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.’