Wednesday, 19 December 2012

'Stand and raise your heads' - a sermon for Advent Sunday 2012

(Readings: Jer 33:14-16; 1Thess 3:9-13; Lk 21:25-36)

We had around 50 Muslims visit church on Thursday. Most of them aged 5-6. They'd been told to have their eyes open, to look for clues as to what goes on here.

They'd seen a cross - the big one outside, and several inside. They'd seen the big candle in the middle (our Paschal candle, powerful symbol of Easter life). They'd seen the font, the place of baptism, and the altar table, the place around which we share bread and wine together. They'd seen the lectern, from which we read from the Bible... and they saw a Christmas tree... They knew Christians celebrate Christmas, and I asked them where else they might have seen Christmas trees? In the shops, and on the telly, they replied.

I was left wondering what kind of Christmas they thought Christians like us might celebrate. Would the images in the shops and on the telly give them a good idea? Is a 'Christian Christmas' all about over-eating & arguing? And how about Advent, Christianity's four weeks of preparation? From the shops and the telly, my Muslim friends would be forgiven for thinking it was all about parties and drinking and shopping...

And then I looked at our gospel for today...

One version, Eugene Petersen's The Message, renders Luke 21:34 as follows: "But be on your guard. Don't let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise...."

As always, as we enter Advent, with the jolly Christmas songs that have already been jingling out of our radios for too long ringing in our ears, the words we are given from Scripture sound a sharp note of warning, of dissent, an alert to those with ears to hear... to stop, unplug the Christmas tree lights, turn off the TV and radio and look, and listen... Just as our Muslim sisters and brothers in Ramadan very clearly mark themselves out as doing something different to the rest of the world, so in Advent, we Christians are summoned to do December differently... But how...?

If we dig a little deeper into gospel passage, we find Jesus painting a picture of a world in ‘distress, confusion and fear. It doesn’t take much effort for such a picture to ring bells with the world we see on our TV screens and hear on our radios: with Israel & Palestine sending rockets at each other; with floods that tell of environmental disaster; with drastic government cuts in this country that mean, among other things, here in Birmingham we’re witnessing ‘the end of local government as we know it’ (as the Council Leader recently described it).

It is enough to bring us to our knees...

But Jesus says something different. He says: ‘stand - and raise your heads’.

Jesus invites us, particularly through the weeks of Advent, into a different way of looking...

It is all too easy to get enthralled by the smoke of pollution, destruction and war playing out on our news reports, seduced by politicians’ promises that things are about to get better, or indeed by the TV ads for ‘the perfect Christmas’ (if only we bought this, or shopped there...). But Jesus says ‘look somewhere else’ – ‘look at the fig tree’, stare long and hard at the dead branches until you begin to glimpse tiny signs of new life... sit still, quietly, listening long and hard for the ‘still small voice’ whispering to us words of truth & hope...

Because in the midst of the big dramas of our TV screens, both real and fictional, there are little stories of real people – stories of desperate need, stories of courageous care, stories of fragile hope. These are the stories, the people, Jesus summons us, in this Advent waiting time, to pay long, hard, careful attention to. And they are not only in little places half way across the world – they are right on our doorstep...

In September, we began 'Open Door', down the road at The Hub. Offering a place to 'drop in' to, offering a cuppa and some toast, a warm welcome, friendship, and the possibility of practical support - with finding work, putting together a CV, managing money, finding volunteering opportunities, and the like. Nothing dramatic, really simply, literally, opening a door and waiting... And slowly but surely a trickle of people started coming. Coming with real needs, but also with real gifts, real passions, real possibilities - and horizons have opened up, and new and genuine friendships have begun to grow, shared journeys have begun.

In the summer, we did an activity week on the wasteland, at the end of Bromford Drive. Alongside music, games, and art & craft,  a handful of people, younger and older, cleared a path through the most bramble-tangled, nettle-infested, rubbish-strewn part of the wasteland. Some passers-by thought we were mad: it would make no difference, it was futile effort. But many children and adults use that path every day, to get to school, to a playground, to the shops. Echoing the ancient prophets, in our own small way we were ‘preparing a way’ through the wilderness - a highway for young and old, a path for God to walk with human beings.

Two small examples of what we think we are doing here, in Hodge Hill. We're in the business of looking for, and living out, little signs of God’s big future. Those little signs might look, and feel, irrelevant, insignificant. It might feel like we're fighting a losing battle... But those little signs are, in fact, like the first tiny specks of blossom on the fig tree. The beginnings of spring, even in the icy grip of winter. The first fruits of the coming kingdom of God.

If we are to ‘stand and raise our heads’ – to see, and to be, Christ’s body in the world – then we need each other. And we need to pray for each other, as Paul does in his letter to the Thessalonians...

We will need to pray with joy & thanksgiving & abundant love. To pray that we might truly see each other face to face. To pray for our faith to be restored where it is lacking, and for our hearts to be strengthened. And, most importantly, to pray for love to increase and abound among us – for each other... for all God’s children, and for all creation... this Advent, and in the year to come.

I want to finish by offering you an Advent gift - a poem by our outgoing Archbishop, Rowan Williams:

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

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