Advent I (Why Advent is more grown-up than Lent)

Image   Advent is here again, the season of chocolate filled calendars and trying to work out when is the best time to go shopping and the best time to put up our Christmas trees.  According to the tradition of the Church, it’s also a time to take stock of our lives, a time of self-examination.  It’s a bit like Lent, but with tinsel.

   The story of Advent is actually more grown-up than Lent:  The central metaphor for Lent is Jesus fasting for 40 days in the wilderness.   During this time Jesus faces temptations (colourfully described as a symbolic encounter with Satan) but if we read on we find Jesus overcame the temptations and spent most of the 40 days with the wild animals being ‘ministered to’ by angels.  In my imagination this has always been a ‘Disney Princess’ moment with birds chirping sweet tunes to entertain Jesus while meerkats bring some berries and a cup of water and two funny angels sing a song about enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

   That’s Lent.  Advent has a much sharper edge.  The Central metaphor for Advent is the defeated and persecuted people of Israel longing for deliverance from their oppressors.  And in parallel to that, it has traditionally also been a time to think about the so-called Second Coming of Jesus, which for many Christians pretty much means ‘the Apocalypse.’ 

   So we have two times of self-examination in the Church: one when we think about Jesus and the cute desert creatures, and one where we think about political oppression and the End of the World.

   Advent is all a bit difficult if we take it seriously.  I can see why popular culture prefers to put chocolate in Advent Calendars and focus on Santa preparing for his epic journey rather than the oppression of the Israelites.  I can see why we’d rather think of snow covered countryside and the ‘red red robin bob bob bobbing along’ rather than the Apocalypse.

   But the themes of Advent are central to putting the joy of Christmas into context.  Christmas is just one small part of a much larger story.  In the latest Inclusive Church Newsletter Dianna Gwilliams (Dean of Guildford and Chair of Inclusive Church) wrote:

   “It’s interesting to note that if Christmas was removed from the Bible we would lose a few paragraphs but if we were to remove Advent we would lose all the New Testament and most of the Old. Advent invites us into a consideration of an in-between time – both knowing that the light has come, but acknowledging that we also wait in the dark.”

   Some people believe in a literal ‘Second Coming’ of Jesus “Lo he comes with clouds descending” says one of my favourite (if slightly barking mad) Advent Hymns.  But Jesus returning in the clouds is not my vision of the Advent hope.  I think Jesus returns whenever his teaching of love is followed; Jesus returns whenever we feed the hungry; Jesus returns whenever we talk to our lonely neighbour; Jesus returns when we campaign for justice; whenever we are kind to the least of God’s children.

   The Apocalypse as described in Scripture is not actually the End of the World.  If we manage to read through the hallucinogenic nightmare of the book of Revelation (and get past the beasts with seven heads and the cavorting with the whore of Babylon) we find that all the crazy stuff, and all the turmoil, are just the birth-pangs of a better world.  The important message of Revelation is that no matter how bad things get, if stars fall from heaven and the moon turns to blood, if warfare engulfs the world, there is still hope.

   Advent is the season when we look at the darkness, and we chose to respond, not with despair, but by lighting a candle.

   Advent is a time when we renew our hope in a better world, and commit ourselves to try and bring it about.

   When we talk about the Kingdom of God we celebrate a present reality.  The Kingdom is here, but we also long for its fulfilment when the world is filled with justice and we have peace at the last.  We live with the tension of the ‘both now and not yet’ of God’s Kingdom.

   We look for signs of the Kingdom, and I see them in our slow but inevitable process towards women bishops, in the Pilling Report on Human Sexuality (which contains sone of the sanest things the Anglican Church has said about sex for a long time – but there is still a way to go).  I see the signs of the Kingdom in the work of London Citizens, bringing together people of all faiths and none to make our society more fair and just.  I see the signs of the Kingdom in the faith that keeps fighting to keep the Wash House youth group going despite losing funding, in the commitment to our ESOL classes, in the work of LEWCAS.

   This week some of us were at the Greenwich London Citizens Assembly, those who were there please forgive me for repeating the reflection that kicked-off the event; it is very appropriate to this season of Advent.  It is adapted from ‘You Have to Pick Your Team’ by Sonya Vetra Tinsley:

   ‘Every day presents infinite reasons to believe that change can’t happen, infinite reasons to give up. But I always tell myself, you have to pick your team’.

   It seems to me that there are two teams in this world and that you find evidence to support the arguments of both. The trademark of one team is cynicism. They’ll tell you why what you are doing doesn’t matter, why nothing is going to change, why no matter how hard you work, you are going to fail. They seem to get satisfaction out of explaining how we’ll always have injustice. ‘You can’t change human nature,’ they say. ‘It’s foolish to try.’ From their experience, they might be right.

   Then there is another group of people who admit that they don’t know how things will turn out, but have decided to work for change. I see Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela on that team. I see many of my friends. They’re always telling stories of faith and hope being rewarded, of ways things could be different, of how their own lives have changed. They’ll give you reasons why you shouldn’t give up, testimonials why we’ve yet to see our full potential as a species. They believe we’re partners in God’s creation, and that change is possible.

