This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s 11am and St. Andrew’s 6pm services on 30th November, the First Sunday of Advent. The readings were Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37.
It amazes me that, amongst all the pre-Christmas hype that starts from back around mid-August, as shops push harder & harder to remind us of the true meaning of the season –
spending shed loads of money on stuff we don’t really need, eating & drinking enough to sustain us through the first few days of the New Year’s resolution diet, maybe something about penguins?
– that the advent calendar remains popular to this day. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that the majority of them aren’t purchased to countdown to presents & Santy, or to provide the excuse for that early morning chocolate fix we miss through the other 11 months of the year.
In fact, this year the “Ship of Fools” website asked readers to vote for the best/worst (depending on the way you see it) Badvent calendar – the calendar that was furthest from the true meaning of Christmas as could be. Nominations included a Barbie calendar with accessories for everybody’s favourite disproportionate doll behind each door; a heavy metal calendar with a hard-rocking Santa sitting on a spiky seat, foot resting on a reindeer skull – well maybe after all the glasses of sherry he’d fancied a “Donner” kebab…; or maybe he’d been working through the whisky advent calendar, yours for just £149.99 with a different dram behind each door – maybe perfect for St. Andrew’s day, if we want to use racial stereotypes? And then there’s the palatial mini-manor fold out calendar with 24 different nail polishes, probably for when Mary had her feet up on the back of the donkey & blinging up to meet the kings.
The eventual winner was by our friends at Ann Summers, featuring a naked man reclining by a Christmas tree, eyes smouldering into the camera just inviting you to remove the strategically placed present. Behind each door resides chocolate recreations of various bodily parts – and no, not hands, ears, or spleens. I was going to say use your imaginations, but actually don’t!
So all across the land, a huge number of people are, for fair means or foul, counting down to, waiting for, Christmas.
And despite our national obsession with queuing, we as a nation aren’t very good at waiting anymore.
We’ve moved from the satisfying crackle & hiss of a proper record starting up, (that’s vinyl for the young hipsters amongst us), the sound of anticipation filling our ears as we gently placed the needle into the groove, to the CD with its crystal clarity and ability to skip to wherever we wanted to be, to the digital download where we get the music instantly available without even leaving the house or waiting for the postman. We can get strawberries in December and Easter eggs in January. Instant credit, payday loans and BrightHouse finance deals mean we can get the goods we want without the hassle of saving up so we can afford them.
But these things all come at a cost. Digital music means more illegal downloads to the point where it’s reckoned that 42 per cent of people surveyed believe its ok to illegally download music and films for personal use. This rises to 57 per cent among those aged between 15 and 24-years-old.
It’s estimated one site, set up by a lad from North Shields, cost the music industry £240 million. Growing strawberries all year round, or shipping them across from overseas, has financial and environmental implications. And as the Archbishop of Canterbury is keen to highlight, the credit industry boom is costing people more than just the thousands of percent interest they are charged.
And then we get on to Black Friday. Anyone who saw the news on Friday & Saturday of shoppers’ queuing for hours to get into stores at a minute past midnight to fight over tellys with £50 off must think the world had gone mad.
“Darling, Happy Christmas. You wouldn’t believe how many people I had to punch to get you that…”
But it’s a sign of how our perspective can be so easily shifted by the society around us – things are a bit more subtle than the “don’t forget the Fruit Gums, mum” slogans of old, but shops have been winding up the populous over the last few weeks for these “once in a lifetime” deals, then herding them around like cattle (in some places) before producing a small pallet of limited stock. Somebody I know put a picture on Facebook – the top half was people clamoring for some electrical goods on sale in Manchester, the bottom people in a third world country reaching out for food.
And do you know what. Some people will have bagged a bargain. And I’m happy for them. Some will have to look at themselves in the mirror the next day & contemplate their behavior. I pray for them. But there’s a very good chance that an awful lot of people will find that deal they fought so hard for, in some cases literally, will be repeated later in December, or in the Boxing day sales, or the thing was cheaper online or in a different store, and they’ll feel cheated – if only I’d checked, taken my time, waited…
So waiting is sometimes a good thing, and Advent is the season where we wait, we anticipate the arrival of the Son of God. And we watch. Advent is a time to make ourselves ready for the coming king, to prepare ourselves. We’ve spoken a few times over the last few weeks about anticipating the return of Jesus, and how believers in Christ, those already walking with Him and in relationship should not fear the Day of the Lord as we are already children of the light, and have been given gifts befitting of this status – but also the great responsibility for the building of His kingdom this brings with it.
Advent affords us the opportunity to really focus this waiting, to consciously set time to prepare ourselves.
There is so much darkness around in our world at the moment, and I don’t know about you but sometimes I think we all must feel just like Isaiah at the start of our Old Testament reading today:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
If only God would come down, break into the here & now & solve the problems, stop the wars, heal the sick, make everyone kneel before him. But then, as we look at our own lives, our fears, those little dark corners where the things we’re not proud of or unsure of lurk and hide – so maybe we don’t want that just now; maybe it’s easy to see where Isaiah was coming from when he continues,
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”
This is all quite scary stuff. If only I had some time to prepare. I don’t know the day or the hour, but if only there was a way of making a difference in my own life, someone who could help me make the changes that would put those wrong things right, that would help me to make a positive difference on those around me, to help them to find the way, the truth, the light in these dark times:
“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
He is with us, he can help us to be the people he has called us to be, to be the change we want to see. “In every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul’s words give us hope that we are equipped for the task. Yes, it can be painful – facing the truth can be like turning on a lamp first thing in the morning, when the light burns your eyes and leaves you blinking. But then, as our vision clears, we see things as they really are. And that’s important – we need to be prepared, which is why “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So my request this advent is we all try to commit to one thing that will help us prepare for Christmas – really prepare for Christmas. I’m going to read “Walking Backwards To Christmas” by Stephen Cottrell, which tells the Christmas story in reverse-chronological order, helping to get to grips with the darkness in the narrative as a counterbalance to the way we usually approach the nativity. But find something that works for you – Bible readings, a devotional book, music, art – just approach it sincerely, prayerfully and dare to allow the Spirit to move within you as you do it.
Mark’s Gospel reminds us
“But 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 heavens will be shaken.”
We see the darkness around us. The whole of creation is straining to see “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Let us prepare ourselves, as his elect whom the angels will be sent to gather, for His coming. For “God is faithful; by him each one of us has been called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
He will find us ready because, if we let Him, he will help to make us ready. Amen