Archives for posts with tag: Advent

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Christmas-Day, 30th December 2018

Isaiah 61; Galatians 3:27-4:7 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=412935020)

Do you remember when Jesus started to read in the synagogue – it’s in Luke 4, from verse 17 – and he read out from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, and then said, ‘This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.’ In other words, He was the Messiah, which Isaiah had prophesied about, had foretold in our lesson tonight, chapter 61, and chapter 61 was what Jesus was reading out.

That prophecy is all about the salvation of Israel, deliverance from its oppressors, from the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians – and latterly, it would be, from the Romans – deliverance from slavery; because the Israelites were the chosen people of God, and God would keep his promise to them.

That’s as you would expect. Jesus was Jewish, he was an Israelite. He was brought up in the Jewish culture. The gospel of St Matthew, aimed at a Jewish readership, is at pains to set out his genealogy, tracing it back to King David, son of Abraham.

But truly, if the story of Jesus had just been a Jewish story, just been a story about Israelites, that story would have remained a footnote in history. But the genius of St Paul was to realise that the one true God is the god of everyone. There isn’t just a god for the Jews, or for another national group – or in those days, for the Romans. God is far bigger than any question of nationality or origin.

And so we have this great passage in the Letter to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. [Gal. 3:28f]

Just as Isaiah had prophesied,

I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
And their seed shall be known among the Gentiles, and their offspring among the people”

God’s chosen people are no longer to be regarded as being just the Israelites, but rather all those who are ‘in Christ Jesus’, who are Christians. They are God’s chosen people now. ‘Their seed shall be known among the Gentiles’, just as much as among the Jews.

Paul’s mission to the ‘nations’, (which is what the Latin-based word ‘gentile’ means), to the non-Jews, opened the door to Christianity becoming a universal religion, and there is no bar in it to anyone on the grounds of nationality, or colour, or origin: being, and becoming, Christian, and indeed that key expression in St Paul’s thought, being ‘in Christ Jesus’, is integral to the way he understands God: that God is at the heart of everything, the ultimate creator and sustainer of all our being.

But although Jesus’ coming as the Messiah meant that we should look wider than just the sons of Abraham, the Israelites, in order to find who are God’s chosen people, nevertheless, in Isaiah’s prophecy, there are some key truths which, maybe, started as distinctive Jewish or Israelite concerns, but nevertheless now have a worldwide or universal importance.

Important among these is the concept of justice.

‘.. to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God’

This is all about the rule of law. In the Jewish Law, the ‘acceptable year’ is the Jubilee year, is the year one-in-seven when debts were forgiven; when people were allowed a new start. Not that the law disappeared, but that its application was tempered with mercy. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained’, if you prefer Shakespeare. [The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1]

‘For I the Lord love judgment, I hate robbery for burnt offering’. Don’t go out and pinch your neighbour’s things so as to be able to afford to put more in the collection plate. The Lord loves judgment. The Lord loves the law. Do the right thing. And the right thing is a message of renewal and, as I have observed so often, and particularly in Advent, the message of the Bible is one which is full of the counter-intuitive, it is often contrary.

See, Isaiah foretells opposites: ‘ … beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness’. This is not a message of despair: this is a message of hope. But it is hope based upon a fresh appreciation, on repentance, on throwing away the old truisms; casting off slavery; slavery, which means forcing people to work for less than they need in order to pay the rent and to buy food. And look, in this vision of justice, Isaiah sees that

strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.’

Strangers. Sons of the alien. That is what the Millennium looks like. There is nothing wrong with people coming and joining our society and doing useful jobs. But note that, both in Isaiah and in St Paul, it’s not the case that origins and nationality are obliterated. It’s more a question that there is no hierarchy of worth, based on nationality or origin.

‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female.’

It doesn’t literally mean that. It means that the connotations of being Jewish, or the connotations of being Greek, what it means to be in slavery, what it means to be free, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, do not include connotations of worth: or to put it another way, they are all equally worth.

It doesn’t mean to say that they are all the same. But it means that you can’t say, just because somebody is from a particular country, for that reason, they are less entitled to share in the world’s riches than someone who is from Hollywood – or from the British Hollywood, Cobham.

So as we begin 2019 on Tuesday these are very timely lessons. In the good society there is no room for xenophobia or nationalism – although we can celebrate our differences and enjoy the riches of each other’s culture. We can explore new foods, new literature, new ways of looking at things, that come from different places of origin.

