Alma’s sermon from Advent Sunday
Have you been on any journeys lately?
Maybe on holiday, or a short visit to a friend, or even a trip to the shops?
Did you prepare for your journey, or was it a spur of the moment decision?
How much planning did you do? Did you write lists or just hope you’d remember everything?
We probably do more planning than we realize. Obviously if we are going on a holiday we have to book accommodation and travel arrangements well in advance, and then decide what we need to take with us and what we can safely do without.
Even short trips tend to be planned. What’s the best time to go? What do we need to take with us? Do we need a shopping list?
But what about the other journeys we make that don’t necessarily include travelling but still have a goal? What we could call mental journeys. The list is endless. We’ve all been through the educational voyage, at least to the age of 16, although some of us continued long after that. Some of us have been through the hazardous journey of parenthood with the added difficulty that no map is provided and the journey often goes on much longer than expected! Of course the most unpredictable and exciting journey begins at birth and goes on to death.
Today, as Christians, we are starting a new journey. The season of Advent, the beginning of a new Liturgical year. Often Advent is considered a time of waiting, almost a standing around doing nothing time, while we wait for the big event, the birth of Jesus; Christmas Day. Of course its nothing like that really, as some of us have been preparing for weeks, ordering presents, sorting out menus for the whole holiday season, decorating the house, planning our social life and so on, anything except standing around! But are we missing the point? Advent is not so much a time of waiting for something to happen, but more a time of preparation, a very personal time where the physical tasks of getting things done, might take second place to the chance of preparing ourselves mentally and spiritually for one of the most significant times of the Christian year, the celebration of God, made Man! It’s an opportunity to reassess our priorities, to get rid of all the inessentials we seem to have collected through the past year, and to focus on the year ahead and how we can prepare not just to worship the baby but also to follow in the footsteps of the great teacher.
And so we come to today’s readings. When I realized I was preaching on the first Sunday in Advent I was quite excited. Ideas were tumbling round in my head, you’ve already had a glimpse of them, journeys, new beginnings, anticipation and so on. Then I read the Lectionary and my heart sank. It was very difficult to find any comfort in them. Where was the joy, the anticipation that I had thought about? For a short while I considered handing the task over to Neil who I’m sure would have been delighted to accept the challenge but I decided that was the cowards way out! So here goes.
First the reading from Isaiah. To refresh your memories, the writer is obviously unhappy with God’s treatment of the Israelites. God, who had always been there for them seems to have turned away from them. He says, ‘You were angry; you have hidden your face from us’. Not a good place to be.
But lets put this reading into its historical context. Of course the Israelites were upset because they were in exile, away from their own country, in a strange land! Of course they felt deserted even though the reading makes it quite plain that they accepted that it was their own fault. The writer says ‘we have transgressed, we have sinned, our iniquities, like the wind; take us away.’
The gospel reading doesn’t offer much comfort either in the beginning. Jesus said In those days after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heaven will be shaken’. Pretty grim reading!
But again lets put it in context. Mark probably wrote this during or just after the Jewish uprising against the Romans, which was a time of persecution, bloodshed and uncertainty about the future particularly for Christian Jews. They too must have felt that God had turned away from them.
And then I thought about our world at the moment. Every day we read the newspapers, or tune in to Radio or TV and hear so much to worry us. At home we are beset by dire predictions over Brexit and the difficulties that lie ahead. We worry about the outcome of the disagreements between the leaders of America and North Korea, and agonise over the plight of those who are dispossessed and driven from their homeland by war or religious persecution. And that’s before the natural disasters of hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes. Has God turned his face from us? There must be times when we think so.
But, and fortunately theres always a ‘but’, hope is not lost.
Isaiah says that God is like a potter and we are the clay. He has us in his hands, he is our father and we are his people.
Mark talks about the fig tree, apparently dead but as summer comes so do the new leaves then we know that God is near.
The Israelites returned to their home, Christianity thrived and despite many setbacks the message of Christ still continues to bring joy today.
As we enter the season of Advent, this may be the perfect time to consider what Advent is all about: entering the shadows of despair, war, sorrow, and hate, actively waiting for Jesus to come, lighting candles of hope, peace, joy, and love.
Likewise, to really hear what Mark is saying, we first need to enter the shadows, those places where all hope seems lost. Once we have entered the shadows (both intellectually and emotionally), from there we can proclaim the good news, the hope that rings out when all hope seems lost. The message is that God is on the way! And precisely because of this, all of us should be watchful and alert over the days and weeks ahead, cultivating a mindful attentiveness to signs of hope and wonder all around. Keep awake!
Despite the dreadfulness we hear about and see, Gods love shines through in the acts of those who refuse to give up hope, who stay awake to continue his work by shining light in the dark places of the world. We, like the Israelites are beginning to realise that many of the disasters are caused by our own actions and are trying to put things right.
So as we start our journey through our new liturgical year let us not forget to keep the light of Gods love shining as the Star of Bethlehem shone over the babe in the manger and keep awake!
Alma Lewis Lay Reader