Graham Low’s SERMON FOR ADVENT SUNDAY
As we have heard, we begin the new church year with Advent. So let us look at what Advent is all about. Most people these days who look for information start by going to their favourite browser, as I have just done. Advent quickly led to advent calendars, and then to what the Guardian newspaper said was the best buy. It said: (I quote) this wonderful little set is ideal for the run-up to Christmas. Comprising a cute little elf (to sit on a shelf) and stickers, reward charts and more, you simply use it to encourage the small (and not so small) people in your life to be on their best behaviour during advent. Otherwise, naturally, that elf will have to break the sad tidings to Father Christmas. Designed to last for years – you can stock up on stationery refills. Destined to be a Christmas tradition. Well there you are. Now such themes as run-up to Christmas, elf, reward charts, encouragement, best behaviour, tradition, and Father Christmas, certainly capture something of today’s secular view of Advent, but it is hard to discern even hints of its spiritual meaning.
So let us look instead at the historical origins of the spiritual meaning of Advent. It has to be said that a rather mixed picture emerges. Firstly, we know that Advent was the last season of the liturgical year to develop. Secondly, it is known that in parts of Spain and Gaul the season lasted six weeks and was a penitential period leading to baptism at Epiphany on 6 January. Thirdly, it seems that in some places the season may have been a church response to the pagan fast which preceded Christmas. And so, over many centuries a tradition has evolved in the church, in which a joyful anticipation of Christmas has become at least as important as observing a season of penitential quality.
Today we, and the Western church as a whole, begin the season of Advent, with four Sundays. Today is also the beginning of our liturgical year C, with readings from the gospel of Luke on most Sundays.
The season is rich with symbols. Instead of flowers, we have an Advent Crown or wreath, made from a circle of evergreen plants, such as holly and ivy, symbolising that God has no beginning or end. Evergreen foliage is a reminder that God does not change. Holly is also a symbol of the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. Today one candle is lit. Each week a further candle is lit and more light shines. Then on Christmas day we light the central Candle representing Jesus, the light of the world. Today’s candle represents the patriarchs, who brought hope. Next week we remember the prophets who foretold Jesus, who brought peace. The third candle represents John who baptised Jesus, and spoke of his love. The fourth candle reminds us of Mary and her joy in her son.
The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning coming. Its’ rich meaning has also come to embrace waiting, preparation, change, expectation, anticipation and movement. And as the candles remind us, Advent is about bringing hope, peace, love and joy to the world. May I suggest that you hold each of these themes in your hearts as you make your way through the four weeks of Advent.
As we make our way through Advent our attention is naturally also to be focussed on the Sunday readings. Today’s readings are really about what might be called intelligent waiting. This is about growing in our awareness of God, so that we may recognise him more clearly both now, and in the time to come.
We began with a reading from Jeremiah, who so often appears to be a prophet of doom. His life has been spent in telling the people of Israel things they do not want to hear about the destruction of the nation and the division of the people. Here, although imprisoned by his own king for being right, Jeremiah seems much more cheerful, as he tells the people that God’s judgement does not undo his earlier promise to them. If they watch, wait and endure, they will see God’s hand at work, and salvation will come to them. Do we consciously see God’s hand at work in our time?
The second reading from the Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is one of relief. After his great confidence in his mission, Paul becomes oddly uncertain. He wonders if the people have heard and responded to him. He has sent Timothy to find out, and the news seems good. Paul seems to relax a bit and rejoices with the new Christian community. But he does not let things rest and asks the people to prepare with great urgency for their final meeting with God. In fact later passages show that the people seem to have taken this injunction so single-mindedly that they give up everything else in order to prepare for Jesus’ expected and imminent second coming. So Paul reminds them to get on with their normal lives as they wait for God to arrive. Perhaps in our time we spend too much time preparing for the now imminent day of Christmas and neglect important ongoing rhythms in our daily lives with God.
In Rebecca Dean’s recent study evening with us on Luke, she emphasised the importance of Luke’s story telling. We may think of his warm stories about the lives of children and women, such as John the Baptist’s mother and Mary, in the Magniificat. Luke offers us the sheep and the shepherd, the stable and the manger. These may be important aspects of the stories we continue to create about the nativity, but we need to look further into Luke’s message.
In a sense, the fig tree is a key to all three of today’s readings. We are familiar with the signs that the living world gives us to indicate coming changes in the seasons. But Luke reminds us that we are less familiar with the signs of the coming of Christ. He offers us a vivid picture of Christians standing up and raising our heads as redemption draws near. It is a bit like the way a dog stands very upright and sniffs the air as it looks for and waits for the familiar smell of its owner, or for food, even in the midst of confusion and stress. We need to remember that Jesus is speaking very soon before his own tribulation and death, an event that the disciples are not prepared for at all. Then, as now, seeing and interpreting the signs of the times is far from easy. But it is part of our Christian prophetic calling to look at the signs of the times now in 2015, and there are very many, and to seek to discern God’s direction for us.
Perhaps above all else, Advent is a time for us to pay fresh attention to God in our prayer. Alan Ecclestone wrote that prayer is concerned with getting things right in the scale of what truly matters to humankind. Day after day it must endeavour to re-draw the picture, correcting the distortions, perceiving new immensities, making sharper and clearer what is becoming obscured (repeat). And lastly, advent is a time for us to seek God more closely: Rowan Williams noted that Advent is about stumbling forward in a new territory, opened up by God. May we be granted the grace during Advent to enter more deeply into the mystery of the God of love. Amen.