I was blessed, earlier in my life, in having ten years of fairly constant travel, to all sorts of other countries. I really enjoyed learning about different ways of life and making friends with people in other countries. But today, there is a worldwide movement against this, based on nationalism and xenophobia. Freedom of movement, for our young people to be able to do as I did, to travel freely throughout the world, to live and work and different places; and the other side of that coin, for people from other countries to be able to come freely here, to make their life here if they want to do so, by working hard and contributing to our society, that freedom is being overtaken, overtaken by narrow nationalism.

We should recognise that there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek’ in the Kingdom of God: that we are all sons and daughters of God, descendants of Adam and Eve: and Jesus is the second Adam, ‘a second Adam to the fight’ as the hymn puts it. He is really Everyman – He is for everyone.

Advertisements

Sermon for Evening Prayer with the Prayer Book Society, Guildford Branch, on Saturday 26th November 2016 in the Founders’ Chapel, Charterhouse

Isaiah 24; Matthew 11:20-30 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=347292826 for the text

‘Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down.’ This is First Isaiah – first of the three writers who contributed to the Book of Isaiah – gloomy, doomy; Isaiah at his gloomiest.

And then ‘Woe unto thee, Chorazin!’ Jesus berates all those places where they have ignored his teaching and have failed to mend their ways.

It’s tough stuff. I don’t know whether it’s just because I’m a preacher but, when the lessons are read out in a service, I immediately start to imagine what points the preacher will draw out from the passages in the Bible which have been set for that day.

How does the Bible speak to that congregation, I wonder. What will their minister make of that lesson? And my thinking is coloured also by what has been going on in the world. Has anything happened in the world outside which will test our faith? Are there any situations about which we need God’s guidance and help, where we depend on His grace?

What would I expect today? The lessons are full of doom and gloom. The world has turned upside down. God punishes those who have broken his covenant. Jesus says it will be ‘more tolerable for the land of Sodom, than for [Capernaum]’. Indeed, Capernaum ‘shalt be brought down to hell’.

Is there a message for us today?

Is this something which could apply to the vote for Trump, or for the USA under Trump? Or is it reminiscent of Britain, divided in the face of the Brexit referendum? Is the race hatred that has arisen in both countries, the blaming of minorities and outsiders, the move away from openness and internationalism towards a narrower nationalistic approach, the sort of thing which the prophet, and which Jesus himself, was alluding to, all those years ago?

But just a minute, you might say. There’s a time and place for everything – and this is the Prayer Book Society service immediately before Advent. We are looking forward to the joy of Christmas. Let us just take refuge in the beauty of the holiness that is the Book of Common Prayer. Never mind all that Last Judgement stuff. Look, our New Testament lesson ends with those Comfortable Words, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

And also, we are a rather varied congregation. We come from all sorts of churches, with all sorts of theological emphases. Some of us come from churches where the BCP isn’t much used, and where there is a modern, evangelical approach, emphasising the Bible as the Word of God. And some members might even rely on some of the wording in the BCP to justify not having women priests, and not accepting gay marriage.

Others of us come from churches where the BCP is used regularly, but the theology is decidedly liberal. Less influenced by John Stott or David Bracewell than by David Jenkins or the John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ – or lately, of Victor Stock. We love the language of the BCP and treasure its theological riches – but we allow that it is of its time, and it has to be read, and used, in a nuanced, undogmatic way.

Phew! That’s all right then, you might think. Nothing controversial this afternoon. Roll on the splendid ‘match tea’ in the Saunders Room. No need to worry about the awful things going on in the world this afternoon, at least. This is our Prayer Book Society meeting, and we can just enjoy renewing our friendships and celebrating how lovely the Prayer Book is.

We’re on the brink of Advent, too. Let’s not spoil it with politics. After all, the other thing that’s happened this week has been that happy holiday, Thanksgiving, in the USA. I have had the splendid experience of preaching, in Hartford, Conn., on Thanksgiving Day. Then, again, I faced a dilemma whether to link the Bible lessons for that day with some of the things going on in the world for which one would be strongly inclined not to give thanks: poverty in the midst of plenty, homelessness, wars and refugees.

