Saturday, 17 November 2007

Advent: a time of waiting

+ May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen

One night last week, we were driving through Dundrum village, and I commented on the Christmas lights and decorations. I thought they were tasteful but a little early. After all, we haven’t yet moved into the Season of Advent.

It was naïve of me. Already, the Christmas shopping brochures have gone out, even from our mission and development agencies and from the charities; the jingles are being broadcast with increasing frequency; even the travel agencies appear to be booked out for most of the post-Christmas skiing packages.

It seems that once the clocks go back, we start looking forward to Christmas.

But without Advent, and the preparation for Advent, without a proper period of waiting and watching in the Church for Christmas, then our images of Christmas, our ideas of what it’s all about, our expectations of what we should hear as being at the heart of the Christmas message, will lack fullness and promise.

Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ, but not only as a little baby. If Christ remains merely an object of sentimentality in the Christmas crib and on the Christmas cards, then he is reduced to having no more significance and being no more challenging than Santa Claus, the Snowman and the jolly Dickensian characters carolling and carousing in their top hats and frock coats.

If all we are looking forward to at Christmas is the warm glow that comes with mulled wine and mince pies, then of course Advent is just a good commercial opportunity. But if the coming of Christ is not to be relegated to a sentimental seasonal interlude, then we have to recover a true sense of Advent.

The lectionary readings for the Sundays before Advent provide us with opportunities to prepare for a meaningful Advent so that, in turn, we can prepare for a meaningful Christmas.

In our readings this morning, we are called to prepare for the coming of Christ not just as a cuddly, Christmas-card baby, but as Christ the King. And so we are being reminded that Christ comes at Christmas in three ways:

* The Christ Child who reminds us that God-in-Christ takes on our flesh: God makes us in his image and likeness, and then at the incarnation takes on our image and likeness.

* Christ who calls us to be his Disciples: Discipleship, being a Christian, is not just about taking on a label, but about living out the Gospel.

* And Christ who comes at Christmas as the Christ of the new Creation, with the fulfilment of God’s plans for all creation.

Preparing for the Coming of Christ should not be reduced to shopping for presents in the shopping centres, being caught up in the materialism and consumerism of our age. Our reading from the Prophet Isaiah this morning [Isaiah 65: 17-25] reminds us that there’s more to Christmas than all the shopping experiences a Dundrum Town Centre can offer.

That second coming of Christ brings the promise of a new earth, a new Jerusalem. It is much, much more than the promise of yet another new pair of socks or a new golf accessory can offer me. That vision of health and wholeness and long-life is in sharp contrast to the second-rate promises of health and long life we offer people today with our two-tier health care and hospital services.

But if we believe that the prophetic and beatific visions in our reading from Isaiah are more than mere idle dreaming, that the promise of the coming Kingdom of God is more than a clever ploy to postpone attending to the needs of humanity today, then we will wlecome the wake-up call issued by the Apostle Paul in our Epistle reading [II Thessalonians 3: 6-13].

Being a Christian, being a disciple, being one who looks forward to the coming of Christ as King, means we cannot sit back and be comfortable about our Church membership and our faith. When the Apostle Paul upbraids those who are content with a passive faith, he compares them with lazy people who are happy to eat other people’s bread and spend other people’s money.

The faith we have today came to us through the hard work, the labours and the endeavours of the saints of the past. This church, Saint John the Evangelist, was built over a century and a half ago by people who had a vision for a particular witness within the Anglican tradition. Moving on into the future with hope, and with relevance, may mean not just preserving what we have inherited but also discovering its fresh application and relevance to society’s needs today, even tomorrow.

In the midst of the crass commercialism of today – when patients in hospitals are reduced to being consumers, and when choice means offering you two or three ways of spending your money rather than asking about your needs and your values – then a rediscovery of the values packed into the call to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness offers new hope in exploring how we can give people a taste of the promises of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Our Gospel reading [Luke 21: 5-19] this morning may sound frightening at first. With all its talk of being led astray, of wars and insurrections, of earthquakes, famines and plagues, trials and persecutions, it sounds gloomy on first reading. But has this not been the way of the world throughout the ages? Is this not the story of the church throughout the generations? There have been divisions in the past, there will be divisions in the future. Not only is the present crisis in Anglicanism not a new experience for the whole Church, it is not new even within the Anglican Communion.

Some bishops are saying they will not go to the next Lambeth Conference unless there is complete agreement by all the bishops beforehand. On that basis, there would never have been a council of the Church in the past. Peter and Paul disagreed thoroughly at the Council of Jerusalem. If there had been no disagreement among the bishops of the early church, there would have been no need for the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, and today we would have no creeds.

When there are disagreements in the Church, we must disover the space that allows the Holy Spirit in to lead us. Then those disagreements can turn to creative tension ... and creative tension in turn can open us to new understandings of our calling and our discipleship and provide new insights into the kingdom of God.

No-one said that being a member of the Church was going to be easy and cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great work, in the midst of times of trail and tribulation, was not Oh for an easy life of Discipleship, but The Cost of Discipleship. Jesus tells his disciples in our Gospel reading this morning that in the future they may find the going is rough and the going is tough. But despite rejection and hatred, he promises, they will find words and wisdom and will find the endurance that leads to souls being saved, to more people responding to the call to discipleship.

The Church may face divisions and disputes throughout the ages. Some of them may be petty and some of them may be over-powering. But we have the promise of wisdom – the gift of the Holy Spirit. An uncertain future is not a comfortable message at Advent. But it is a reminder that we should not be too worried about our own immediate future but should always keep our minds fixed on the coming of Christ and the coming of his kingdom. If we do that, then the Church can be a sign, a symbol, a sacrament, of the coming Kingdom, a taste of the heavenly banquet.

And I’d rather have that Advent vision any evening than all the lights and all the baubles in the weeks before Christmas. And so, keep heart, keep faith, keep the vision – for Christ has better plans for us than we can ever know.

And now may all our thoughts words and deed be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This semon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin, on Sunday 18 November 2007.