Saturday, 3 December 2011

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

 Second Sunday in Advent 2011
Isaiah 40.1-11
2 Peter 3.8-15
Mark 1.1-8

'Preparing for Christmas'

In repentance and rest is your salvation
In quietness and trust is your strength
Isaiah 30.15

I wonder, when I say ‘Christmas’, what is it that fills our imagination? As we prepare for the birth of the babe of Bethlehem, what is the world of thought we inhabit as we get ready – what things come to mind as we ‘Prepare for Christmas’? Family? Food? Peace? Gratitude? Deck the halls with  . . . what DO you deck the halls with in New Zealand? J What feeds the supply of mental images we dip into as we get ready for the second great feast of the church’s year?

Of course putting it like that – ‘the second great feast of the church’s year’, may well strike perhaps a slightly jarring note, so much has Christmas become secularized. No one around us thinks that they are getting ready for such a thing. And what of us? When we think of Christmas, do we think of it as this Great feast of the Church’s year? What is feeding our imagination. Certainly nothing in the world around us. In vain will we walk the passageways of the Meridian Centre in our search for a Christ child, but Santa Claus is very prominent. That this is a Major Christian festival the mythical traveler from Mars would never guess. Indeed it was travelers from much closer to home who brought that home to Christians in England. Muslims traveling from Kashmir to the City of Bradford despising Christians with their great feast of commercialism and greed – because that was pretty much all they could see. What is most evident in the world around us, is that that which the church celebrates is not evident.
            So, what is feeding Our imaginations. As we walk the Meridian centres of our consciousness – its passageways and pathways - what is it that we see as we get ready? What comes to mind in ‘the run up to Christmas?’ Perhaps there may be things with a religious veneer - Nativity pageants, candles in church and carols services, perhaps – but what about that which we heard today – the images the church gives us to feed us in the period of fasting before the feast – those long lines of people forming not outside shops or indeed churches at midnight, but crowds going out into the wilderness – eager to repent of their sins as one comes who prepares the way of the Lord – one who will turn many of the people to the Lord their God?? Did we ever think of Repentance as a necessary part of getting ready for Christmas?

We are now a whole week into Advent – a season of waiting on the Lord and I have invited one and all to participate in this. Immediately this is to wait on the Lord for the future of our church, but as I suggested last week, this waiting may indeed reveal something deeper – a sense that our own hearts are the First place where God desires to go to work, that our desires may be His – that we might want what God wants, for indeed the process of waiting and listening is pretty futile without this inner transformation of the desires of our hearts. That Repentance is the starting place before we can receive the implanted Word of Hope.
And so one comes in the wilderness, one prophesied long ago – a messenger sent to prepare the way of the LORD – Make straight in the desert a Highway for our God! To prepare the hearts of the LORD’s people for his appearing. But as it may come as a surprise to us that our hearts are not well tuned to God’s desires for us, so also the wild figure of John the Baptist clothed with camel’s hair may not be one we fit readily into our idea of getting ready for Christmas. What with his bizarre diet of Locusts and wild honey we may not want him around our dinner table – except of course he doesn’t come to our house – we have to go out to meet him. As God’s people were in droves – preparing themselves for the coming Messiah. One powerful sign of how our perceptions of Christmas and indeed the whole Christian life are in desperate need of re-imagining and indeed perhaps indicating to us also our need for this work of the heart to go on in us – our own need to Repent, to turn our hearts and minds to God as the best way to be found Preparing for Christmas.

And that is the great gift of Advent that, week by week in the readings, this Alternative imagination is placed before us in our readings. The world around us will not provide any imaginative material for Advent – but our scriptures do and it is immediately apparent that the readings have little to do with our familiar Christmas preparations. That Our ‘getting ready for Christmas’ finds little by way of confirmation in the scriptures we are presented with, particularly with their Strong emphasis on the deep past of Israel’s faith – the words of the prophets. We don’t prepare for Christmas by listening to the Christmas Story! In other words it is Advent that is given as fuel to our imagination to understand Christmas and not vice versa.