I don’t think that in church we should ever shy away from political and social engagement. I agree with both our current archbishops, that Christians ought to engage with the problems of secular society. ‘Faith in the City’, [https://www.churchofengland.org/media/55076/faithinthecity.pdf] the Church of England report into spiritual and economic decline in various inner city areas in 1985, criticised Thatcherism and was itself heavily criticised at the time – but it bears re-reading now. The nonconformist churches produced a comprehensive report three years ago called ‘The Lies we tell Ourselves: ending comfortable Myths about Poverty'[http://www.methodist.org.uk/news-and-events/news-archive-2013/lies-about-poverty-shattering-the-myths]: and the House of Bishops sent an open letter entitled ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ to the ‘people and parishes of the Church of England’ before the 2015 General Election [https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2170230/whoismyneighbour-pages.pdf].

But again, being engaged doesn’t necessarily mean following a particular political doctrine. There are Christians in all the major parties, even including UKIP, in this country. Even Revd Dr Giles Fraser supported Brexit. Donald Trump in the USA gained support from the ‘Bible Belt’ of conservative evangelical Christians there.

So as I deliver my sermon to you, I can expect that, when you listened to the scarifying words of Isaiah chapter 24, and Jesus’ condemnation of the places who had ignored his teaching, I can expect that you will have brought a variety of things into mind. Does the rise in hate crimes, xenophobia and racism both here in the U.K. and in the USA have anything to do with the populist politics of the so-called ‘alt-right’, Trump and the Brexiteers? The man who murdered Jo Cox MP was shouting white supremacist slogans as he killed her. Was he encouraged to do so by the nationalist tone of some politicians?

Or would you take a different view? Would you, for instance, link the apocalyptic visions in our lessons today to the sort of things that GAFCON has made a lot of – the many clergymen in our church who are openly gay, whom GAFCON have listed publicly? Is that the sort of sin (if it is a sin) which would break God’s covenant?

Well, this isn’t Question Time, and, until the Match Tea in a few minutes, you can’t answer back, so I don’t know what links you will make in your mind. But it is important that you do try to make those links, and to reflect on what God’s Word is telling us about our lives, and our countries’ lives, today.

At least I am confident that, when I challenge you gently in this way, you won’t react like one of the congregation at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn., did after my Thanksgiving sermon there [https://hughdbryant.co.uk/2013/11/29/a-turkey/]. I had preached about food banks and poverty. This gentleman shook my hand warmly as he went out, and said, ‘I enjoyed your sermon very much. But mind you, I entirely disagreed with it. Indeed, if I were a younger man, I would have had to shoot you!’

Now Hartford is the home of the Colt Manufacturing Company, makers of the famous Colt 45. Quite a thought. I do hope you all checked your weapons in at the door!

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, 29th November 2015 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Luke 21:25-36 There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations …

It’s Advent. We’re about to embark on that happy progress up to Christmas. We will get together with our families. We will give presents. We will send cards. We will be happy, and friendly, and full of the ‘season of goodwill’.

So why such a doom-laden Bible reading? Surely it’s all fun in the run up to Christmas?

Advent is looking forward to the coming of God on earth, Emmanuel. Today we are looking forward to the revelation of God. Quite a lot of the Bible readings in Advent are about watching and waiting, looking for the coming of the Kingdom of God. When the baby Jesus appears, that is the revelation of God. God isn’t some impossible hugeness, some grand master in the sky: He is a baby.

This is a time for deep reflection, spiritually, in the light of that astonishing Revelation. There are some important challenges for Christians out there. To start you off on your Advent reflection, here are some things that I have encountered.

I went, earlier this week, to a presentation by the Walton Charity, the Walton-on-Thames charity, the very old-established (its origins are 800 years old) and influential body who are behind all sorts of good works locally. They had commissioned a report from an economic think-tank, the New Economics Foundation, under the title ‘Inequality in Elmbridge’.

Some of you may have been at the reception too: I must confess that I have given up using the Rugby skills that I once had, in order to get to the prawn sandwiches. So I’m sorry if I didn’t greet you. It was heaving with people.

It looked like everyone was there. All the local great and good. A county councillor or two. Senior people from Elmbridge Borough Council and Surrey County Council. Social workers. Foodbank people. Businessmen.

Our borough, Elmbridge, was being looked at, from an economic standpoint. How were the lowest paid fixed? What was affecting the middle class people? What about the commuters?

It comes as a surprise that there are any poor people in Elmbridge. It’s supposed to be the second richest borough, in the sense that the average income is second only to Kensington and Chelsea. But – as I know from my work as manager of the Cobham Foodbank – there are substantial pockets of deprivation and poverty.

