A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 28 November 2021 by Revd Richard Carter
Reading for address: Luke 21. 25-36
There is something very exciting about Advent. I still feel it as we enter this season. The smell of the air, the burn of the cold, the rawness of the season. Around St Martin-in-the-Fields the streets are packed again. Locked down for so long its like London is being reclaimed by the young. After 18 months the starting gates have been opened at the beginning of a horse race and everyone wants to get out of their stalls. Every fast-food outlet seems packed and there are people spilling onto the streets outside the theatres and restaurants and pubs. The shoppers have returned in force- what a relief to retailers and the pavements are so packed you have to weave and dodge and step into the road to get passed the armies of shoppers out in their puffer coats and shopping bags. If feels alive again.
The preparation and anticipation Christmas is often the most exciting bit. Some of you will have vivid memories going right back to our childhood of advent calendars, when I was small I always found it difficult not to have a peak in door 24 before we got there. Then there are Christmas trees, decorations, shopping lists, and comparing sizes of turkeys, ways of cooking ham with cloves and honey, and the person or friend who knows the mystery of making the best Christmas pudding with hidden booze inside. And carols, loads of carols until they are falling out of your ears backwards. And for once the Anglican Church around the country packed even by those who usually give it a wide berth.
“I love Advent” a member of our parish said to me yesterday- “it’s so stripped back and yet hopeful”- But can Advent be both the rush of Christmas preparations and stripped back too, stripping us- confronting us with the most important themes of our lives? I have heard plenty of pious sermons condemning the commercialisation of Christmas but after the pandemic I have to admit I felt the joy of crowded streets and the excitement in the air. A spirit of generosity and hope and the longing to be together again. What Advent needs is both Martha and Mary. The rush and busyness of a special guest coming for dinner and also the space to honour the guest. To sit and listen. Stripped back does not mean we abandon the preparation or condemn those who do. We are waiting. But not empty waiting like waiting in the cold for a bus that never comes- We are after all waiting for a child to be born and the birth of a child changes everything. If you are having a baby the concerns of the world don’t vanish. But things have a different priority- you still care about global warming but you care about it because of your love for the child you are bringing into the world. And that love changes things and you. It changes priorities in brings new perspectives and transforms the way you live.
Advent is also a tough month. A month where the days get shorter and darkness closes in and its cold- and we become more aware of loneliness and homelessness, and relationships that should be there but aren’t and the cost of things threatening to sink our finances. Its Advent when unhappiness and grief isolation can feel more unbearable because the contrast of everyone else seemingly celebrating is so stark.
Advent maybe a time of hope it can also be a time of anxiety and despair It’s this month where light and darkness seem in greatest contrast and hopes and fears collide. It’s the month when there is no room at the inn but also the month when a baby is born who is Emmanuel God with us- Joy to the World Peace on Earth and good will to all.
We are waiting for the birth of the long expected one – the almighty God, the everlasting Father the prince of Peace. Born here down here, down in all the mess, the inequality, the struggle, the exclusion, the poverty, the pain and by that incarnation transforming it. But we are also acutely aware of the reality of all that seeks to exclude or put out that light.
The worship and liturgy of our church over the next four weeks will provide the themes of our watching, waiting- longing, desiring hoping- themes of judgment but also of the mercy of God. The invitation to enter the most mysterious time of the year- to live in uncertainty on the edge of God’s miracle of incarnation. This is a cosmic drama to capture the imagination- texts, music, the advent collects and antiphons-
“Drop down ye heavens from above and let your skies pour down righteousness.”
Listen to Thomas Merton describing Advent in the book the theology book group have just been reading: The Seven Story Mountain. It his first days as a Trappist Monk-where he has just entered a monastery and his description captures the mystery, wonder and drama of the waiting:
Our soul is a Bethlehem where Christ comes to be born…
The Advent Liturgy prepares that Bethlehem with songs and canticles of ardent desire. It is a desire all the more powerful in the spiritual order, because around you the world is dead. Life has ebbed to its dregs. The trees are stripped bare. The birds forget to sing. The grass is brown and grey… The sun gives its light, as it were in faint intermittent explosions, squibs, not rays according to John Donne. The stones of the church rings with a chant that glows with living flame, with clean profound desire…
Every day from now on the prayer of the church would ring with the deep impassioned cries of the old prophets calling out to God to send the redeemer. Veni Domine, et noli tardare- Come Lord delay not…And the monks took up the cry with the same strong voices and armed with the confidence of grace and God’s own presence within them, they argued with him and chided him as his old prophets had done before. “What is the matter with you Domine? Where is the Christ you have promised us? Are you sleeping? Have you forgotten us, that we should be still buried in our miseries and in the shadow of war and sorrow?”
Advent is the reckoning the time we call upon God to come. It is not we who come to God but it is God who will come to us. Emptying himself coming down to dwell with us. Today’s Gospel captures the nature of this reckoning this meeting of the hopes and fears of all the years. It’s the moment of judgment- the moment of recognition when in Christ we will see the kingdom of God here and now among us. The eternal transcendent God, made flesh- becoming a mortal child. Today’s Gospel is a call to be ready- to be alert, not to be weighed down or diverted by distraction or drunk with the addictions of our times. In the birth of Christ we will meet the meaning of our lives- the redeemer, the Saviour. Among all the plans and preparations this advent- this is the guest we should be planning to meet. And strangely this guest is not demanding a turkey or a party, or a Christmas present- What this guest requires is simply room at your inn. Room to be born. The real church, the real birth of Jesus didn’t just happen 2000 years ago – it’s happening now. Advent is not just something out there- its God with you now- God waiting for the space to be born down here, right down here in all the rush and the anxiety and mess of the stable of our own life. A birth intimate yet infinite, wonderous yet held in your hands, so close to us yet cosmic.
Its so easy at Advent to cut Christ out of the preparations. Christmas without Christ it is like a birthday party with out the one whose birth day it is. It is like winter without the seed of spring. Over and over again the Gospel calls us to read the signs- to be ready, to be alert- to recognise the signs of God and to make room for his presence among us. You are the womb of God. You are the stable. Your soul is the manger. Receive him. Yet its often the Christ child, the guest of honour who now, just as much as then, gets rejected or hidden away or stuck in the shed outside with the empties. So this is my challenge this Advent. For each one of us amidst everything else we are doing, amidst all our hopes and fears- to make room at our own inns for Jesus. How do we do that. Well we clear away some space at the very centre of our lives for silence, for thanksgiving, for devotion, for prayer and for compassion. We recognise that this birth is not just a past event but a present reality. And like Mary and Joseph say yes to the promises of God and like those shepherds – come to this child in adoration and worship. We move a birth which takes place on the edge to the very heart and centre of all that we are. Think of the birth of a child- yes its about preparing the pram, and the nappies and getting the room ready but when the waters break its about much, more it’s about the struggle and miracle of a new life pushing, and struggling in hope and pain to be born and that life is ultimately all that really matters. We are preparing for the Word to be made flesh to be born. The one who changes everything. Let us begin Advent listening to the call of these advent antiphons which lead us to the birth of Christ.
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm. cf Exodus 3.2; 24.12
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. cf Isaiah 22.22; 42.7
O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death. cf Malachi 4.2
O Emmanuel, our King and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God. cf Isaiah 7.14