An Advent sermon

This is sort of a guest post, if you like. As you may know, I have been in hospital, having an operation. There were complications but I am home now and ok. Mostly anyway. I won’t bore you with details. 

 The following is my husband’s sermon for tomorrow(today when you read this). Even if you are not a believer, or you belong to another faith, please do read it, as I think the central themes are relevant to many people. I believe in peace, in people of all races and faiths getting along and realising we are all one family. (It’s also his birthday tomorrow too, so Happy Birthday dearest!)

Matthew 1.18-end : 18 ¶ Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

For the last three weeks we have been looking backwards to God’s promises to us: The hope of the Messiah given through God’s messengers. Today, the 4th and final Sunday of Advent the story focuses on the celebration that is less than a week away. Our readings speak of God’s love for us – of how he promised us through the prophet Isaiah that a virgin would conceive and bear a son whose name would be known as “Emmanuel”, God with us – and how this special child would save and deliver his people.

In our Gospel reading, we are told how that promise came true through Mary’s child and we are told how Joseph, out of his love for God and his obedience to God, took Mary for his wife and did all that the angel commanded him to do. And it’s because of Joseph’s obedience that Jesus had a home and family.

And then there is that reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. That reading is just Paul’s introduction, he sets out his credentials as an apostle. And then there is a greeting: To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Scripture is eternal, passing the bounds of space and time. So to all God’s beloved in Corton: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

That is how our passage from the letter to the Romans ends. But like Advent that is ending, it sets the scene for the riches to come.

So Grace to you .. and Peace.

Peace… That is something that seems to have been far from me this week. Work has been incredibly busy and I’ve been coming home glassy eyed from staring at a computer screen without a break. My brain seized solid with mentally jumping from one topic to another. A seized brain might not be very active but it certainly isn’t at peace.

Then there’s been the worry. The worry of Viv going into hospital. I know it’s only a small operation. In at 7am and out the same afternoon. But it’s still an operation, Viv will still be hurt and I can’t do anything about it. Nothing but ‘be there’ and do the things that she can’t until she is better. We worry about those close to us. And logic can barely scratch the surface of that worry and fear.

I know God is with me, with Viv. I know His presence all of the time. It is comforting to but I still worry and fret. What if?… what then?…

What then – well the snow comes in drifts making the 6.30 drive treacherous, but at least the concentration keeps my mind of other things, the other what ifs…

We arrive safely at the hospital and slither gracefully, or not so gracefully into the warm. We arrive at the department and a grey exhausted night shift nurse welcomes us. You could see the pause while her tired brain takes in that new patients have arrived. You can see the effort as she reaches down past her feet to summon up a tired smile that starts at the corner or her mouth and finally reaches her eyes.

We are told to wait. So we wait, a small group of women with their husbands, boyfriends or ‘significant others’. All dazed, frightened and worried. All still a little cold with snow melting off our shoes. Then within 10, 15 minutes at the most, Viv and the other women are checked in and shown to their beds. And I, with the other men are kindly but firmly escorted off the ward. We’ll phone you between 1 and 3 to let you know you can pick her up. And the small group of us wander off dazed back into the cold and ice.

And Viv wasn’t home that night, there were complications, there always are. But she is home now. But I still need peace.

We need peace. I need peace.

Peace.

Peace is a key theme for Christmas. I decided to get the shopping in before Viv came home, while I could still leave the house unattended. And I found peace. I saw peace on Christmas cards in the supermarket.

I saw the word, and a dove or a mother and child, I stepped back to admire and soak up the peaceful scene …. and bumped into the basket of the person behind me; who bumped the person with the overfull trolley next to them. And the bubble is burst.

We talk about peace, we long for peace but we don’t seem to have a clue about how to go about getting it. So we spend and spend, and spend some more …. just in case. In case of what, I’m not quite sure.

We fill our baskets and cars with more food than any person can eat. We buy presents and so much more. We fill our homes and then go out for more.

I need peace, the people in that supermarket need peace, our world needs peace. Peace is an ideal and seems to stay just out of reach. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

I arrived home, I saw the sparrows on the feeders and chasing each other around. I saw the candle burning, a silent prayer for Viv. And peace came back. Well peace had never really left, I had just been too busy to notice God’s peace still there, waiting patiently inside. The peace amid the worries and fears. The peace that was stronger than the ‘what ifs’.