For instance, our area has one of the highest levels of domestic violence in the country. This means that there are single parents – usually women, with children – trying to put their lives together, sometimes after years of abuse. They aren’t in a fit state to work. They lack self-esteem. There’s a wonderful charity in Cobham, Oasis Childcare, which provides all sorts of courses and support for them, even taking their clients on holiday in the summer. This year they took 70 families to Weymouth for a week.

Oasis’ clients are our clients too, at the Foodbank. We provide food for around 30 people each week: 1,500 not very exciting, but nutritionally balanced, parcels of non-perishable food a year. In Cobham, Stoke and Oxshott. Yes really. There really are a number of people who sometimes find that they haven’t got enough money even to buy some food. We were a bit quiet on Friday – we provided food for 17 adults and 4 children, the day before yesterday.

In the next chapter of the report, it looked at middle income earners. The middle income people have different needs, compared with the very poor people. They aren’t hungry – they have good jobs – but they want more. They admire their neighbours’ new kitchens and curved-screen TVs: they stretch themselves financially in order to keep up with the Joneses. They spend a bit more than they actually earn – and they worry. Will it all come to an end? Their lives aren’t secure.

And finally the report looked at some wealthy ones, who are commuters – couples, who both get the 7.56 to Waterloo, and don’t get home much before 8 most evenings. They don’t really know anyone in the village, and they don’t really participate in local life. They have lots of money – but once you’ve put that island in your kitchen, what else can you do with it? And as every German motorway – Autobahn – driver knows, however fast you are going in your beautiful bolide, there is always a Porsche, a faster car, coming up to overtake you.

Remember what our Gospel today said. ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.’ (Luke 21:34-35)

There’s a spiritual emptiness in our world. What is really worth something? What will have lasting value? The posh kitchen and the Bentley in the drive won’t do it.

The thing that struck me was that none of the great and good, who were gathered to mark the publication of the report, were saying anything much about it. What do the grandees and the local councillors feel? How much of the poverty, the poverty in the middle of riches, is down to ‘austerity’ and cuts in benefits?

How do we feel about the huge gaps between rich and poor, and between the rich and the richer? Should we – dare I say this? – pay more taxes?

Would it help if people came to church and said their prayers a bit more often?

Oh, and another thing. We’re going to be singing about peace in all those Advent and Christmas hymns. Take hymn 56, [Common Praise] for instance:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
‘Peace on earth, good will to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King!’ …

‘Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song that they bring:..’

Are we really going to be bombing Syria at Christmas? I have to say that, although of course we all sympathise completely with the poor people in Paris who suffered from the terrorist atrocity, and with the Russian families who lost relatives and friends in the plane which IS bombed, nevertheless it’s not clear to me what the objective of dropping even more bombs in Syria would be. The Americans have been dropping huge numbers of bombs already, and there is no sign that IS is going away. On the other hand, just as when they bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital by mistake, or when they killed an IS leader with a drone strike (and killed four others, nameless in the same car), there are always innocent bystanders who are killed and maimed as well.

Let’s use this time of prayerful anticipation in the lead up to Christmas, let’s use Advent, use it as a time to reflect and think again what Jesus’ true message for us today would be.

Back to the carol:
‘Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.’

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, 30th November 2014, at St John’s Episcopal Church, West Hartford, Connecticut

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Yesterday I asked your Rector and her Assistant, Hope and Bill, ‘Is today still part of the Thanksgiving season? Or is it the beginning of the run-up to Christmas – Advent?’ I needed a bit of technical advice – both on the Thanksgiving part, and of course also on the theological side.

As you will realise, I can claim to be at all qualified only about the theology. As a mere Englishman I don’t know enough about Thanksgiving – although, as this is my third Thanksgiving here in Hartford, I am getting the hang of it. It’s a lovely time. I have to tell you that at home in England, a supermarket chain, Waitrose, in their in-house newspaper, are claiming that 17% of Brits – yes, Brits – are now celebrating Thanksgiving – or at least having turkey dinners on Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps – and I hope this is not too cynical – this is some variation on the idea of turkeys voting for Christmas, but this time promoted by the farmers.

Hope preached a lovely sermon here on Thursday about remembering: looking back at the year and giving thanks for all the blessings we’ve received. At our Thanksgiving dinner, she went round the table and we all had to tell the others about something we wanted to give thanks for. Both the lovely thoughts the sermon brought out, and our stories round the table, were gentle and kind and good. Good memories, good feelings; real thanksgivings.

