Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 29th November
Today we start our new Christian Year with Advent Sunday – “advent” - from the Latin word ‘adventus’ meaning (?) ‘coming’ or ‘arrival’ – because it’s all about the coming of the King, all about joyful expectation – and after a lovely celebration last week at the inauguration of our new Llwchwr Ministry Area we have lots to look forward to if we all pitch in and work together.
I wonder if you notices that each of our readings seems to point to the importance of waiting. We had the Reception class up to the Christmas Experience on Friday – and 4 & 5 yr olds don’t find waiting easy. Mind you, neither do I - waiting in Tesco in long queues while they decide who’s on duty at the till; or when they decide the £20.00 note you want to pay with is dodgy, or when the card machine packs up and you never have quite enough cash, or when that one last item ‘doesn’t have a bar code’ and the person at the till has to ask her ‘supervisor’ (the slowest one on staff) to get another one – which is all the way over with the crockery in the far corner – and then you see her ambling back shaking her head saying there are no bar codes on any of them (& you think ‘I could’ve told her that, otherwise I’d have got one’), so then they have to get the senior supervisor to decide how much the item costs on their database, but oops, the computer’s gone down (& by this time I’m needing to shave again...?) – Aargh! But Advent is absolutely not that kind of utterly frustrating, ‘will I ever get my life back again’ kind of waiting!! No, thankfully, this is all about joyfully anticipating something that’s going to happen - and being intelligently informed and prepared because of the confidence that this will actually come to pass. Waiting in anticipation and readiness – that’s what Advent is all about!!
Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet passes on what he hears the Lord saying: “that the days of promises being fulfilled are surely coming...” Jane Williams the theologian comments that it’s hard to believe that this reading comes from Jeremiah, because he’s usually such a depressive – the so-called prophet of doom. You can read him cursing God for the message he’s had to deliver: that the people of God are about to be taken off into exile in a foreign land. Not exactly the kind of message they want to hear – and obviously they all hate him for saying it. He’s even imprisoned by his own king for getting it right – because he was spot on and the enemies of Jerusalem besieged the city. But for a change, Jeremiah is full of hope and trust; that if they will just wait, watch, endure and try to see the hand of God at work, they will be preparing themselves for a time when Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.
(And) did you notice that our psalm is also full of expectation. ‘Show me your ways Lord, and teach me your paths.’ The whole point of Advent is to learn what God is like’ so you’ll be able to recognize him when he comes – and not to be so frightened by events going on all around that you never get to experience his goodness.
We see this in Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians, which in the Message version goes like this:
May God our Father himself and our Master Jesus clear the road to you! And may the Master pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you…May you be infused with strength and purity, filled with confidence in the presence of God our Father when our Master Jesus arrives with all his followers.
But there’s no time for being complacent, every minute is vital. So there’s a real note of warning that we would do well to heed as well.
And then the gospel writer Luke seems to have taken on what would have been the normal, familiar tone of Jeremiah on a customary ‘bad day’. Luke is normally associated with heart-warming stories of women and children - like Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother – and Mary’s song – the Magnificat; stories of shepherds and sheep, a stable and a manger (‘all the props for The Christmas Experience). But there’s obviously much more to Luke than meets the eye. And here it’s this strange apocalyptic language about fierce storms at sea, the heavens being shaken – and signs in the sun moon and stars.
I loved reading theology as part of my training for ordination – and not just because I got the chance to be taught by some amazing people up in Oxford – but because I realized I hadn’t really paid any real attention to why the Bible had been written, to whom, or what the overall purpose of its very different styles might have been. Like many Christians beginning their theological studies the scriptures had just been for devotional nourishment and handled in small bits (and dangerously if you think about how people bat bible ‘proof’ texts back and forth). I looked up a handout from Michael Green given to us right at the beginning of my theology degree back in 2002. He says it’s important to distinguish the wood from the trees: things that are essential to a believing attitude to the Bible, from those that are not (so not using it like an Old Moore’s Almanac!). And how freeing it was to read that (to quote him): “literalism is no part of the Christian’s faith in the Bible. There are different ways of looking at truth...historical truth is not the same as religious truth. Both are different from poetic truth.”
