Sermon by Fr James Heard, United Benefice of Holland Park, Advent Sunday 27 November 2016

Sermon by Fr James Heard, United Benefice of Holland Park, Advent Sunday 27 November 2016

A very happy new year… it being Advent Sunday we are, of course, entering the church’s new year today. It's a wonderful season with the creative interplay between darkness and light. The deep darkness and barrenness of the winter season is placed, theologically, alongside the light of Christ, who we patiently wait and prepare ourselves for at Christmas. As St Paul puts it in our epistle reading, we are told to ‘…lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’.

Another remarkable feature of this season of Advent is the way in which conspicuous consumption and the plight of those living in poverty are closely juxtaposed. For the next four weeks, it's Gucci perfume and the need to support homeless charities. It’s beach holidays in the Maldives and the responding to the humanitarian crises unfolding in the devastated ancient cities of Aleppo and Mosel. Stark choices in our times.

Amidst the consumption of this season, we are encouraged to make space for God. This doesn’t mean that our enjoyment of material things is wrong in itself. However, it’s to take place within certain limits. This really is a challenge to our culture of consumerism which knows no limit. We have no more Sabbaths, nor any ‘holy days’, anymore. Its Black Friday instead. It seems we have exchanged the God of rest, celebration, and singing for the dull relentless thud of a 24-7-365 society. And we call this freedom.

Our Christian faith tells us that true freedom appreciates the value of limits. Which is why we are encouraged to make time this Advent to prepare our hearts and minds, to perhaps read an Advent book, or to simply stop and be still and quiet for a few minutes each day. Monday evening’s meditation group meet every week at 6pm for 40 minutes of silent meditation. You are all welcome!

Then there is the call for justice and responding to need with compassion. How do we respond to the plight of the poor? Again, our consumer mentality blinds us both to the true needs of the poor and to our own ability to meet them. Theresa May said soon after she was appointed Prime Minister that she would heal the nation’s divisions and build bridges to help the least privileged. She promised that her government would deliver Brexit and refocus its priorities on people whose needs were greatest. Fine words which resonate with centuries of Christian teaching that emphasises our responsibility to uplift the poor. And this is principally a matter of justice rather than of charity. We can make a start this Advent, even while we enjoy to the full a limited consumption of good things. Our Christmas collection will be going to the homeless charity Upper Room.

So, the light shining in the darkness, consumption within limits, a commitment to justice and caring for the vulnerable, and making space in our lives to pause and get ready for Christmas.

The other, traditional, themes of Advent are rather shocking – the four last things – death, judgement, heaven and hell. These things aren’t the stuff of many sermons anymore (and it’s understandable why). It’s all rather different from thinking about cards, turkeys, puddings, shopping and whatever else.  And the trouble with the four last things is that they don’t seem to be about now. They're about tomorrow. They’re about what’s going to happen in the future.  Yet at the same time it seems that in Advent we’re always being told, ‘Now is the time’. Now is the moment where we have to live. Now is where our concentration and attention belongs - not death, judgement, heaven and hell – which we might think of as something we won’t have to worry about for a while.  

What might it means to have our eyes opened to the present moment in Advent. How might we move towards Christmas so that we’re not worrying about the future but living in this moment and finding the last things here; to find death, judgement, heaven and hell here in our hearts today. Rowan Williams suggests we look at these four elements with a different perspective.

First of all is death, something that many of us are afraid of.  I love that quote by Woody Allen: I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens. (He has such a brilliant way of putting things.) In Advent we learn that death is what you have to go through in order for truth to live in you, the death of all those things that we use to keep ourselves safe. And the way we react to that not terribly good news, the way we react to that with patience, with protest, with joy, with terror, that’s judgement. That’s what decides the kind of person we’re going to be.

And if by some miracle of love, trust, and grace you're able to face death and step into it and beyond it for the sake of the truth, that’s heaven.  And if you’re stuck in a constant unwillingness to face your death and the truth that lies beyond it, that’s hell.  The four last things? Well yes, but four last things that are happening right now, right here, in you and in me, pretty much every moment.

Advent tells us, here’s the worst possible news: In order to be truthful and alive you’re going to have to die.  It involves the process of dying to our false selves, dying to that which alienates us from God, each other and our deepest self. 

This can be rather scary. When I was young, I had loads of American comic-strip stories about the Bible – most of them had the most dreadful exclusivist theology. One of the stories was about Adam and Eve, and they were depicted with a speech bubble coming from above their heads: Eve saying to Adam, ‘It’s God, Adam. Let’s hide!’

It's a simple enough sentiment and it probably corresponds how we feel — ‘It’s God. Let's hide’. Because in Advent we are faced with the sobering language of God’s light exposing who we really are. And if we're not at least a little bit alarmed by that then we're kidding ourselves.

What do we want to hide from God? Well, like Adam and Eve we want to hide our failure; we want to hide the fact that we're not capable of responding to God as God wants us to, and as God has made us capable of responding. We want to hide our sin. Perhaps we want to hide because we're not faithful; we're often compromised. We want to hide our weakness and our need - despite deluding ourselves that we’re self-sufficient and that we're strong.

The point of letting go of all our longings to control and contain the world, of saying ‘yes’ to the death of all our fantasies, is so that something new and healing will be uncovered. Something in our lives will flower that we can never have imagined.

The counter-intuitive message of Advent is that when you're afraid, walk towards what you're afraid of, not away from it. Open up. Face your fear. Let God see you're afraid. Bring your weakness, your disappointment, your grief, your brokenness, into his light. I’m convinced that it is by creating a space for silence and stillness, of turning to God, that enables us to be set us free and allows us to walk out into our world with the expectation of meeting love in each moment. That’s the message of today and of the weeks ahead as we prepare for Christmas.

Reference: Rowan Williams, sermon at St Martin in the Fields, 27 November 2011

Holland Park Benefice