Sermon preached at St James, Colwall, Advent 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

I was browsing the Harrods website the other day and found a tempting new take on the Advent calendar which I’d like to share with you. Here we go:

“New for 2014, Wedgwood has created the Advent House; an exceptional piece guaranteed to add excitement and build joyous anticipation during the countdown to Christmas.”

“Handcrafted in the UK, the Advent House is laser cut to imitate the refined look and graceful lines of Georgian architecture before being painted in alabaster and iconic Wedgwood blue. A delightful Wedgwood blue and white Jasper ware porcelain ornament can be discovered behind each window, 24 in total.”

You’ll be thrilled to know that you can still buy this wonder and I noticed this morning that it’s been reduced from £12,000 to just £9,600.

So get your order in quickly and you can begin to experience that guaranteed joyous anticipation. Starting tomorrow with porcelain carol singers followed by 23 more delights, hardly any of them remotely religious.

I did notice as well something which had never occurred to me before, that while advent calendars always have 24 boxes, the church season of Advent can last anything from 21 to 28 days depending, apparently, on when St Andrew’s Day is. Perhaps I should have said that the other way round but presumably it’s commercial considerations that have standardised the length of the season in our minds at 24.

It is easy to carp at the commercialisation of the run-up to Christmas; but let’s face it, guaranteed joyous anticipation is not what was on offer from our Old Testament reading this morning. You could be forgiven for wondering what the attraction is when Isaiah starts by speaking of a Father who can be expected to burst on the scene in such a violent way.

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!"

It’s a bit scary isn’t it, and the ideas that emerge as this passage continues - a God who hides himself, a people who go off the rails as a result and a final plea to that same God not to be so cross all the time, those ideas are quite disturbing and not exactly designed to get the Christmas season off to a cheery start.

Listen again: “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.”

To a greater or lesser extent I guess the passage is about the prophet’s struggle to work out whether it makes sense to think of God as hidden and active at the same time. It is quite confusing, he’s thinking - God has hidden himself so we fall into sin and iniquity, to stick with those old-fashioned words so redolent of hellfire evangelical preaching. But then God won’t look at us because of our sin and iniquity. Yebbut - we sinned and iniquitised because God didn’t seem to be around in the first place. Who’s to blame here? And what are we sinners supposed to do about it?

There is something about the word sinners. To use it raises immediate suspicions that you’re some kind of Christian zealot but in some circles, evangelical ones in particular, it’s almost a term of affection. We sinners. It’s taken as a given that the person standing in the pews beside you is morally fallible, but still you meet together and raise your voices in praise. There’s a belief that each person harbours within themselves a potential for sin and yet has experienced, despite that sinfulness, divine grace. God has come out of hiding and into people’s lives.

For that is effectively the answer that Christian theology has come up with to Isaiah’s struggle to understand - however this mess arose, God took the initiative to sort it out when he came to the world in the person of Jesus Christ. And it’s that mystery which this season of Advent invites us to grapple with. Though we are sinners, and much as I want to use modern understandable language, I can find no better word - though we are sinners, we can approach God, a God of love who has given us this way to come to him through Jesus.

Harrods guarantee that it will add excitement and build joyous anticipation if you buy their advent house though you have to wonder what the guarantee is worth and I’d also be faintly interested to know how many of the three they’ve sold.

I don’t know about adding excitement but we sinners, meanwhile, follow a rather different narrative through Advent as we prepare joyously to thank God that he has not hidden himself but has sent his Son to show us the way to him.