   There are times when both teams seem right, both have evidence. We’ll never know who’s really going to prevail. So I just have to decide which team seems happier and more fulfilled – which side I would rather be on. And for me that means choosing on the side of faith and hope. Choosing to organise for social justice rather than disorganising for despair. Because on the side of cynicism, even if they’re right, who wants to win that argument anyway? If I’m going to stick with somebody, I’d rather build a team of people who have a sense of possibility and hope. I just know that’s the side I want to be on.

Christ the King – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

ImageToday we  celebrate  the  feast of Christ the King, and I take  comfort from Trevor’s view that we must see the irony in  some of what we hear in church.  Whoever designated this Sunday and then chose the gospel reading  wanted us to see the implications of the mismatch  between words and meaning. 

There are many kings in the modern world.  Saudi Arabia has a king, Abdullah.  He has a personal fortune of over 18 billion US dollars.  He has absolute power, being both king and prime minister.  He exercises it in the great spheres of politics and economics, foreign affairs and national justice.  His response to internal dissidence is dawn raids, torture and, often, public beheadings.  He also involves himself in other  areas of life, for example, he won’t allow women to drive cars.  He can take a less draconian  line – he allowed women athletes to compete in the 2012 Olympic Games and he clearly likes women.  He has over 30 wives and has produced over 40 children.  (I’m not sure if the vagueness of these numbers is the result of inefficiency at Wikipedia or of an uncertainty on the part of the king himself)

Not all kings of course are like King Abdullah.  King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands, went to a state school and so do his children.  He’s a constitutional monarch with a ceremonial role.  His powers are severely limited – he can’t create  laws or refuse to sign a law the  government has made.  His speeches on public affairs are confined to reading statements prepared by the PM.  He’s one of Europe’s ‘cycling monarchs’ – this mode of transport they favour is a metaphor for the homeliness of their life styles, though they’re nearly all very rich.  The king’s birthday is celebrated by a national boot sale.

Our monarch is of course a queen and she fits somewhere in between these examples of kingship.  She’s very rich, though  not on the scale of King Abdullah.  Like King Willem Alexander she delivers speeches written for her by government ministers but she has a great deal of influence, not least on the perpetuation of the class system.   She’s an independent minded woman.  She uses facial expressions and body language to  make her views known.  She will unquestionably pass on her role, her palaces, her valuable  possessions  to her son.

We associate kingship with wealth,  privilege  and power, 

So when we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, what are we saying  about the 1st  century Galilean peasant whose crucifixion we’ve just  read about in the gospel?  Wealth, privilege, power?  Could any of the lives of a king be more remote from the life of Jesus? 

When Jesus wanted to make a point about the relative status of God and the emperor, he had to borrow a coin from someone in the crowd.  He took occasional journeys in a boat and had one recorded ride on a donkey, but his usual mode of travel was on foot.  He commented wryly that the birds  had nests and the foxes had holes but he had nowhere to lay his head.  

In a very enigmatic conversation with Pilate when Jesus was on trial he said: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews”;  This was a clear admission that he didn’t have the power of a conventional king.   Pilate was puzzled and said to him, “So .…You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice”  No wonder Pilate despaired of him.

We live in this world and Jesus taught up to pray: your kingdom come  on earth.

In the cynical, unjust, corrupt 21st century, when it seems that to be modern is to be negative, self-seeking, individualistic  and detached, we must  create the kingdom, in our homes, our workplaces, our communities, here in this church.  

We can’t blind ourselves to the grim realities of life in our world.  In the last few weeks we’ve heard of appalling abuses of power.  The trial of Rebekkah Brookes and Andrew Coulson may result in an acquital but it’ll be a long time before we forget about the casual way that powerful figures in control of our national press have made decision which have blighted lives and caused intense grief.   –An American drone flew over a sovereign state to  kill a man believed to be a threat to US security.  The US has a system of capital punishment, but surely not without a trial.  The owner of the Grangemouth oil refinery  threatened to close it down unless the union agreed to a 3 year pay freeze and a reduction in the pension entitlement of the workforce.   Our  appeal court delivered a judgement that  the actions of the Secretary of State for Health in  respect of the A&E department at Lewisham hospital had been illegal.  He immediately announced that he intended to change the law.  We don’t know whether he’ll get the necessary majority to carry out his intention but there are unnerving echoes of the behaviour of an absolute monarch here. 

But we mustn’t  despair, accept our impotence, give vent to frustration and then do nothing.  The story of the crucifixion is often referred to as the passion narrative and the word passion suggests that Jesus was a passive figure, yielding to his fate.  A careful reading of the story shows that Jesus was in control of events.  He was not a meek victim of circumstance.  The night before his death, he modelled the values of his kingdom when he washed his disciples’  feet.  He shared the Passover meal with his friends as a sign that he would be forever present when even a symbolic fragment of food was offered equally to all who came to receive it, regardless of their wealth, their level of privilege, their power or any other indicators of worldy success.   At the moment of absolute dereliction, when he cried out to the God who he thought had  forsaken him, he accepted his part in carrying out the will of God, absorbing violence and evil into himself and sacrificing himself to protect his followers. 

The kingdom is attainable.  Jesus has redefined the meaning of the word king and he’s shown us what the kingdom is like. We have to make it and continually remake it no matter how many times someone presses the destruct button.     And it involves changes in our attitudes and our life styles, an abandonment of our comfort zone.  When Jesus answered the rich young ruler’s question about inheriting eternal life, he told the young man to get rid of his wealth, to give it to the poor.  The young man went sadly away.   We must find a more positive response.