But now, as members of Christ’s church, we are called to be in a different mood. The secular world and the Christian one have different calendars here. If we’re not churchgoers, Christmas marks the end of the year, and Christmas, not Thanksgiving, leads to the new year.

But as Christians, Episcopalians, Anglicans, we mark the end of the church year and the beginning of the new one now, just after Thanksgiving, at the end of Ordinary Time, as it’s called in the Lectionary, at the beginning of Advent, today. This is the beginning of a new church year.

And Advent is a season not of unmixed jollification, but of penitence. As Isaiah says, we have rather forgotten God. ‘There is no one who calls on your name.’ We are caught up in Black Friday, and in ‘so-and-so many shopping days to Christmas’.

But if we change our point of view, and see things through the prism of our Christian faith, then Advent is the beginning of a new year, the time of anticipation, looking forward to the Christmas story, to the momentous events which show that God is with us. With Isaiah we say, ‘You are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand’. But God is not just the divine watchmaker, a creator who has simply wound up the mechanism, put it down and let it run, without any further interference. Instead God has become incarnate, become flesh and blood, become a man like us.

So in Advent we are waiting to celebrate the coming of Jesus, the coming of God as a man, that was His first coming. That is certainly something to look forward to, and surely it’s all right to be quite jolly about it. Of course the children – and maybe some of us grown-ups too – get pleasure out of thinking about the nice things they hope to get as presents. But for us the biggest present, the most generous gift, is the one from God, the gift of Jesus.

That should also make us pause and reflect. In the face of this, in the face of the fact that God didn’t just make the world and then ignore it, didn’t just leave it to get on by itself, we have to reflect on the fact that God knows about us, God cares about us. What do we look like to Him? What sort of shape are we in to meet God? That’s why Advent is a time for reflection, for penitence.

Just after my sermon we will say the Creed together. We will say, ‘He will come again’. Jesus will come again. We will pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come’. In both cases, we will imply that Jesus, and Jesus’ kingdom, haven’t come yet. The coming of the Kingdom, the Second Coming is still ahead.

Jesus talked about these things in his sermon which we heard in our Gospel reading today. ‘Lo! he comes, with clouds descending’ as Charles Wesley’s great hymn, which we just sang, puts it. The last trump, the Day of Judgment, the end of the world.

Now I suspect that for most of us that’s a vivid image, a powerful picture – but nothing really more than that. In any case Jesus must surely have been mistaken when He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’: even if we don’t actually contradict that, or reject it, we are tempted not to try to understand it at all. It’s too far-fetched.

But Jesus clearly did want us to keep it at the front of our minds, not at the back. ‘Wachet auf! (‘Keep awake!’) as the music at the beginning and end of the service says. ‘Keep awake, the voice is calling’. There might even be a contradiction between Jesus’ first statement, that ‘this generation will not pass away’ until the end time has come, and His second statement that ‘about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’

What would you do if you encountered the risen Jesus, now? To put it another way, are we right to keep all this talk of the Kingdom of God conveniently separated from our normal lives? Are we right to think of it as something that might happen in thousands of years, but definitely not something that will happen to us? Can we be absolutely sure about that?

Jesus definitely wanted to make us less certain. I would suggest that He wasn’t necessarily talking about a Second Coming which was all in the future. Remember the wonderful passage in St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, when Jesus has come in his glory to judge the nations, dividing the sheep from the goats; and He says to the righteous people, the good sheep who are going to heaven, to eternal life, ‘I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in.’ They didn’t understand. ‘When did we do all this?’ they asked. ‘And the King shall answer and say unto them, “… Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”‘

How really important that is. It means that in one sense, the Second Coming, the Kingdom of God, has actually happened already. Jesus is with us. He is in everyone we meet. If you do it to someone else, you do it to Jesus. You may have difficulty believing in some kind of supernatural Flash Gordon riding on the clouds. But you’d be far less wise to rule out seeing the Holy Spirit in the people you meet.

So do keep awake. Look out for someone who is ‘an hungred’, hungry; someone who has no clothes; who is sick, or in prison. But I would dare to say, don’t worry about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. No-one knows when they will be coming. Have a happy and blessed end to the Thanksgiving holiday, and I pray that this time of Advent will be for you a time of prayerful – and joyful – expectation.

