Inhabiting Advent

Advent is one of my favourite seasons of the church’s year.

I’m an outwardly-focussed extrovert, born in July and happy in bright spaces, but my inner self is more introverted, more melancholy, more attune to existential issues.

I like sad music, bleak landscapes, difficult poetry.

I like them, because I am easily distracted by tinsel and glitter, by a joke or a cake – but at the heart of who I am is a very sober place that knows our absolute need of God – to save us from our reckless selves. I need the sobriety of Advent to bring me into a living, right relationship with God.

I’m drawn to the imagery of advent – the sobriety of it, the seriousness of it. It keeps me balanced and centred.

Now, I don’t want to be puritanical about Christmas. I love Christmas – all versions of it. I love the theology of Emmanuel – God with us, I love the traditions of the Christian Christmas:  carols and midnight mass, I love Christmas trees and cheesy music… but before we get to Christmas, I want to inhabit Advent.

I want to be with John the Baptist in the wilderness – a voice crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord”, I want to be with Isaiah “Comfort, O comfort my people”, I want to recognise with the psalmist “truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him”…

I want to inhabit Advent, this deep, penitential season in the church calendar –  a season where we strip things back and say sorry to God – and it’s a hard one to keep in a penitential fashion because it’s a season where we’re overwhelmed (potentially) by gluttony and materialism.

So how might we steer a path and mark a good and holy advent

Well, advent is a season of preparation – getting ourselves ready for the coming of Christ. We mark both his coming as a baby – but also we look forward to his coming again – at the end of the age – as King of Kings. Now, I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand what that means – in fact what either truly mean – the incarnation or the second coming – both are mind-blowing theological ideas, but I think the most important thing about the second coming is that it changes our perspective on Jesus – we don’t just keep him in the manager – we acknowledge that he is the coming king – and when we sing, “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king”, that should put fire in our belly and stir our hearts to live our lives worthy of that king.

So, I think that firstly we need to allow Advent – this sparse and penitential season to give us some head space. We need to think of it as a season to make more space for God. And I know it’s so hard to do that when you’re all working on what a friend of mine called “Project Christmas” – everyone’s hectic and busy – and I’m asking you to make more time for God.

Nuts. Not nuts – vital.

So I’m going to give you three ways to make more head space for God:

  1. Turn off the noise – if you’re someone who constantly listens to the radio, has the TV on in the background, has your phone pinging constantly – switch it off – at least ½ the time. And just get used to the silence and your own breath
  2. Use mundane tasks – like washing up or chopping onions to still your mind – when you’re doing them take deep breaths, concentrate on your breathing
  3. Look out the window – on the train, on the bus, in the kitchen, in the office for 1 minute an hour. Breathe and look at the trees, notice the colours, let your mind rest on the beauty, absorb the silhouetted trees, the single leaf left, the pale muted colours, the snow, the rain – for a whole 60 seconds.

These simple things will steady you and create space for silence – or at least quiet – which is the first act of prayer.

And into this space prayer can come. A prayer to be more compassionate – to the relative you’re struggling with, a prayer to feel less hassled by the stupid to do list, a prayer to be able to be present, reach out, enable, give and receive love.

John the Baptist knew about space and quiet – out there in the wilderness. John the Baptist – or John the Baptizer as Mark calls him, is this strange cousin of Jesus. Different to Jesus in so many ways – I know who I would prefer to have at my Christmas Lunch gathering. This extreme man – this wild man – the last of the Old Testament prophets – calling the people to repentance. Living an extreme life in the desert – a simple life – close to God and uncompromising in his call to others. He wore the skin of an animal and ate locusts and wild honey. He was a man who had abandoned conventional living to live an utterly unique, connected life with God – but people were drawn to this purity of vision – they came to be baptised by John because they wanted something of what he had. A closeness to God, a connection to the living fire of God. We are all at some levels frustrated by the drag back of our own sin and if you like “worldliness”.

The collect today is so powerful – and yet uncomfortable – “O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us… “.

I think we struggle to embrace a word like “wickedness” – at least I do. I think it’s too severe, too condemning – but seen in the light of the whole collect, I think it’s a good John the Baptist style corrective to our over-indulgent life styles – the collect calls us to abandon wickedness so that we might be succoured by God’s bountiful grace and mercy – but we cannot see our need of this bountiful grace and mercy, or our wickedness, or selfishness, or hard-heartedness when our heads and hearts are so stuffed full of busyness, food, to do lists, and the mad rush.

And so we ignore the cry of our heart for God.
And we ignore the cry of the world for compassion.
And we walk as people in a great darkness.

But taking a breath, turning down the noise, using a mundane task to focus, noticing the beauty of the outside world, will help us to open our heart to Advent – to the waiting and hoping, to the seriousness of the season, to the expectation of Christ’s coming and shift us onto good and holy ground.

May God help us to make that journey. Amen.

These are Revd Sheridan James, Vicar of St Catherine’s, sermon notes for 10/12/17, Second Sunday of Advent. Sermons are always better live, but this gives you the gist.