Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Advent agenda

1 Thessalonians 3:13
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 
 Luke:  21:25-6
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 

Sermon for Advent Sunday

I attended the Memorial Service of my mother in law this week.
Her church is very rural, a tiny church in a hamlet of about four dwellings, around it chilly autumn fields and the rolling Sussex countryside.
People were already gathering there, half an hour before the service began.
The church was warm and inviting, there were candles burning and a choir was already assembled, with organist playing.
We were welcomed at the door by smiling stewards who gave us our orders of service, all people who knew and loved my mother in law as part of God’s family.
The vicar arrived and gave me a hug, although I’d never met her before.
The service began, with dignity and solemnity, but with a sense of celebration and tenderness as we shared our memories.
In our singing, sharing and praying, we affirmed our faith that though death parts us, in reality ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
The Church does this sort of thing well.
Candles and stained glass and paintings and hymns, sacred words and participation - the every day and the holy – all God’s people together, laughing and weeping, joined by more than blood.
Afterwards we adjourned to the new extension where wine and home made food was served in the meeting room, and people could use the modern facilities that include a kitchen and disabled toilet, also appreciated by the Sunday School that meet there once a month.
In a climate of apparent deterioration in church attendance, a Memorial Service in a well-loved and well cared for church is a sign of God’s continuing presence in the community and, for that matter, in the Church of England.

The C of E was in the news this week as cinema chains declined to air the Lords’ Prayer advert that the Church of England Communications Department had put together and were hoping to screen in the run up to Christmas, to coincide with the release of the new Star Wars Movie.
The short film shows a series of different people each saying a line from the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s well made, current and touching.
See link left for the 'banned' Lord's Prayer ad.
The ‘actors’ on the video include the Archbishop, a young man laying flowers on a grave, a Police Officer, a weight lifter, a farmer feeding his cows, a choir, two people in a coffee shop, a woman in a campsite, a mother and son at a joyous full                                             
immersion baptism, cute children in an assembly and a couple kneeling at their marriage service.
The cinema group, initially positive, later said they had a policy of not showing religious or political advertising.
Cue headlines of the ‘banning’ of the Lord’s Prayer in cinemas and much handwringing...
It has caused the C of E, and others, to think with many furrowed brows about the position of the Established Church in today’s society.
since cultural disestablishment is practically complete, perhaps actual disestablishment will follow shortly.
In his view, the Church of England needs once and for all to shed any assumption that it is a cultural force in British society and stop acting hurt when its message is apparently rejected by secular institutions.
In a world where ISIS want us to be divided along binary lines (Muslim and infidel) the writer actually celebrates the ‘grey area’ that he thinks the Church of England inhabits, although he thinks we should die off in our present incarnation in order to be reborn for the good of society (which sounds biblical to me).
About the ‘grey area’ that is the C of E, he writes ‘It is between Catholic and Protestant, between organ and drum kit, between robes and T-shirts, between conservatism and liberalism, between certainty and doubt, between silence and noise(…) In a culture that is increasingly polarized and awash with labels and identity politics, the C of E is a beacon of murkiness, and is all the more beautiful for it.’
I’m not sure how I feel about being part of a beacon of murkiness, but I see his point.

So, a little village church, still full of life, and the controversy of the Lord’s Prayer.
What have these got to do with Advent Sunday?
They can be united in the question we ask today at the beginning of the new church year…
And the question is, ‘Who sets the agenda?’

St Luke's Linch
That joyful Memorial service in a tiny rural church was a little knot of resistance to the secularisation agenda, that wants to leave a troublesome God and a troublesome prayer out of society if at all possible.
In that quiet church, Christian hope that God’s kingdom come and his will be done, is alive and well.

So who sets the agenda for our lives?
At this time of global terrorism, is it fear that sets the agenda? (as expressed by one listener who phoned the Jeremy Vine show to say that as a result of the Paris terror attacks he’d canceled his shopping trip to London this Christmas).
Or even if you don’t fear terrorism, maybe you fear that the Christian faith will disappear altogether from society, or at least the Church of England will disappear…
We all have fears, but they pale into insignificance in the face of the fear spoken of in our gospel today:
Luke records Jesus’ prophecy that at the end of the world, people certainly will be in fear, but it will be fear on an astronomical (literally) scale, as people ‘faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world’, and as nations are ‘confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves’.
To those who think that global warming is a myth, maybe we should point them to these verses in Luke.
Or maybe in the face of unknown fears, we seek to numb reality with distraction, with the huge number of our relatively small daily worries.
Luke suggests we should be alert to much more important things.
And so we pause this Advent Sunday and take note of the season.
Advent is the season of waiting, of watching, of reflecting.
And it’s a good question for Advent: What or who sets the agenda for your life and energy?

Advent is a good time to reset the agenda.
In both our readings, the agenda is Christ’s Second Advent, his return to earth in triumph.
It is this agenda that ultimately dictates the future of the earth and of history, not the agenda of terror, or secularisation, or shallow distraction.
Luke does not want his readers to be caught unawares by the return of Christ, and it’s the same for us.
He writes, ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation (i.e. the one seeing these things) will not pass away until all things have taken place’.

Meanwhile Paul prays that the hearts of his fellow believers may be ‘strengthened in holiness’ so they may be blameless at the coming of Christ.
‘Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’, says Luke.
‘Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’.
What better way to begin Advent, as we re-set our agendas today?

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