As I’ve come to the other side of the world, I guess it will be some time before I get a good feel for this season as it is lived through in this neck of the woods. Back in Yorkshire, one particular strong element of this season was the crop of choral societies putting on their rendition of the first part of Handel’s Messiah – that part which recounts the birth of Jesus. But what is Very noticeable is that nearly all the texts that are used in the Messiah and especially the first part come from the Old Testament Prophets – ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel’-  ‘ thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts, yet once  a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land’ (words which find a powerful echo in our reading from second Peter) ‘he is like a refiners fire’ ‘and he shall purify the sons of Levi’  - and of course from our reading today ‘Evry valley shall be exalted – and every and hill made low – the crooked straight and the rough places plain’ I only have to think of these texts and in my imagination I am immediately transported to Huddersfield Town Hall or some other Yorkshire Civic Venue – but my point is this, that it is These texts which are given and always have been given to prepare for the coming of the Lord’s anointed. That we prepare for Christmas by attending to  - by waiting upon these ancient promises – that our sense of expectancy and Hope is fired, not by sentimental memories of Christmas past, or by images of children with tea towels on their heads – the Birth of the Messiah is not yet, we don’t look forward to Christmas with thoughts of Bethlehem and the gospels  - no our sense of expectancy and hope is fired by the words of Isaiah, of Micah, of Malachi and Joel.
            As I was sharing with our confirmation preparation group this past week – the first Christmas, the account of the birth of Christ as told by Luke and especially Matthew is Full of this Old Testament Imagery. You know we speak a great deal in the church, in these secular times of ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ and how important it is to get this message across – but the true meaning of Christmas cannot be apprehended without our own imaginative soaking in the Jewish hope for a Messiah. Indeed I sense it may be true that trying to communicate the true meaning of Christmas may be incredibly hard for us in part because we have lost touch with it ourselves. Unless we too are soaked in this imagery, then John the Baptist appears like an uncouth intruder rather than a real harbinger of hope. His call to repentance seems like party pooping rather than a clarion call to prepare ourselves to meet God’s annointed. And when we hear those words ‘And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least amongst the rulers of Judah . . .’ we may well think – what are they doing there? What does that have to do with Christmas?

And I do wonder if this is what has happened to us? That we have become so unfamiliar with the Old testament, that these writings are no longer part and parcel of our faith and our imaginative world. That our idea of Christmas, whether we acknowledge is or not, owes far more to wishful thinking and has become detached from the historical reality. Put another way we have lost a real world faith – our faith has become something of vague longings and memories of times past rather than something rooted deep in the historic expectation of God’s promised Messiah. And so our imaginations so impoverished we hurry much more to the shops now to prepare our tables, or even hurry much more readily to prettify the church, than we do to Jordan’s bank, to prepare our hearts for the coming of the LORD.

I think for a moment of all those Christmas carols so fondly remembered – and yet in each one lines about him coming to deal with our Sin – Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in be born in us today – God and sinners reconciled -  Adam lay y bounden – that sense that we are in desperate need of a Saviour and that every heart must prepare a throne – that in a very real sense in the birth of the babe of Bethlehem, the words of St Peter are coming true already – that already heaven and earth is passing away and that whilst we wait for the day of the Lord we should strive to be found by him at peace, regarding the Lord’s patience as Salvation breaking into our lives – that actually the most critical thing we can do in Advent is urgently to seek out the Baptist and repent that our crooked places may be made straight and our rough places plain.
            You see we often speak of Christmas as something to do with the past. Why do we look forward to Christmas? Is it because we have built up such a store of fine memories? Those in the time of the birth of Christ were looking forward not because they had fond memories of the past, but because the past was something they knew they needed to be released from – the chains of history hung far far heavier upon them than our happy memories of Chirstmasses perhaps long gone. Repentance of the past was needed and urgently. The beginning of Mark’s gospel is Urgent – the beginning of the good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God – As it is written – we are plunged into this ancient hope – John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness – no preamble – he’s there – now  - respond – Repent!

I ask again what do we think of as we think of Christmas – we may well think in such terms as Peace, goodwill to all, Hope and Love, - but these genuine Christian sentiments unhooked from the deep roots of our tradition – dissociated from the burning desire of the prophets of old, become just that Sentiments – the ephemeral warm glow. Perhaps that wonderful feeling leaving church just after midnight on Christmas morning, or warms smiles at the sight of a child dressed as a shepherd – but dispersed within a few days like a breath in frosty air – or perhaps better here like a morning mist in the hot sun (there you are, I’m managing to shift my Christmas metaphors to New Zealand, if not perhaps to Dunedin! J).

This is the Second Sunday in Advent. In the 1662 prayer book the collect for today reads thus : - Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

In Advent all too often our imagination of Christmas informs us – in other words our Christmas informs Advent, but this is not how it should be – rather it is by immersion in the Word of God, those same prophetic texts that the people of Palestine see come to marvelous fruition in their time – we may hear the Baptists Cry – we may prepare our hearts and thus and ONLY THUS, with our hearts prepared by Avdent may we know true Christmas Joy – A joy that we do not look back wistfully upon – but a Joy that we step out boldly from. The Lord has Come!


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