Advent 1 - Sunday 30th November 2015
Well, Happy New Year!
Good – I’ve got your attention! And that’s important, because though this may not turn out to be the best sermon I’ve ever preached, I do think it’s one of the most important I’ve ever preached.
So if you thought you could write your Christmas to-do list in the next ten minutes, put you pens down and listen up!
Happy New Year!
Don’t worry - the pressure hasn’t got to me and made me lose track of time. I am of course referring to the fact that today marks the start of the new church year. Gone are the days of the imaginatively-named Year B, and we now find ourselves at the threshold of Year C.
I think the Church of England marketing department needs to do a bit of work on that one!
Now, if it really was New Year’s Day, firstly I suspect there would be rather fewer of you here at 9.30 (8.00) in the morning, but also, we would no doubt see on the television or read in the papers, some sort of summary of the key events of the past year.
No doubt this year it will be events like the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January; the nuclear deal with Iran in the spring; the birth of Charlotte Elizabeth Diana to William and Kate; the Conservative victory in the General Election – you get the picture.
Well, if we look back at the church year, there have been a few highlights, most notably perhaps the consecration of the first woman Bishop in the church of England in the shape of Libby Lane.
Within the life of this plurality though, if I were to ask you to think back over the events of the last year, you might struggle to come up with many positive, or encouraging highlights.
Let’s face it – it’s been a tough old year.
We do seem to have had more than our fair share of difficulties and challenges to deal with in the last few months;
to lose a much-loved priest and Rector in such sudden circumstances has been very hard to come to terms with, both for us as a community, but of course also for Gill and the family who we continue to love and support in whatever ways we can.
And then of course, we had the trial and conviction of Chris Howarth, a much-loved priest and a friend to many; an event that has been very painful, very confusing and very difficult for all of us in a multitude of different ways.
Now, you may be surprised to hear me refer explicitly to these events from the pulpit (so to speak).
I could easily avoid it altogether, and preach a nice, simple, unassuming sermon about the season of Advent and how we need to prepare for Christmas. I could… and it’s a message that does need to be heard at this time of year.
But I think we have to acknowledge that the events of the last 6 or 7 months have had, and to an extent will continue to have, a profound effect on us as a worshipping community.
Many of you, I know, have had cause even to question your own faith and to ask questions to which answers are very few and far between.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here?
Well, let’s start by looking at our readings this morning.
Today’s gospel story begins with a real sense of foreboding, with the roaring of the seas and the heavens shaking. It feels almost as if creation itself is unravelling.
Faced with such doom and gloom, It’s tempting just to retreat into ourselves; to give up; to reach for the bottle and drown our sorrows.
But Luke says this; “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation (or debauchery) and drunkenness and the worries of this life, that we are not caught unexpectedly, like in a trap.”
Faced with difficult and challenging situations, the desire to give up, to run away, to pretend things don’t exist, are all very human coping-strategies.
But Jesus offers us an alternative in the parable of the fig tree. He urges us to look for the signs of new leaves sprouting on the bare branches, the signs that summer is coming.
So too, he says, when we see these things taking place, we will know that the kingdom of God is near.
So does that mean that our troubles will all be short-lived? That we shouldn’t worry too much, that things will soon get better?
Well it’s tempting to interpret it that way, but perhaps what Jesus is really saying here is less, “everything’s going to be fine, the kingdom of God is near”, and more, “We will know the reality and the closeness of the kingdom, in God’s strengthening solidarity in the midst of those difficult, challenging and testing times.”
In other words, when the going gets tough, knowing that God is there with us in the messiness of life brings us nearer to the kingdom of God.
It’s interesting to note that all three of our readings today share a common theme – the idea of keeping hope alive in testing times. How much we need to hear that now!
For Jeremiah, the future hope is David-shaped, because Israel’s greatest king was the best-known example of a saviour and deliverer.
For Luke in his gospel, and Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, the future hope is Jesus-shaped, because God’s ancient promise to bless the whole of creation was at last being fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
When things happen that shake us, that de-stabilise us, that pull the rug out from under our feet, it is easy to lose faith in what we rely on to provide stability.
The Advent message, though, is that God’s future hope is Jesus-shaped. Our challenge is to work out what that looks like for us here in Holy Cross (Uckfield).
So what might that Jesus-shaped future hope look like for us?
Well last week, Bishop Richard set out a vision for us as a community that I believe is very much Jesus-shaped:
- He reminded us to be kind to each other;
- He told us to bear one another up in love;
- He urged us not to be too quick to judge;
- He reminded us that we should be prepared to forgive each other;
- He said we shouldn’t be too quick to take offence.
He also identified very helpfully that for us to move forward together, to look to the future together, does not necessarily require us all to agree with each other. I think that’s really important to remember and to hold on to.
And most importantly he told us to love one another, and to serve Jesus; that we should unite around a common purpose; and that common purpose is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in all that we do; in our lives; in our actions; in the decisions we take.
That is, after all, what we’re here for. If not, then we are nothing more than a well-organised social club.
Our future hope for the days, weeks and months ahead then, must be Jesus-shaped.
We are to be kind to each other; we are to bear one another up in love; we are to be slow to judge and quick to forgive.
I would like to end by reading again some of St Paul’s words from our second (first) reading this morning:
‘…may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’
And so during this season of Advent, as we journey together to the manger, may our focus sharpen towards that infant child lying in a manger; and may he be at the heart of all our hopes and dreams.