So we don’t just go straight from the pages of Scripture to action irrespective of the context and of the original situation being addressed. As Michael Green advised “We have to grow up in how we read it”.
Just like we know how to watch for the signs that warn us about changing seasons, so we have to train our perceptions so we can be people who can recognize signs that God is still involved in ‘the rescue business’ because he’s promised to be. (Of course there’s a huge and painful irony here isn’t there – one that we were considering last week as Julie led our thinking about Christ the King. Here’s Jesus talking to his disciples about the kingdom of God being near – and it’s just a short time before his arrest and death. What kind of king is this who ends up on a cross? No matter how many times Jesus tried to tell them this was actually the way God had chosen to reveal his amazing glory, it was something they were wholly unprepared for – they just didn’t get it.
So this task of interpreting the signs of the times is no easy thing to do.
I was listening to a Godpod again recently from St. Paul’s Theological Centre in London and one of the guests quoted Professor John Barton, the Oxford theologian who said that if you know anything about literary genre statements like ‘the sun will darken and the moon will turn to blood and the stars will fall from the sky’...is hardly going to be followed by...’and the rest of the country will have scattered showers and sunny intervals’ (!). We just have to look at the metaphorical language of the reports signifying the doom and demise of the Church of England.
Let’s not underestimate the difficulties and pressures of this time of year. We all know that Tesco (& the rest) started theirs big Xmas sell in the summer – and with the difficulties of economic recession the expectations are still huge.
So let’s encourage each other to begin this Advent with a fresh perspective. Let’s refocus this year because the Advent season presents a fantastic opportunity to think about the coming of Christ the King. Let's see how the Holy Spirit can set our services – and our hearts – alight – and help us reclaim the meaning of it all.
Advent can be a bit confusing, can’t it?. Here we are about to prepare for the birth of the baby-King and at the same time preparing for the time when God makes all things new – when the whole cosmos has its exodus from being enslaved. (I think I’ve mentioned before that it wasn’t actually until the 6th century that Christians in Rome began linking the Advent season explicitly to the coming of the baby King in a manger. At that time, and for centuries after, the "coming" that was celebrated was not the birth of Jesus, but his Second Coming to sort things out - hence the gospel readings that are set for this time of year).
But then I was thinking perhaps the apparent confusion – the overlap of the first and second Advents – arrivals – is actually what Christian faith is all about? (it’s that posh term again – something to impress your friends in the pub: ‘inaugurated eschatology’ – the ‘now and the not yet’.) We celebrate the finished work of Christ – the decisive victory over sin and death, Pharaoh and the Red Sea, Caesar, the kingdoms and structures of this world – and yet we look for, long for, work for and pray for, the full implementation of that decisive victory – to make all things new.
So Jesus’ insistence that we need to stay awake and keep alert must be taken seriously – and Advent can became a wonderfully rich mix of muted, Lenten-like penitential preparation alongside the joyous anticipation of Jesus' birthday and his coming again to make all things new...
Christ came with plenty of prior notice! Prophets and angels joined to proclaim his coming! But this first candle of our advent wreath - dedicated to the Patriarchs – the Fathers (& Mothers indeed) of the faith - also says “wait and see! There’s more light to come” (almost – ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’!) And so here in Waunarwlydd (because it is God’s meadow after all) we’re able to join with the cloud of witnesses stretching back not just to 1888, but to apostolic times, proclaiming the same good news about Jesus!
The real dynamic of God’s kingdom is looking forward. The coming of the King is inexorable – it’s going to happen. When you ask children about Christmas it’s the one coming up that they’re excited about, they’ve usually completely forgotten about the last one.
Is this all unrealistic I wonder? Are we really capable – as we begin December's commercial rush of lights, decorations, present-buying, and saccharine-sweet piped-muzak carols – of finding just a moment or two to properly focus with the help of our Advent services?
I pray so, however difficult. And let’s rejoice, wonderful people – the King is coming, Let’s get ready – in our hearts - shall we?!