Advent Sunday

December 3, 2017

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Preached by The Ven. Richard Brand, Archdeacon of Winchester using Isaiah 64.1-9 & Mark 13.24-end at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 3rd December 2017, the First Sunday of Advent.

In the name of Christ who was and is and is to come. Amen.

There’s a story of a rabbi who during a holy Sabbath meal turned to his disciples and asked them, “Where does God live?”

The disciples were stunned by the strangeness of the question, “What does the rabbi mean, “Where does God live?” Where does God not live? Surely we are taught that there is no place where God isn’t present. He fills the heavens and the earth.”

No,” said the rabbi, “You have not understood. God lives where we let him in.”

Today we set out on a new Christian year in this wonderful season of Advent; a season of expectation and preparation as we, the Church,  prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ as the incarnate baby Jesus and also his final coming as judge at the end of time. And the most wonderful gift of God is that Christ seeks to make his home in us. In the words of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’: ‘O holy child.. descend to us, we pray…be born in us today’. God lives where we let him in.

That hymn is perhaps balanced in advent by Charles Wesley’s ‘Lo he comes with clouds descending’. Wesley wrote ‘Every eye shall now behold him, robed in dreadful majesty’. In Mark’s gospel this morning we’ve heard the call to us to keep awake, be alert for the coming of Christ, Christ who comes in judgement.

Here then is a sense of the awesomeness of God and a reminder of what we celebrated last Sunday, the feast day of Christ the King. Christmas is about an extraordinary truth of the awesome majesty of God our creator and redeemer coming to us as one of us to lift us to the possibilities of our immense wonder as human beings made in his image. It would be good at Christmas not to just lower our eyes to a manger but also to raise them, recognizing Jesus robed in the awesome majesty of God. I vainly look forward to the Christmas card that captures both of these.

In Advent we might sing ‘every eye shall now behold him’, but to paraphrase St Paul: how will they see unless we show them?

I strongly believe that part of the present malaise in how the Church is regarded in this country should not be responded to by Christians being more aggressive or more defensive; but by Christians being more confident, confident in God, confident in Christ, confident in God’s grace active in our lives. Where does God live? God lives where we let him in. Our lives need a deeper humility and obedience to God, lives marked then by different priorities to what so often are the priorities of much of society.

A couple of examples of such different priorities.

One might be the environment. Christian priorities might begin with recognition of creation as gift and our part as stewards. Not stewards as some kind of car-park attendants or even middle-managers, but as those entrusted with a care that reflects the care of God: holding a deep sense of the ‘mattering’ of creation, and of what it means for human beings to be responsible beings.

A second example is the economy. What might Christian priorities be? One commentator puts it this way.

The correct foundation for an economy is a biblical one, based on the notion that human beings are subjects, not objects; economies are about people, not about money; and financial markets are tools that serve people, not the other way round. It will place more value on giving than on receiving, on community than on consumerism.

As Christians, shaped by God’s priorities, we can regain confidence in proclaiming by word and deed the ways of God.

The keeping last week of what was referred to as ‘Red Wednesday’ is a reminder that in many parts of the world being confident as a Christian, even being a Christian, means to live in fear. A recent Roman Catholic report suggests Christians are facing the worst persecution in our history. Just think of the reports we hear (and we hear only a fraction of what’s going on) from Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Eritrea, Pakistan and too many other places.

We in the West are seldom persecuted for our faith, but we are mightily distracted. Just compare the patterns of church going now with say 30 or 50 years ago. I’d suggest that too often we look to the church and church leaders for failings which have led to lower attendance and involvement; whereas much of the reality is that the world is a very different place and a place where, as I say, we’ve grown mightily distracted. The classic example is the effect of the first version of the Forsyth Saga on TV all those years ago. For weeks of Sunday evenings (before video recorders) people became hooked on the programme and then grew out of the faithful pattern of Evensong attendance they’d previously practiced. Nothing had changed in the service it was the distraction of an evening in watching TV that created a new habit.

Now I think there’s more to faithfulness than just church attendance – though I strongly challenge those who say you can be a faithful Christian without regularly attending church – but unless people hear and see the witness of Christian priorities, what difference do we make? Where are we letting God in? Even in terms of church attendance do we have the courage as children to sometimes say ‘This Sunday I won’t be at football as I’m committed to church.’ As adults to say ‘Yes, we’d love to come to Sunday lunch but we can’t be with you until such an hour, as we have church first.’ Do we let our faith and Christian priorities guide us and stand up for our faith when discussing issues of Brexit, marriage, housing, war, bioethics? Do we let our money speak of our priorities in how and where we shop and in our giving to church and charities? Do we commit to practical acts of neighbourly help to those near us in need of support or through voluntary work in our community?

I know the answer to many of these is ‘yes’ and I thank God for this, but in Advent let us, through God’s grace, seek to grow in confidence in living out what we believe in.

Our Isaiah reading began with a desperate call from the people of Israel to God for God to intervene and sort things out ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.’ But there was also a deep desire expressed, acknowledging the significance of our part in doing God’s work: ‘Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.’ A deep desire to be moulded and shaped by God as people recognisably God’s people.

Oscar Wilde once said something along the lines of ‘God made us in his image and ever since we’ve been repaying the compliment.’ Advent gives us a very particular opportunity to make this right again; to think about what difference our belief in God and faith in Christ makes to our lives and to those whom we can help see what God is like. Advent is an opportunity for us to commit to turning to God seeking for him to shape us to live by his priorities, so that we can be born again and again in God’s image, moulded and shaped by him. Where does God live? God lives where we let him in.

So be it.