Peace snuck up on me, and tripped me up. And I nearly cried. I had an insight into what all this Advent preparation is all about. Why taking the time to prepare is so important and why rushing to get to Christmas too early, too quickly is so harmful.

I realised why the Peace was there. It wasn’t because I am saintly or special. But because I know lots of people who are, literally saints and they are with me every time I pray. And the peace was there because God was there, Jesus was there with me, through the Spirit. That peace was there all the time, I was just too busy to see it. That is what Advent preparation is for.

Advent is there so that we can spend time get close to God. Pondering God’s promises of Peace and Grace. Reading about the people of faith, hearing the Bible stories and prophecy. Considering again the possibility that hope could come through Mary, a young girl, saying Yes. Advent is about learning to trust God again, even though we can’t reach out and touch Him. We learn to appreciate the presence of God with us all the time.

Now I get uneasy with too much talk about Jesus as my friend. Jesus is the incarnate Word with, the one who was with the Father at the beginning of time. Jesus is our all powerful judge, the one more powerful than death, all death. Greater than time, the one who will return and end time. But at the same time Jesus can be like a close friend, I don’t deserve it, and never will, but that is one of the mysteries of faith: That the all powerful God can be baby, or stand beside us now in Spirit and surprise us with peace.

Its a gift. After all that is what Grace is – a gift.

So Grace to you .. and Peace. Because the hope of grace, is at the heart of our Advent preparations. Grace is a blessing undeserved. A gift, wrapped or unwrapped, that will arrive at Christmas.

Now I don’t know about you but Grace is what I need. I know myself far too well to think that I could ever earn God’s favour. It needs to be a gift or there isn’t much hope. But a baby born in 1st century Palestine was a gift. A gift from God that we find so hard to accept.

Going back to the pre-Christmas supermarket – we get a taste of grace, and think we can do the rest with tinsel and food and drink. And it is hollow at the centre, without hope. The hoped for joyful family Christmas ends in a fight, harsh words, New Year indiscretions and a year of painful recriminations.

So we have been given a gift – or lots of gifts – We have Advent as a gift, the preparation that makes it possible for the Christ to be at the centre of our Christmas. Without Christ there is only ‘mas’, a mass of people frantic and aimless, prodding turkeys and gathering sprouts.

So Advent is about preparation. Preparing ourselves for Jesus’ return. Or more accurately letting God prepare us. Then we will be reading to celebrate Christmas. A Christmas full of hope and joy and expectation. A Christmas with the Christ shaped hole filled with the incarnate Christ. Christmas, like a good cake can’t be rushed. It needs preparation, work and sufficient time. Time for the gift of Advent to unwrap itself and become part of us.

So use this Advent, what is still left of it.

I’ll end where I started, with the wisdom of St. Paul. : To God’s beloved in Corton: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ….. this Advent, this Christmas and Always.

In the Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Sin and the art of archery

I’ve been thinking Really Deep Thoughts lately, in between getting annoyed about life and things I can’t do anything about. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the things that make me annoyed and why they annoy me.

I wrote a few days ago in the comments at retired eagle’s photo blog that I was guilty of the sin of accidie, one of the medieval Seven Deadly sins. It’s basically despair and depression, and it’s something I’ve been guilty of intermittantly since I was about six years old. I know how awful that sounds and I can tell you how often people have told me I should count my blessings etc, but it doesn’t make any diference.

The English word SIN is actually a term taken from archery, that oh-so-English art. Think Agincourt, think Robin Hood: the bow is so entrenched in English lore that even today it’s technically illegal to play football on  Sunday if your parish priest has not excused you from longbow practise. Sin simply means failing to hit the target. It means being less than perfect. It doesn’t mean you’re  a criminal, or an evil person; it just means you need more practise to get it right.

This I find comforting. It also means I need more help to get it right. It doesn’t mean I need to be beaten for getting it wrong and missing the target. Imagine God as a loving archery instructor, standing close as you draw the bow, his hand steadying yours, whispering in your ear, “Bit higher, bit further up, hold it steady. Now!”

You see, it upsets me when people assume that their success in life is as a result of God blessing them, because it then implies the opposite: lack of success is God witholding his blessing. It upsets me when people take their health as a sign God is favouring them because that then says that ill health is God punishing them.

