THE ADVENT ADVENTURE – A Sermon for Advent Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37 (Lectionary Year B), 9.00a.m., St Giles, Godshill, preached by Canon Gary Philbrick.
‘What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.’’ [Mk 13:37].
I’ve sometimes wondered whether all sermons ought to open with those words – the Preacher’s hope!
They’re taken, of course, from the end of Mark 13, our Gospel reading for today, as we begin Year B in the Lectionary, the Year of Mark. ‘What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake’’.
Mark 13 is the so-called ‘Markan Apocalypse’, a sustained piece of apocalyptic writing, in which the Editor of the Gospel seems to gather up much of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching. Before our passage, there are sections on the coming destruction of the Temple, on the persecution of the faithful, and on the ‘Desolating Sacrilege’, a term used in the second century BC to refer to the Altar to Zeus which Antiochus IV Epiphanes set up in the Temple in Jerusalem around 167BC, and here in Jesus words, as reported in Mark’s Gospel, probably referring to the statue which the emperor Caligula planned to erect in the same place – he was assassinated in 40AD, before he’d got around to it. It’s a complex chapter, written in a style which may be rather unfamiliar to us, and which can make us feel somewhat uncomfortable.
And in the passage we heard, there are two connected sections. The first is a prediction of the end times, very reminiscent of passages in the Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament – ‘The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken [13:24bf.], and the angels will gather the elect from the four winds.
And the second section, which follows on directly from the prediction of the end times, is what effect contemplation of the end times should have on us now.
‘Beware, keep alert’ [v.33], we don’t know when the end times will come, so we have to assume they will come any day. Keep awake, don’t be found asleep when the time comes.
Paul Sinha has a programme on Radio Four called ‘History Revision’. A while ago he was very amusingly talking about the history of football in South America. When talking about some obscure explorer in the 18th century, he made an entertaining point – the world is about 4 ½ billion years old – and yet we can’t even be bothered with events which happened a couple of hundred years ago.
The world is unimaginably old, and it may last, you’ll be pleased to know, for about another 1.75 billion years – which should be enough to see us, our children and grandchildren out – but the day of the Lord may come for any of us, any day. We just don’t know when it might happen. ‘What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake’.
Advent, the beginning of the next cycle of the Church’s Year is a good time to focus on these things. It is a time when preachers traditionally preached on the Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – not very fashionable themes these days, and, you might say, not very Christmassy, but they certainly reflect some of the important aspects of Advent. As we prepare for the commemoration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas, so we also prepare ourselves for his second coming, whenever that might occur, and whatever it might be like.
Has anyone read ‘The Lollipop Shoes’? Has anyone read or seen the film of ‘Chocolat’? Both are novels by Joanne Harris, and ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ does for Advent what ‘Chocolat’ does for Lent.
Like many of her books, ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ is a little odd, a bit magical and mysterious. Vianne Rocher, and her now older daughter, Anouk, and her younger daughter, Rosette, whose father is Roux, the traveller we met in ‘Chocolat’, have now set up a little choclaterie in Montmartre in Paris, and the events all unfold in the run-up to Christmas. Quite good fun to read at this time of the year.
But it was a little passing comment that struck me.
‘Advent. Adventure. Both words suggest the coming of some extraordinary event. I’d never considered the similarity before; never celebrated the Christian Calendar; never fasted, repented, confessed. Almost never, anyway’ [The Lollipop Shoes, Joanne Harris, p.259].
And she’s right – I’d never really thought about the links between Advent and adventure; and both words do suggest the coming of some extraordinary event.
And I think that linking those two words might be very helpful to us as we move into another Church Year, and as we prepare to celebrate Christmas at Church and at home.
Let’s think about them personally to begin with. I asked the children in assembly at Breamore Primary School this week what they might do as part of their Advent Adventure, and they came up with some good ideas: buying a Christmas present for someone on their own, carol singing at someone’s house who might be a bit lonely; helping parents with the preparations for Christmas; and so on.
What about us? To what might God be calling each of us to in the coming year? I met someone on the street a while ago who was talking about leading the Intercessions in Church – he’d started doing this a couple of years ago. I was quite surprised that he used the word ‘vocation’ to talk about how he felt about doing it. Something as seemingly simple as leading the prayers had given him a voice to be able to say what he was feeling and what he wanted to lead us to pray about. It was a very moving conversation.
This week we had a meeting with the latest batch of BCMs from the Partnership – BCM, Bishop’s Commission for Mission, a short training course for lay people who want to take a step forward on their journey of faith and ministry – including among them Peter here, who has done the Worship BCM, and Mary, who has done the Pastoral BCM, and will be joining in the team of those who lead worship and pastoral care here and across the Benefice in the coming months.
We are each being called to something by God – it may be something we are already doing that we might develop; it might be stopping one thing, and allowing another to happen; it might be something quite ordinary, or something we never thought we’d be involved with. If we’re open to God in prayer, he will lead us to the place where we can best serve him.
And what about our adventure as the seven Churches of the Benefice, the Avon Valley Partnership? Where is God leading us there? In the New Year, our membership of the pilot project, the Benefice of the Future, should be confirmed. And we’ll spend quite a lot of time and effort over the next three years reflecting and innovating and experimenting to see how a Benefice like ours, with seven Churches and four Parishes can be set free for mission, and be less burdened with structures and admin. It’s quite an exciting experiment, and like all experiments, no one really knows where it is going to take us.
Whatever happens through the Benefice of the Future, another chapter in the history of the Church here will begin – another step in the great adventure which is the Christian life.
And wider things are happening as well, which are encouraging us to develop a sense of adventure in our life as Churches. Those who are on the Deanery Synod will know that we are in the process of revising our Deanery Mission Action Plan from 2014, looking at our vision for the wider Church. And alongside the Benefice of the Future, we will also be revising our Partnership Mission Action Plan, our pMAP, to reflect the new situation in which we find ourselves, and to see how we have moved on in the three years since the previous pMAP was agreed.
It’s an old saying: ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!’ The Parish Mission Action Plan is a way of identifying our priorities for the next few years; where do we want to put our efforts, and to where is God calling us in our mission as a Parish?
It can all sound a bit complicated and bureaucratic, but essentially, it is a prayerful process of discerning where we are as a Parish, and where we might be in a few years’ time.
We’re on an Advent Adventure. Personally, each of us, loved and called by God, each able to take some new step on the journey over the coming year; as a Parish, a new adventure beginning, as we learn to work together in a new way, across the Parish of Fordingbridge, and across the Avon Valley Partnership with Hyde, Breamore, Hale and Woodgreen; and as a Deanery and Diocese, as we seek God’s will for us as the Church in this wonderful part of the world which he has given us a our mission field.
A while ago, about the time that Robin Williams died, I looked at a few of his films, and I watched ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ again. Robin Williams is a new English teacher in an American school where tradition is everything, as exemplified by the banners they carry in at the start of a new school year: ‘Tradition, Honour, Discipline, Excellence’. All very worthy things in themselves, all things we might want to say about our Churches. And yet, they are stifling the life out of the students at the school.
Robin Williams says in one of his classes, ‘We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for’ [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097165/quotes].
And we could widen the application of that – poetry, beauty, romance, and the love of God are what we, the Church, are here for. We’re not here to be useful; we’re here to live out God’s love in a hurting world, to bring hope to the hopeless and comfort to the sorrowing; we’re here to bring light in the darkness and life out of death.
That’s our mission as the Church, and that’s what our Advent Adventure is all about. AMEN.