture read and refracted through the lens of prophetic imagining and our present waiting, in future hope as the story unfurls once more.
You have waited patiently for Bishop Henry’s consecration, but it has come at the right time, for this is God’s time, and God is doing a new thing in our midst. Henry may you be a herald of the timelessness of God, and a prophet to ensure God’s people never get complacent and stay still. The Spirit is moving in this place, and for that, and for your willingness to answer the call of God upon your life,
Thanks be to God. Amen.