Being alive is our blessing. Life is our gift. I’m not saying that God isn’t blessing you when things go well. He might be. But God has no favourites. Blessing or cursing, it may be the same thing when you step out of time and out of being human. Go read the Book of Job if you have never done so. It might be a bit of a puzzle. It opens up ineffable mysteries(because we don’t effin’ well understand them) about God and his relationship with humans. I have no answers to this.

But for me, today, being a sinner is a good thing. It means I have room for improvement. It means I need to keep practising and spending time with my trainer, and learning more and more how to hit the target. When I get good at that, I guess he’ll just move the target further away to test my skill further, or give me a different bow, or change the parameters in some way. There is always room for improvement, when we realise that sin is not the thing we were taught it was by people who didn’t understand it themselves.

Belief(or lack thereof)

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with belief. I’ve stopped believing in things most people believe in and I hang onto beliefs many folks have long given up on, for far longer than you’d imagine. I believed in Father Christmas long after everyone else had decided it was definitely your mum and dad; I still do, to tell you the truth. It’s based on some fairly complex metaphysics these days, but back at age five, it was based on the empirical evidence of my own ears. You see, I heard the sleigh bells on the roof, one Christmas. The fact(eagerly pointed out to me by my older brother) that we lived in a Victorian house with a system of interconnecting chimneys, and I surely heard the sound transmitted from downstairs fireplace to my bedroom fireplace, where my father sat wrapping a jingly toy by the fire, and not from the roof as I thought, simply didn’t dent my belief that father Christmas was a real entity. I still believe it, now aged almost 43.

I don’t for example believe in Red Nose Day or Children in Need, Sport Aid or any of the other media fuelled charity blow outs this country seems to delight in. My bus driver today wore a red curly wig and a red nose; I suspect he wasn’t happy about it but you can’t go against the mass without jeopardising your place by the fire. I fully accept they raise a massive amount of much needed money for great causes. But I don’t believe they are the best way. They actually create charity fatigue; people get fed up with it and it’s a fair bet many give out of guilt and a fear of looking mean. I also have a cynical concern that a vast amount of the money raised vanishes in costs and administration.

I also don’t believe in the essential goodness of people, despite plenty of evidence experienced personally. This is based largely on statistics; in short, the sums just don’t add up.  If people were basically good, then the world would not be in the mess it seems to be in right now.

My current belief in God wavers; I suspect God not only exists and I’d also be willing to bet that He/She is basically benign. But also mainly unknowable. If you haven’t ever read “Mister God, this is Anna,” I’d highly recommend it; I think it ought to be required reading at every Bible college, vicar factory, theological college and seminary in the world. In one section, Anna, the eponymous heroine(an eight year old orphan) is watching some ants and tried to explain to Fyn, the author, that however much she loves the ants, there is no way for her to ever convey that love to the ants. Too much of a gulf exists for her to be able to make the ants know of her love. For me, in many ways, this is how I feel, a slightly enlightened ant, knowing that God is unknowable to me in my ant state but having a dim idea that he/she exists and probably loves me.

But, being me, the biggest thing I don’t and cannot believe in, is simply myself.

I have tried. Endlessly. And without success. Others do; others tell me I should believe in myself. I am told I have plenty to believe in, but when I try, nada.

I understand that faith is a gift, a grace if you like. I had a friend who was dying, some years ago. I spent a lot of time with him, massaging his feet and listening and talking. He wanted to believe in God, he really did. He envied his wife and her faith, but even though he wanted to, he simply never reached a point fo faith. I went to see him up until five days before his death, when cellular breakdown meant I could no longer touch his feet without causing serum to leak through his skin; he was the first person who I saw after death. I stood in the room while my husband said the prayers for the dead, holding hands with the family and friends and I could feel him in the room, a peaceful presence. His shell looked very peaceful and it no longer looked even remotely like him. I had the very strong feeling he knew now what he had been unable to believe in life, and it was good. His spirit appeared a few days later to a family member who had been unable to get to visit in the last days; he told her he was surrounded by light, and that it was just wonderful and then he vanished.

I’d like to be given a gift of faith, not just in God, because I have that to some extent, but in myself.