Tuesday, 1 December 2015


A sermon by Kevin Bright Luke 21.25-36, Jeremiah 33.14-16 & 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13 What does Advent mean to us? It marks the beginning of a new church year (year C this year) and starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas day, ending on Christmas Eve. The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word ‘adventus’, meaning coming or arrival. For some Advent is a time of fasting and prayerful reflection around the birth of Christ and the way in which we might recognise his return. For most of us this is mixed in with the sentimentality and commerciality which surrounds the celebrations and preparation for Christmas. Some reflect as they burn a candle to mark the countdown of Advent and others may pray as they give thanks to God for the little chocolates they find behind the numbered window marked for each day! I heard the merged word ‘anticipointment’ on the radio yesterday, I think it was being used in connection with the new Star Wars film. The person had not yet been to see the film but was already starting to feel that it wasn’t going to live up to expectations. The merger of anticipation and disappointment seems rather negative, surely there’s always the possibility of a pleasant surprise. Clearly no ‘curates egg’ attitude here. Incidentally the term originates from a cartoon in Punch magazine from 1895. Entitled ‘True Humility’, it shows a timid curate having breakfast in his Bishop’s house. The bishop says: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones." To which the curate replies, "Oh no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!" I hope ‘anticipointment’ is not the mind set in which some of us enter the season of Advent where the additional candles end up being the only new light we experience. So it’s worth considering what is it that we dare to hope for this advent on both a personal and church wide basis? If we look to our readings for inspiration we find examples of intelligent waiting, waiting with a purpose. Start with the prophet Jeremiah. We all know someone we like to label the ‘prophet of doom’, never anything good to tell us, always predicting dire outcomes. Well Jeremiah was the original, over decades he tells the Israelites what the consequences of their behaviour will be and because he spoke the unpalatable truth he suffered for it. At the time of today’s reading he was confined to the court of the guards by his own king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian tribes are besieging the city and yet he chooses to give the people a message of hope. At this dark hour he encourages the people to wait and watch and not to lose hope that God will bring salvation and safety even though it must have been hard to believe at the time. Put in a historical context the need to patiently wait for better times sounds straight forward but fast forward to the most challenging modern equivalents and it’s not so easy. If you’ve lost loved ones to war and terrorism, found yourself a refugee or like a dear friend of mine currently have your wife on a life support system it’s not the easiest time to be told that you should watch and wait for signs of better times. This is real life and I know that you will each have your own personal examples which you could put in the place of these. Following the recent distressing events in Paris the Archbishop of Canterbury was quoted as saying that this had ‘put a chink in his armour’ of faith. In the depths of sadness and suffering there are no easy answers and it would be a very dangerous state of mind to start thinking that the life we are living doesn’t matter compared with the hope we are offered once it ends. At times our faith may only survive by a thread or sit deep within us but virtually in a dormant state. Even though we may never make sense of some events the one thing that does make sense is that God is big enough to understand why we may struggle. Our reaction is not a wilful rejection, we are not turning our backs we just can’t see why some things happen. A former Archbishop, this time of York, Stuart Blanch, said that the philosopher Bertrand Russell was right in saying ‘there is no explanation for suffering which can satisfy the thinking man.’ Talking of St Paul he says ‘but within that darkness there are sufficient glimpses for the man of faith to enjoy some reassurance’. What he refers to as reassurance we might simply call hope, I check my ‘phone and see a text message from my friend whose been to see his wife and is excited to tell me she has been taken off the ventilator and is improving, a chink of light! By accepting our doubts the faith that remains, however small, is one based on honesty with God and no matter how difficult this can sometimes be, most of us will have learnt from experience that such relationships are real and enduring as opposed to the superficiality of how we would like things to be. It may help to think of human relationships which at their very best can offer incredible patience, compassion and understanding. It may help to remind ourselves that Jesus told us that great things were possible for those with faith even the size of a tiny mustard seed. God knows us as his people and is not interested in collective labels, institutions or even nations. Jeremiah understood that despite all the rituals and importance of the temple and Jerusalem that real religion was about a living relationship with God. He wrote to the exiles in Babylon telling them that a pagan land was no barrier to worshipping God and that without all the trappings of their religion there was an opportunity for inward faith to flourish, that given time there was a possibility of discovering something far deeper. As we challenge ourselves with what troubles us there is also the possibility of growth or discovering what God looks like so we might recognise him when he arrives. Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, now Greek Thessaloniki. Having established the church he was driven away by Jewish opposition and the church members were left facing persecution without him. Paul sent Timothy to find out how they were faring and when Timothy returns with good news Paul pours out his joy and thankfulness. His prayer is that the church in Thessalonica will prepare itself for the time when Jesus comes again, an instruction that was taken so literally that many stopped working and continuing to plan for the future because they felt Christ’s return was imminent. Hence the need for the second letter to the Thessalonians encouraging the church members to get on with purposeful lives whilst preparing for God’s arrival. As people who have hope for the eternal future we know that the same loving God cares about our earthly lives. Christian Aid have used the slogan ‘We believe in life before death’ to reinforce the message that no one is beyond the love of God. As we await God’s arrival at the beginning of this Advent let’s avoid the sense of ‘anticipointment’ that results from low expectations, pessimism and lack of preparation. The mild weather for much of this month means that the onset of winter is delayed, many leaves remain on trees, not for us yet the starkness of the bear branches against a winter sky. Luke contrasts our coming season with that when the trees sprout fresh leaves to indicate that summer is near. Such changes are visible to all but it is for us as people of faith to develop our awareness of the signs which demonstrate that God has not forgotten us, that he is at work among us and through us and that in doing this we may know him when he comes to us again. Let’s engage with God this advent, he would love to hear from us every day, our worries, fears and doubts as well as what brings us joy, meaning and hope. There’s every chance that we may get to know him a little better and start spotting previously unnoticed glimpses of his light among us. Amen Kevin Bright 29th November 2015

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