Sermon - 1 Advent
In the Name...
A man was arrested and brought before the Judge. "Now then" the Judge asked, "what is the charge against this man?" The D.A. replied, "He was doing his Christmas shopping very early." "That doesn't seem like an offence to me.", the Judge said, "What do you mean by “very early”? "Well, your Honour.” answered the D.A. "It was before the store was open."
Advent is one of the most exciting seasons of the year. Not so much, though, because of any religious fervour gripping the land, but, rather because it also happens to be the pre-Christmas shopping season. That's the way it is and that's the way it's been for a very long time and no number of sermons by any number of preachers is going to change that any time soon. But, can you believe that people once waited until just before Christmas Eve to decorate their houses?
Not today. The gift lists are filled well in advance and seasonal decorations sprout weeks ahead of the event in stores, streets and, yes, even rectories, while a mysterious sentiment called “the Christmas spirit” takes control of us to dictate how we spend our time and money like nothing else.
The Church, however, also has its seasonal role to play and for many it's the figure of the Grinch, the spoilsport. Contrary to the merry red and green which adorns the outside world, the church defiantly shrouds itself in sombre shades of blue and purple. And while the sounds of "Jingle Bells" serenade us at every mall and business, in church we sing peculiarly restrained hymns. It's a wonder of contrast re-enacted every year and it's an even greater wonder that anybody puts up with it.
But, then, we, in church, know something. We know the reason for Christmas, and it's not merry. It’s not jolly holly or even remotely pleasant. The reason for Christmas is Sin, coupled with evil and death. Not the most cheerful topics at any time of year and especially tasteless to bring up now. But, what does that bouncy Christmas carol, "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" have to tell us - "Remember Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas Day - (so far, so good) - "To save us all from Satan's power ere we had gone astray." Ah.
But, I suggest that this carol really gets to the heart of Christmas. Yes, we celebrate a birth, but, whose birth? The Saviour - and "saviour" means "one who saves" which, in turn, implies that someone is in need of being saved from some danger. And I wonder who that someone could possibly be and what danger that someone is in?
The first three chapters of Genesis tell an amazing story. They tell of how the universal omnipotent God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them said, "Let us make Man in our own image" and we, Mankind, came into being - unique above all created things in many respects but especially unique in that we and we alone had the power to make moral decisions and, with that, the power to make mistakes. And, as the story continues, we made the biggest mistake of all. We succumbed to Satan's power of temptation and tried to declare our independence from God with the result that we, who were supposed to blissfully rule Nature, ended up becoming subject to, as Tennyson put it, "Nature, red in tooth and claw."
From that day, Sin, evil, and death became part of the human experience. And, yet, despite our mistake, God did not turn his back on us. On the contrary, he sent us his Son to rescue, to save us from this dangerous situation. And that is what and why we celebrate with joy at Christmas.
It is, however, a tempered joy - and here comes the Grinch, again - because we, in church don't stop, as society does, in Bethlehem with a sentimental manger scene and vague thoughts of peace on earth. We go on, as life goes on, and we cannot think about the beginning of the Saviour's life without also thinking of its end. Advent reminds us that the wood of the manger becomes the wood of the Cross. The place of silent night warmth and comfort has no meaning apart from the high noon windswept place of the Skull. What we are saying is that the complete Christmas story includes the Crucifixion.
So much of what we see on display at this time of year is unreal - snowmen, polar bears and toy soldiers; Santa and his reindeer next to Mickey Mouse dressed as a Victorian carol singer. We need reminding that the Cross is the only reality. Yes, the Saviour comes at Christmas, but, Salvation comes through the Cross. That is why Advent is also the season of John the Baptist with his message - Repent. Turn around. Examine yourself. In other words, make some Advent resolutions.
Advent resolutions? Why not? It is after all our Christian New Year season and isn't making resolutions something that a lot of us do on Dec. 31st, the secular New Year's Eve? Of course, we all know that Dec. 31st resolutions made between drinks become Jan. 2nd jokes. But, an Advent season, a month of trial beginnings, time to test our resolves, might produce more lasting results. Real change doesn't come overnight. It takes time. And that's what Advent gives us - time for making resolutions, but, not about losing weight or saving money - more like losing dangerous habits and saving our souls.
That's why Advent can be exciting - because it really is all about cleaning and decorating. But, not our houses - our souls. Filling the cavities and levelling the bumps, straightening out what's gone wrong and smoothing everything that is rough in our characters. That is the real work of Advent, for, once that is done, then we can approach Christmas, sins accounted, slates wiped clean and sing with a clear conscience and renewed understanding the last line of that bouncy carol - "O, tidings of comfort and joy." Comfort and joy.
So, may we keep Advent well this year - and life after Christmas all the better.
In the Name...