Sermon - 1st December 2019
Today's reading is in the form of a prophecy - a visionary warning of what the future may hold unless changes are made in the present. And prophecy is a subject we shall return to later in this sermon.
But first, have you ever wondered why the church seems to have very little to say about the coming of the New Year on January 1st?
In the world outside the church, those countries and cultures which follow the western calendar tend to make New Year 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 calendar 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.
And that is broadly what we shall be doing in our church during this season of Advent - we will review and reflect on the past, share hopes for the future, and perhaps resolve to do things differently in our spiritual lives.
So, in today’s church setting, I should be saying to you ‘Happy New Year’. And yet everything in our lives outside the church tells us we’re not there yet.
I’ve thought for some time now that our experience of this very mystical and powerful season of Advent depends on our own situation - our own needs, our own frame of mind, our own feelings about how our life is going.
Reflecting on the past, and making plans for the future, depend very much on where we each stand at this point in time, and where we look, and what we expect to see, or what we even dare to hope for.
There is no single message of Advent which fits each of our circumstances. Reflections on our past and hopes for our future will be different for each of us - and that is how it should be, because we each take a unique journey towards God and we each have a unique relationship with Jesus: the one who leads us towards God.
Perhaps more than in many other places, here we celebrate not only the diversity of our cultures, sexualities and gender identities, we also celebrate the diversity of our reflections and our hopes.
It is possible to pass through the season of 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, and preparation, 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 would count as the twelve-day Festival of Christmas - because Christmas for the church doesn't start until Christmas Day - that twelve-day festival has become the Boxing Day and New Year sales in most of our high streets and shopping centres.
But for those of us within our churches, Advent has its own challenge: a challenge 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 lives, in our church, in our communities, and in our world.
In a previous sermon, I spoke about Paul’s challenge to his church in Corinth to focus more on prophecy and less on status and division within the church community. Well, Advent is all about prophecy.
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 bringing judgment and victory, we are looking towards a future event beyond our immediate horizon - a revelation yet to happen.
We are looking forwards to a glory which is yet to come in all its fullness, we are not commemorating a sequence of events from 2000 years ago that we re-enact each winter.
We are looking far beyond Christmas: 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 relationship means to you now, and what it could mean for you in the future.
In the things that you do at the start of this new church year, don't focus your vision in such a limited way that you lose sight of where your discipleship of Jesus will lead you - where it will lead you in the coming year, in succeeding years, and throughout your future life.
So, if we accept that today we are starting a new church year, when we reach the times 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 difficulties in that relationship, and ask yourself how you might respond.
These Sundays of Advent are a rare opportunity and invitation to review and reflect on our life in Jesus.
It is one of the pressures of modern western culture 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, oppression, exclusion, and an environment of the most basic simplicity.
And equally, it is one of the challenges 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.
When I become reflective myself, I see that we have passed the end of another year together. We have grown as a family and, to me, growth is a sign of new life.
We have changed, and I hope we will continue to change. And I pray that we are approaching those changes with courage, with love, with inclusion, celebration and understanding.
My perception is that it has been a year when Jesus walked with us so often on our journey. I sense him walking with people into freedom, into greater maturity and understanding, into the fight for equality and human rights, into a deeper understanding of his Good News, and into an inner peace which passes all understanding.
Thank you for all the signs and expressions of Christian spirituality, Christian community and Christian social action which you have shown over the past year.
Thank you for holding on to a vision of the kingdom still to come and still to work for. Welcome to the season which, perhaps more than any other, leads us into an eternity with the One who made us and loves us. As one of our songs says, “...called to the future, not the past, for such a time as this.”
I wish you all a blessed and joyful new year in the good news of Jesus, as together we work for a kingdom of justice in the name of the prince of peace.