There is a lovely story about a member of the aristocracy in Norfolk, during the 18thCentury, who was impatient with the length of preaching in church. So each Sunday he placed ten coins on the pulpit, explaining to the vicar they were for him at the end of Mass…but that one would be removed every minute he preached that morning.
As a curate I soon learnt that the benchmark of success was mass within an hour. It didn’t matter what I said; 59 minutes was good- anything more caused grumbling. Which was strange because the same people sat happily for two hours and more for musical concerts. Perhaps us priests are boring? I have certainly endured a few tedious sermons and crushing bores in pulpits. But I think the real reason people hunger to shorten worship goes deeper than that and is a matter spiritual.
A wise priest once said to me that people need to have had a personal experience of God before they can hear the word of God with joy or enthusiasm. And that proclaiming the word of God to those who lack grace is rather like reading sophisticated poetry to the uneducated. People get bored quickly and wont appreciate what is offered. It is an interesting thought- that our tolerance for sermons and devotions and Mass might be linked to the health of our Soul, and openness to God, at any given moment.
It would certainly explain why some people get so much out of mass whilst others find it tedious. Or why some pray in silence before Mass whilst others just gossip. Why some are so energized by adoration before the sacrament and others shuffle and cannot wait for it to end.
“the word of God came to John in the wilderness; and he went into the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”
Our Gospel today provides four steps to transform anybody from a lukewarm believer to one with genuine zeal for Christ.
The steps are (a) John went into the desert, (b) the word of God came to him, (c) he preached repentance (c) John left the desert and proclaimed the faith.
Take note because we must all pass through these stages to find joy in worshipping God.
Stage 1- Go into the desert. Our desert being any space where we can shut out the world and be with God. The time away from the to do list and technology. The place where we can pray and read devotionally, where we spend time with him. If we have not built that into our daily life our faith is going to flounder.
Stage 2 – repentance of sin. Simply being with God is not enough because the spirit cannot flow into hearts that have blockages in the way. This is where confession comes in. We have to root out sin because it blocks grace. Have any of you had to unplug the shower by pulling a disgusting clump of hair from the depths of darkness? That is what sin is like in the Christian life- it mounts up and blocks the Holy Spirit. Hence Confession is not optional if we want to clear the way for the Lord. A point many have forgotten or ignore. Again if we have not built confession into our lives our faith will flounder.
Stage 3 – The word comes to us. Once we enter that desert of silence, once we confess our need for forgiveness, God removes the obstructions and enters our heart. A wise saint said -when we take one step to God, God takes two steps to us. God renews us, transform us, remoulds us into the image he created us to be. This is the stage called sanctification if you are Catholic, being born again if you are protestant. The moment of grace. The interior conversion of heart as we truly experience God’s love. Then we delight spending time with Him. We delight in his word and sacraments.
Which leads us to stage (4) like John we must proclaim the faith. Having experienced God’s love in our lives, our next desire is to share it authentically with others. People must look at us and see the joy and peace that radiates from us. They need to see authentic holiness. Authentic faithfulness. Something built on obedience and trust not sentiment.
I have said before that the true crisis in the church today is a crisis of Saints. Not enough people are discovering true grace and living the life of faith. We have many church goers but so few authentic Christians. Which is catastrophic to the life of the church. Because without holiness our words ring hollow. People see there is no change in us and cease to believe in the power of the Gospel.
Brethren the kingdom of God is, again, at hand. Repent this Advent formally and make time for Jesus. For nothing else will bring His joy to your heart this Christmas. He is coming…but are you ready for him?