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Harmony and Hope Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

A father and daughter were in the car together one day when dad tuned the radio to his favourite station, a country music station. Needless to say his daughter, a heavy rock fan, was not impressed. "I don't know how you can bear to listen to this stuff Dad" she complained. "All you get are songs about heartache and loneliness and broken hearts."
"Well if it's so bad, what's your music about?" replied dad. "That's the beauty of it dad" said his daughter, "you just don't know"!

You may recognise something of this in your own experience. Music is very much a matter of taste and culture. What one person or group appreciates may seem completely obscure to another. But one thing is clear – music in all its forms is a profound part of being human. Music runs through the NT reading today, too. St Paul, writing to the Christian community in Rome prayed, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.” Later in the passage he quotes from the praises of God sung in the psalms.

With One Voice
St Paul wrote to urge his Christian friends to be one. He searched for unity both in the early Church and within his own experience. The issue in his day was that of Jew and Gentile believers both following the way of Christ. Those who had formerly lived in very different worlds, who sang, as it were, from very different song sheets, found that they were being brought together in one choir. Their words and tunes were in danger of clashing badly. Paul himself, who had been brought up within the Jewish world, became a follower of Jesus and found himself taking the good news of Jesus to the Gentile world. It is as if the country and western loving father in my opening story entered the world of the heavy rock band music and tried to make sense of both.
How could Paul make sense of the two worlds he lived in? How he tried to work it out is to be found in most of his NT writings.

A Pattern that Makes Sense
I would like to change the metaphor at this point, from music to weaving, from beautiful sounds created for the ear, to beautiful patterns created for the eye. Jane Williams, commenting on the passage from Romans, says that it is as if God is working a pattern as a skilful weaver, building the diverse threads into a lovely pattern. Paul began to discover that the pattern centred on Christ, but that only became gradually evident as he saw the bigger picture. Paul also looked more closely at the pattern with which he was familiar in the way God wove in the past. As he struggled to reconcile the earlier pattern with the pattern he now felt God was weaving, he began to see in the earlier pattern, elements of it that now fell into place and made sense. If you stand close, the colours around Christ blaze out, startlingly bright and new; if you stand back, however, you can see the reds and purples of his life gradually building, dimly traced, in the earlier pattern too.

Destroying the Pattern
When we turn to the gospel reading it seems to present us with a very different picture, a different sound. John the Baptist comes, not making nice patterns, or singing a pleasing tune. He is a voice, crying out in the wilderness. He is fierce, painting a very uncomplimentary picture of the religious leaders of his day, who seem to come in response to his ministry at the river Jordan. Does this fit? Is this part of the pattern or the harmony? It may seem that John the Baptist was less like the country and western singer who made sense, and more like the rock singer, whose songs didn’t seem to mean anything at first! However, John knew what he was doing. His message was, to use the metaphors we are pursuing, that the music or the pattern is about to take a completely new turn, though one that grows out of the way it has previously been. “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
The problem with the Pharisees and Sadduccess, he said, was that they thought they knew how the pattern was going. In fact, they were so bound up with studying the pattern, that they gave ordinary people the impression that they really did know. They were experts in the scriptures, which was the written pattern that their people tried to follow as they wove their own lives. But, says John, you are actually destroying the pattern that God is weaving. Change your ways, or you will find yourselves chopped out and burned up! Sometimes drastic action is needed to preserve the pattern.

Harmony of Hope
Returning to our original metaphor of music, we can understand the teaching of St Paul a little more, having seen it in terms of God weaving a pattern. Paul urged the people of the old pattern, or the old music, the Jewish believers in Jesus, to live in harmony with the Gentile believers who were beginning to make a new kind of music amongst God’s people. “Live in harmony” Paul urges all of them. The symphony that God is now composing is made up of old and new. As you allow God to write the harmony of his music in both Jew and Gentile, you will begin to see that it is not just pleasant music for the enjoyment of God’s people. This music, this harmony, is the harmony of hope. This hope is not just for God’s own people, his own choir, as it were, but it is hope for the whole world. What is the world’s hope? It is that deep longing for justice, peace and well-being for all. Is that where God’s pattern-weaving and symphony writing is really going?

Mr Holland’s Opus
The movie Mr Holland’s Opus tells the story of a musician who struggles to find success in life. Mr Holland dreams of composing a magnificent symphony that will be played by orchestras across the world. The problem is the real world presents him with bills that have to be paid. He takes a job as a high school music teacher, hoping that after four years of teaching he’ll have saved enough to quit and do nothing but compose music. He absolutely hates teaching, but when his wife unexpectedly falls pregnant the savings earmarked for a life of composing have to be sacrificed to a mortgage. Throughout the course of the movie we see a remarkable change in Mr Holland. He comes to love teaching. He finds ways to inspire his students to love music, but not only that, to find their self confidence. This becomes his passion and his source of fulfilment. Thirty years pass, Mr Holland is about to retire, and his dream of becoming a famous composer remains unfulfilled. On his final day as a teacher he packs up his desk, and heads for his car. On the way he hears music coming from the auditorium. Intrigued he goes to see what’s happening. He opens the door to find the auditorium filled with his students from the past 30 years. They’re playing a piece of music he wrote. It’s a concert in his honour. One of Mr Holland’s former students delivers a speech:
"Mr Holland had a profound influence in my own life, yet I get the feeling that he considers the greater part of his own life misspent. Rumour had it that he was always working on that symphony of his, and this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr Holland isn’t rich, and he isn’t famous, at least not outside of our own little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. And he would be wrong. Because I think he has achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched. And each one of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. And we are the music of your life."

During Advent we prepare ourselves for the humble coming of Christ. He may not have seemed much at the beginning, and we may not feel we are much now. We may think he is the conductor who will guide us all in harmony together. In fact, he is the theme that plays itself in so many different ways, but is actually one: he is the theme of hope for the world, playing in and through us. Let us be that music which is at once simple and profound!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Almighty God,
purify our hearts and minds,
that when your Son Jesus Christ comes again as
judge and saviour
we may be ready to receive him,
who is our Lord and our God.