Sermon for First Sunday of Advent – Litany in Procession and High Mass Sunday 29 November 2015
Sermon preached by Father Julian Browning
Has your religion entered a museum phase? Does what goes on in this church bear no relation to what is happening in your life? I remember visiting a Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy and in a glass case was the most beautiful silver incense burner or thurible from about 600 AD. There were two ladies in front of me, and one said to the other, That’s interesting. They still use these at the High Anglican church near us. High Anglican? said her friend. Well, she said, that’s what they call it. Of course, we’ve never been. Well we do attend church but it’s all too easy to put God behind the glass with the rest of our paraphernalia and walk away. That happens when what we do and say in church have no bearing on our lives. Religion goes stale very quickly.
In Advent a new God comes to meet us. The oldest prayers we have are about this God and His promise: Thy Kingdom come, come Lord Jesus. Advent Sunday is the start of a new Church year. We start again. We leave behind the false starts, the self-inflicted damage, the mistakes, and we wait in hope for a new life with God. The four weeks of Advent are not so much a preparation for Christmas as a preparation for our new lives as Christians. This is how Christians live, we’re told: watchful, hopeful, self-aware, moving towards clarity, spellbound by the truth, forgiveness, the Kingdom, call it what you will.
There are two Gods. There’s the God who never comes up with the goods, the God who’s never there, the God we thought we knew but don’t really; we all know that God. And then there’s the God who comes in Advent. That’s the God who comes to me. I don’t want a God I’ve put together to suit myself, the God who gives me the answers I need to the questions I formulate. I believe in God because I chose to do so, and can do so because faith is given to us, it’s a free gift to all, you don’t have to work for it, it’s God’s faith in us as much as our trust in him. This faith gives me the grace to discover God’s love in my life, because that’s what’s there, that loving promise to go with me and to go with you through all the questions, the ambiguities, the difficulties, and the poetry and the glorious surprises of human life, because it is in human lives that my God lives and loves and saves.
This God has been with us from the beginning of time, the Alpha, and he’s with us now, and he will be with us at the end, the Omega. So in Advent we can look forward. In a simple calendar approach, we look ahead to Christmas. We know that’s going to happen, because it always does. What’s less clear is how Christ is to be born, made flesh, in our own lives and it is that, I think, which gives Advent its tension. Is this real for us? What shall we do this Advent to make it work? The Christian agenda includes self-transformation, but Christianity isn’t about self-help, pulling our socks up, making plans. We are who we are, and the weeds will grow alongside the wheat until the harvest. People don’t change much. There are no simple human beings. We are all beset by anxieties and a lack of confidence in our religious selves. What we find, I think, as we grow older is that the rules and rubrics by which we used to run our lives are less important than discovering and listening to the one enduring song of the love of God which accompanies us into an unknown future. So we wait in Advent for our hearts to wake up to love, which is the presence of God within us. What the future holds for us is the embrace of a God different from anything we can imagine or plan for. But we know it will be like a human embrace. God being born as a child is a hint of this new life to come.
The season of Advent, expressed in our tradition through the deep and wonderful music in our Advent Carol Service this evening, and through the rich resources of the Bible, puts that human divine love in a wider context, the big picture, the cosmic Christ, the truth of the universe. Watch out then for these two paths in Advent. On the one hand we have a human story, our story really, John the Baptist, Mary, the events of Christmas. On the other hand there’s the story of the world, announced in the Church’s tradition through scripture and through the great antiphons of Advent in its final week, which we can look forward to. They all begin with O. O Sapientia, wisdom, O Adonai, leader of the House of Israel, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O Emmanuel. Does all that sound a bit museum like to you? It needn’t be. You see, two paths are converging, divine and human, eternal and temporal, they meet at the birth of the child Jesus. God with us, for ever.
My favourite antiphon is O Dayspring, O Oriens. My postman has to climb up sixty steps to get to my flat. There are no lifts in any of the blocks where I live, so he’s a little out of breath, but we sometimes have a chat. One day he said, You know, I’m just happy if I wake up every morning. At the time I thought, even for an exhausted man that’s a rather low estimate of our potential for human happiness. But actually that is the Christian way; it is the Advent way. New every morning. That’s no museum religion; it’s the way, the way of holiness, the way of faith, new life, God’s promise fulfilled. It’s always new. No two sunrises are the same. Happy New Year.