Sermon for Holy Communion at St Mary’s on 1st December 2013, the First Sunday in Advent
Romans 13:11-14, Matt. 24:36-44 – The Thief in the Night

Some of you may know that I have just come back from a visit to the USA, where I enjoyed Thanksgiving with some friends. It’s like a combination of Harvest Festival with Christmas – you eat a massive meal of turkey with all the usual trimmings – and with some things we don’t have, like fresh cranberries instead of cranberry sauce, squash as one of the vegetables, and pecan pie for pudding.

The timing of the meal depends on whether the family you are visiting favours a brisk walk in the park afterwards, playing touch football or watching it – American football, that is. The TV schedule is often influential in the decision concerning the timing of Thanksgiving lunch. Another thing is that you may find that you need to rest your eyes. Somehow there is no need to eat or drink anything more that day!

Thanksgiving is just that, thanksgiving, a season where the Americans give thanks to God for the abundance of good things that they enjoy. It looks back to the hard work of the harvest. It doesn’t look forward to Christmas. It’s not like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, a blow-out before a time of restraint and fasting.

So in America, on Thursday it was Thanksgiving. I flew back yesterday – and now the season of Advent begins. One is tempted to think that, if one were an American, it ought to be a seamless transition from one season of joy to another. From one turkey dinner to another, at Christmas. Only so many shopping days to Christmas: Christmas parties: starting to think about good resolutions for the New Year. Sit down at the fireside. Happy times.

Even if you can put presents and shopping out of your mind, still at Advent it is wonderful to reflect, to reflect on God with us, how God became incarnate, took on human form, in the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. The deep meaning of Christmas is that it is a sign of the revelation of God to us. We would not know much about God if He had not revealed Himself to us. He was born, he was a human baby – but He was also God, and He showed his divine nature to us – showed it to us in person.

That’s the background to our lessons today. You might think that the Advent time, when the church prepares to commemorate the birth of Jesus, would just be a time of mounting jollifications as a result. Christmas is a happy time, because we are celebrating the tangible evidence that God cares for us. By coming in human form, God shows that He isn’t just the blind watchmaker, setting the world in motion and then not bothering with it again.

But also we have to acknowledge that precisely because of this, it ought to be a time of awe, of reverence, for the majesty of God. Although a baby doesn’t on the face of things, look particularly fearsome, once you fully appreciate what that baby represented, then, indeed as the Wise Men did, you are called, perhaps even feel yourself to be compelled, to show respect, to offer worship.

The lessons set in the Lectionary for today start with Isaiah 2:1-5, which we haven’t read in our service, but which might be a passage for you to read at home after lunch. It is that very familiar passage, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, … that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’. He shall judge between the nations …; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks…’ Isaiah 2.

This time of the Kingdom will be a time of judgment. And St Paul picks up on that in his letter to the Romans. ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.’

And last comes St Matthew’s gospel, recording the words of Jesus himself, rather eerily warning people to be ready for the coming of the Kingdom, as though it would not be unmixed good news. It will come like a thief in the night, unexpectedly. ‘… two will be in the field. One will be taken and the other left’ in Matthew: and the process is compared with Noah’s flood in Romans. This is the end time, the Day of Judgment, the Dies Irae.

At first blush it doesn’t fit such a happy, jolly time as the run-up to Christmas. But traditionally, the church has used this time to reflect on the meaning of God with us, Immanuel, in terms of the Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

To some extent I think that raises a question what exactly we are doing as we follow the liturgical year. We aren’t literally looking forward to the birth of Jesus – after all, He has already been born. It is a commemoration. We are doing something similar to a serious play. We are acting out a sacred story. By telling the story, we get into it, as indeed actors sometimes say, they get into character.

So we aim, as Christians, to be in character for the Advent drama. That drama is far too awe-inspiring to be just a jolly time. In the time of the Kingdom, the Last Judgement cannot be far away. But St Paul has it right when he says that the impending time, the thing which you must prepare yourself for, is not Doomsday, but ‘salvation’. ‘Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.’ So Advent is sometimes called a ‘penitential time’ in the same way as Lent: but that is rather uneasy. We are looking forward to a happy event, the happy event in the stable in Bethlehem.

So I think that it’s all right to enjoy Advent, all right to look forward happily – as we will do tonight, to sing carols and be merry, during Advent time. But we have to remember that we are at the same time preparing for the end time, whenever it will be. That needs repentance, so that we can be saved. ‘Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’.