Shops display their Christmas decorations in October and many non-religious people begin their preparations for our winter excessorama before Guy Fawkes Day is over. Advent candles are interpreted as the countdown to 24th December. If you want to give yourself a truly bibulous series of sign posts to Christmas you can buy an Advent calendar which presents you with a little bottle of rare whisky every day for a mere £10,000.
But although Advent tends to be subsumed into the commercial Christmas, today is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, Advent Sunday. Happy New Year.
Most religions keep a New Year and each New Year has traditions with certain features in common. They include looking back as well as forward. The Roman god Janus who gave his name to January was portrayed with two profiles to represent this aspect of the new year. This year seems to have involved a great deal of looking back, partly because there have been so many centenary celebrations – the Balfour declaration, Martin Luther’s proclamation in Wittenberg, instituting the protestant reformation, the Russian revolution, the campaign at Passchendael where half a million men in two armies died in a hundred days.
Our readings this morning however encourage us to look forward.
Psalm 80 was written against a background of anguish, helplessness, intense suffering at the hands of the Assyrians who had invaded and enslaved the northern kingdom in the 8thc. BUT just as the psalm begins with a plea to God as shepherd, an echo of his role in psalm 23, so it ends with confidence that God will grant his people new life, restore them, make his face to shine upon them that they may be saved.
The same positive note runs through the passage from the letter to the Corinthians. Paul assures the Corinthians that having been enriched by the grace of God they can give full expression to the gift they have received, the revelation of Jesus and their secure faith in his life as it has been made known to them. The last half sentence of this passage, a resounding list of monosyllables, emphasises the theme – God keeps faith.
The gospel reading looks forward to the apocalypse. By the time this text was written, the situation of the Jews as subjects of a ruthless imperialist power was even worse than it had been at the time of Jesus’s ministry. Unrest was at a stage which was to lead to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, divisions in society and the eventual persecution of the Christian communities. It sounds familiar. The gospel writer makes it clear that Jesus had predicted these events. BUT there is hope. Even in the midst of riot and chaos, the Son of Man will send angels to gather his chosen from the furthest bounds of the earth to the furthest bounds of heaven. No matter what kind of lanaguage is used to express the idea, whether it be in modern colloquialism or 16thc. formality, the message is clear. Nothing can overcome the power of the God of love, of justice, of truth, of peace, of joy, of kindness, of goodness.
This is the Advent hope. It’s the opposite of disappointment, despair, cynicism. It’s not facile Panglossian optimism, the notion that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. It’s not whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. It’s a firm belief that we are held in the eternal arms of the God of love who lives among us and within us.
As well as looking back to celebrate the passing year, we’ve looked back in anger, in horror, at the divisions in our society, at the opportunism of many of our leaders, at the violence that seems to be the first resort when differences need to be settled, at ‘fake truth’, the notion that what you say doesn’t have to be true, as long as you can get away with it.
But it’s our task here in Dartmouth Row to create an environment of hope.
What do we have to hope about? We’re looking forward to Christmas, the birth of the baby who will show us the face of God.
The nativity stories make the most sense if we recognise them as metaphors. Think of the harshest, impoverished circumstances you can imagine, drawing on footage of squalid refugee camps and desperate people clinging to unseaworthy boats, at imminent risk of drowning. Take your pick of an oppressed nation living under imperial domination. Then switch your imagination in the direction of a gathering of shepherds – peasants, unsophisticated, uneducated men, enchanted by a baby. Picture the wise men who’ve spent two years travelling huge distances to make their symbolic offerings. Open your eyes and ears to brilliant light and glorious music in the sky lifting your spirits and recharging your soul. And at the centre of it all there are loving, dedicated parents forming a vital attachment with their baby. They knew all about poverty but they were lavish with their social capital, even if they didn’t have the first idea what social capital is. Their story gives us hope.
Our mission here in the next year is to bring the love of God to our community. We must proclaim it in this church and we must take it out to our families, our neighbours, our colleagues, our chance acquaintances. Jesus showed us how to do it. He explained that every day and at the last day, we are being judged, not by what we believe but what we do. Last week’s gospel message was clear: every time we look a hungry person in the eye and give her the price of a meal, every time we welcome a stranger into our midst, every time we visit someone who is lonely or feeling unloved, we’re obeying the command of the God of love. We’re not doing this so that we experience a warm inner glow. Or because we find all our fellow human beings universally attractive or receptive. . You may remember that section in the Screwtape letters when the Demon tells his nephew, Wormwood, that you can recognise Christians because they’re determined to do good, and you can recognise the people who are being done good to by their hunted look. We act out of our love of God, our awareness that he loves us and we need to be the channel of his love in our world, to rich and poor, to loveable and unappealing, to people like us and people we’re tempted to cross the road to avoid.
In our society now we live with a scandalous level of inequality. Most people in this congregation can depend on security, comfort, privilege. But even in our parish, in the capital city of the ?5th wealthiest country in the world, many people live in poverty, poorly housed or homeless, malnourished, with limited expectations for themselves and their families. We must campaign and act for a fairer society where all are given the dignity that recognises them as the children of God. We must build on our efforts to provide for our young people, the asylum seekers, speakers of other languages, elderly and lonely people. those in need at home or abroad.
This is the darkest time of the year, literally. It’s our task to bring light into the world, to share the Advent hope. The winning Booker prize novel was generally reckoned to be very strange this year and critics commented on the strangeness as a kind of warning to readers. George Saunder, the winner, confronted that anxiety head on. “ If you’ve noticed, we live in a strange time. So the question at the heart of the matter is pretty simple – do we respond to fear with exclusion and negative projection and violence? Or do we take that ancient great leap of faith and do our best to respond with love? And with faith in the idea that what seems other is actually not other at all but just us on a different day?”
Margaret is a retired teacher and serves as Reader at the Church of the Ascension
There is no substitute for attending church – the communion, the community (the coffee and biscuits at the end!) ...but if you do miss a Sunday service you can find past sermons here