Sermon at St James and All Saints

Jeremiah 33.14–16; 1 Thessalonians 3.9–13; Luke 21.25–36

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

When I retired just over 2 years ago I made a vow that I would get to Christmas Day without singing a single Christmas carol. I have to say that it shocked a few people!

‘Singing carols is one of the things that makes Christmas- we love it!’ ‘How can a vicar be so negative about Christmas carols?’ were some of the responses I got.

My reasoning was this: actually I love singing carols and because I’m both an amateur musician, and have been involved in the life of the church for as long as I can remember, I’ve been singing or playing carols for most of every December for the past 60 or so years so that by the time Christmas Day actually arrives I am unable to really appreciate the content of the message they carry. It’s as if I’ve been fed a diet of turkey and Christmas pudding for every day during the December so that on Christmas Day itself, I’m too sated to enjoy it.

So 2 years ago I set out my intention to detox: to really try and keep Advent free of Christmas celebration: and listener, I managed it!  It was a help that in the middle of December we went off to visit my son in New Zealand, but even so, the first time I sang ‘O come all ye faithful’ that year was on Christmas morning with a congregation dressed for the beach.

And that resolution meant that I could reclaim something of the spirit of Advent.  Instead of having my focus continually drawn to the charm of the birth stories told through the carols, I could engage with the sense of yearning - anticipation – longing – hope – expectation. That’s what keeping Advent as Advent and not as a prolonged Christmas season invites us to.

Longing and hoping for what, people might ask. The readings chosen for today help us to think about that.

As we begin a new church year, and particularly as this is the year when we will be engaging with Luke’s gospel in our Sunday readings, you might expect that we would start Advent by reading some of the stories at the beginning of Luke relating to the birth of Jesus.

Because that’s what Advent’s all about, isn’t it – expecting and preparing for the birth of the Saviour in the person of the infant Jesus, at a point in time and in our lives. At one level, - yes of course it is.

But the church, in keeping the season of Advent as something distinct from Christmas, is saying there’s more to it than that. There is something else going on in parallel during Advent which often gets squeezed out when we focus too soon on the birth narratives.

Our expectation is also for another coming, the second coming of Christ. And when that happens, Jesus says, our redemption is near. The focus of Advent hope and yearning is for redemption, the redemption of our broken, hurting selves, the redemption of a broken and hurting world.

So in today’s gospel reading from Luke we hear Jesus speaking from the temple about this second coming. And it couldn’t be more different from the first one.

Instead of an angel chorus of good news of peace and joy, he foresees great calamities and distress, with people fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.

Neither is there anything here to parallel the vulnerability of the birth of an infant. Rather there is a vision of the Son of Man – that is, the Christ himself- coming on a cloud with power and great glory – an image taken up by one of the great Advent hymns: ‘Lo he comes with clouds descending.’  These things are so puzzling and hard to make sense of that it’s no wonder that we would rather stick the rather more cosy image of the baby in the manger.

Why would we be longing and hoping for something which frankly sounds quite terrifying? How can we get behind the New Testament imagery and find meaning?

I think the way to do it is to put it in the context of the whole overarching narrative of God’s vision for humanity, and then it begins to make more sense. We know that God’s dream is for a world in which God’s love, truth, compassion, justice and mercy prevail. God’s overwhelming love for us is such that he longs to be reconciled and reunited with us in such a world; for us to be redeemed and to live in love and peace with God and all humanity. The whole thrust of our scriptures testifies to that longing and plan for our redemption.

God’s longing became Israel’s longing as things fell apart for them, and the prophets, including Jeremiah in the passage we heard today offered God’s promise that one day there would come a Messiah who would inaugurate the longed-for reign of God.

So the birth of Jesus is a moment in history when Israel’s longing for the fulfilment of God’s promise of a Messiah is realised. At Christmas we too celebrate that moment in time when God’s kingdom broke into our world. Because it is in the person of Jesus, the evangelists proclaimed, that the kingdom of God had come near.  

Advent Sunday reminds us that we are a people still longing for the final fulfilment of that kingdom as things continue to fall apart around us. The kingdom of God has come in Jesus, but God’s work in the world is still unfinished; there are promises still to be kept, the world is far from being the dream which God has for it.

God’s longing for the world to be redeemed becomes our longing for redemption: for the time when there will be justice, mercy and peace; when the hungry will all be fed, the humble exalted and the rich sent empty away.

Longing, hoping, yearning, expectation These words don’t express an empty optimism; they invite us to work with God to be part of bringing about the reign of the kingdom on earth. To look for the signs of the kingdom in the midst of our broken world, says Jesus. As the buds on the fig tree are a sure sign that summer is coming, so we can be alert for God’s redeeming activity in the world and be part of it.

How might we do that?

In this church we support the Advent Charity which has been chosen for this year: The Salvation Army who have a particular mission towards the homeless.

There may be things you want to do as individuals:

Some families I know operate a reverse Advent calendar. So instead of (or perhaps as well as) opening a window to find a chocolate or other gift during each day in December, they have a basket into which they put something from their store cupboard each day in order to take it along to the Food bank.

Or plenty of charities like Christian Aid offer the opportunity to give alternative gifts which help to transform the lives of disadvantaged people around the world. For example: just £9 will buy a child in India a set of school books, bag and pens or antibiotics for a mobile clinic.

I have already started singing Christmas carols this year, in rehearsal at least. Thankfully, I no longer have to lead upwards of 7 or 8 carol services.

But I hope my detox of 2 years ago will help me not to lose the distinctiveness of the Advent season – a gift of time when we are invited to prepare not only for the birth of the child in the manger, but for the promise of the glory of the kingdom yet to come.

I pray that we may all keep a holy and joyful Advent full of expectation and longing for the coming of the kingdom.