Sermon - 27th November 2016
Scripture - Matthew 24:36-44
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Have you ever wondered why the church seems to have very little to say about the coming of New Year on January 1st? In the world beyond the church, societies which follow the western calendar make it a time of celebration: a time when we review and reflect on the past and share our hopes for the future - probably hoping that the year to come will be better for us than the year just gone.
But somehow the church seems to leave the changing of our calendars as an event about which it has no really significant message.
The answer to this puzzle is that the church does have its own new year celebration, and today is it! Advent Sunday marks the church’s new year. And during Advent, the church does what all the news channels and entertainment programmes will be doing during those final days of December, when they will review and reflect on the past, share hopes for the future. and probably invite us to make resolutions for the coming year.
So, in today’s church setting, I should be saying to you ‘Happy New Year’.
I’ve thought for some time now that our experience of this very mystical and powerful season of Advent depends on our own perspective. Reflecting on the past, and making plans for the future, depend very much on where we stand at this point in time, and where we look, and what we expect to see.
It is possible to journey through Advent and to focus solely on the immediate horizon - namely, the coming Christmas celebration. And the more we invest in that celebration in terms of energy, excitement, preparation and spending, the more we are likely to direct all our thoughts and reflections throughout the whole of December towards a magical Christmas Night, and a glorious Christmas Day, and the recovery offered by a lazy Boxing Day.
In the world outside our churches, what we call Advent has become ‘the run-up to Christmas’. What the church of would count as the twelve days of the Feast of Christmas has become the Boxing Day sales in most of our high streets and shopping centres.
But for those of us within our churches, Advent has its own message: a message which asks us to widen our vision and look through the lens of Jesus’s birth so that we focus on how we can make the kingdom of God more of a reality in our church, in our communities, and in our world.
Advent takes the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures, places them alongside our knowledge and experience of Jesus in the gospels, and challenges us to prepare ourselves to meet Christ in glory when the Kingdom of God is finally established.
When we sing hymns about Christ coming “with clouds descending”, and “he judgment brings and victory”, we are looking towards a future event beyond our immediate horizon - a revelation yet to unfold. We are not actually commemorating a past event that we re-enact each winter, we are speaking the language of a distant dream within the mystery of God.
We believe, as Christians, that our eternal life is to be spent in relationship with Jesus. And Advent says: start your yearly round of festivals and celebrations by reflecting on what that means. In the things that you do at the start of this new church year, don't focus your vision so tightly that you lose sight of where your discipleship of Jesus will lead you in the coming year, in succeeding years, and throughout your future life.
When we reach the time of silent reflection later in this service, I invite you to make some new year’s resolutions.
Spend a few moments thinking about your eternal relationship with God in Jesus; reflect on how you are blessed by that relationship; consider some of the weaknesses in that relationship; and ask yourself how you might respond.
These Sundays of Advent are a rare opportunity and invitation to take stock of our life in Jesus. It is one of the pressures of modern western living that cards, presents, decorations, trees, turkeys and puddings distract us so much at this time of year from the core of our faith - a faith which our gospels tell us was born in circumstances of poverty, struggle, and the most basic simplicity.
And equally, it is one of the pressures of our discipleship that we should look occasionally beyond our immediate surroundings to the eternal life which Jesus promises and to which we all are destined.
We have passed the end of another year together. My perception is that it has been a year when Jesus walked with us on our journey. Thank you for all the hallmarks of Christian spirituality, Christian community and Christian social action which you have shown over the past year.
I wish you all a blessed and joyful new year as together we work for a kingdom of justice in the name of the prince of peace.