Sermon on 14th December 2014

ADVENT 3   Year B   2014   Lancaster Priory 10am 14.12.14 – preached by Revd Jill Novell

…The spirit of the Lord is upon me..he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives…to comfort all who mourn…

Flicking through the tv channels with the ‘remote’ recently, I come across the end of an episode of ‘Top Gear’ set in the Middle East. Jeremy Clarkson and co. have at last reached their destination – Bethlehem: the place of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’ – although the town is now not so ‘little’ with its sprawling suburbs; and not so ‘peaceful’ with the controversial concrete Israeli West Bank Barrier, which rather like the Berlin Wall, tries to separate one people from another. Undeterred, our three idiots go on to pay homage at the manger, and discover there, clad in a gleaming white Alpinestars racing suit, a baby Stig.

Clarkson, May and Hammond have managed, at least, to avoid their worst conceivable humiliation as they drive with derring-do through war-torn Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria – and that is to have to drive an Opel Astra if their own car breaks down!

Their cheerful profanity about the oh-so-familiar nativity story suggests that it is just that – a story; and nothing more, because what on earth difference has that historic incarnation made to this topsy-turvy world, a world seemingly as unredeemed and torn apart by human strife as ever it was?

And if, then, the Christmas story is just a fiction, let’s all just be honest and concentrate on enjoying the winter bacchanalia with a special new day to celebrate – Black Friday – when the challenge is to see how many fights over superstore flat screen tv’s we can manage all on one day.

But while we leave our three heroes in their privileged playground, the Middle East speaks of another story. This week a UN official has been urging the richer European countries not to become ‘gated communities’, not to turn their face from the plight of the poor. Because in our own day there is a new exodus coming from those historic holy lands of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Gaza, Libya….a tide of human misery seeking a safe harbour from the convulsions of war. After 3 years of civil war, Syria now has 3 million refugees; 10 million more souls still living in Syria urgently seek safety. Tens of thousands have tried to cross the Mediterranean to safety in Europe. Hundreds have died in the perilous crossing, turning the waters especially around the Italian island of Lampedusa into a mass graveyard. A nineteen year old woman fleeing the Syrian war tells how she was four days in the sea and was asked to take two babies from other drowning adults. Perhaps, she said, the babies helped her to endure longer: ‘I drew my strength from the babies’ she said. ‘’I wanted them to live. I prayed and played with them’. One baby survived with her. Another died later of heart failure. Until recently Italy had tried to rescue as many people as it could in its Mare Nostrum search and rescue policy. But now Europe, fearing a tsunami of human need has radically cut back resources – enacting, as one UN rapporteur put it, a ‘let them drown’ policy; and some of the political rhetoric of our own country sometimes seems to proclaim that there is no more room in the inn.

Advent is about a different kind of journeying, a different desiring. John’s gospel and Mark’s gospel mention the infancy narrative not at all; but locate God’s authority in the faithful wanderings of his pilgrim people as he leads them from slavery in Eqypt and gives them shape in the crucible of the wilderness and of exile; and through the unique individuals he calls out – Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, we hear the cry of humanity’s longing for God; we hear of a passionate desire for justice and peace, for a world set to rights, for God’s kingdom. This journeying from darkness to light, from hatred to reconciliation, from exile to homecoming is surely also our journeying; and we are called to play our part in God’s story of redemption.

Advent is a time of preparation, a time to pray for the enlarging of the heart that knows ourselves as part of one world with the poor.

Advent means ‘coming’ and reflects on Jesus’ coming as past, present and future – the coming of Jesus at the first Christmas, his coming into our lives now, and his final coming at the end of time. Jesus spoke of his earthly coming as a time of decision, a Kairos moment: ‘The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel.’ His coming was indeed a challenge, a wake-up call. He challenged religious complacency and hypocrisy. He challenged power structures based on military might and wealth, especially those powerful forces that conspire to keep people poor and downtrodden.. He challenged individuals and communities to examine their lives, their actions, their values and to turn to God. He called on people to make a decision for or against him.

In a very real sense, the Second Coming is now. I don’t mean that I’ve heard that the world will end tonight! But Jesus comes to us every day and challenges us to make a decision. He comes to us, not on the clouds, but in our friends and neighbours, those we meet, those who need our help and support; in the moral and ethical decisions we make every day. He calls us to be alert and awake, to others, to the demands made on us, to own our own struggles and compulsions and weaknesses (not to project them onto others). He warns us against complacency – we can’t always assume that everything will run smoothly for us, that our accustomed routine will continue uninterrupted. Are we ready to deal with sudden crises? Do we have the reserves of faith, strength and love, to deal with the unexpected, with tragedy, with situations that make great demands on us?

So in a very real sense the Day of Judgement is not something remote at the end of time, but is today and every day. For it is by our daily actions and words, our daily dealings with others, the values that guide our choices, that we shall be held to account.

We need to look hard at ourselves to see the things in us which get in the way of God, which prevent his love shining through us. Are God’s ways shown in our lives, as a church, in our homes and workplaces, as individuals; and if not, what is getting in the way?

Next week the Advent focus will move also to Mary – who prepares to bear our saviour Christ to the world. The old world is passing away and God is patiently bringing to birth a new day, a new king and kingdom. In Jesus, God is preparing our salvation.

And what is this salvation? Simply the offer of a gift. The gift of Jesus, that we might receive him into our hearts and lives; might come to know ourselves beloved; might know that the very least of us – especially the very least of us – is wanted and beloved of God.

Mary (our patronal saint) is the Christ-bearer.

And surely that is our calling too, to be Christ-bearers, to welcome the Christ-child into this world, to make real in our own lives, in this generation, the good news of the love and justice of God.