A man is lying in bed. His wife comes in and he pulls the covers over his head and groans. "Come on, get up", she says. "I don't want to get up; give me one good reason why I should." "I'll give you three", she says. "It's a beautiful day. It's Sunday and you should go to church. And you're the vicar."
It's a dark time of year, and nature round here is entering its dormant period as the gloom gathers. Jesus told his disciples to learn their lesson from the fig tree. The one in our garden is leafless, inert; it offers no promise unless like me you know its life cycles. Just now the profoundest instinct for us, just as much as for the other animals, is to eat what you can, keep warm, maybe hibernate.
But the paradox of coming to church at this is the time of year is that we are constantly being told to stay awake, to be alert. Not for us to go with the natural rhythms of the world, but to look at things in a different way, to stand apart, to change our perspective. And that involves grasping where God is in that picture. That reading we had from Isaiah is full of this - asking God to 'tear open the heavens and come down', reminding us how unexpected and invisible God is. It also admits to God that 'because you hid yourself we transgressed'.
I love that picture of God hiding himself: so often people think God is absent, distant, uninterested; but this has none of that sense of abandonment by God, none of that rather aggrieved complaint that he has left us; in this image God is present but keeping himself from view. And just as what people do when they think they are alone tells a great truth to go alongside how they behave when they are seen, how we behave when nothing reminds us of God, reveals the perspective we take on life. So we are to keep alert, to look, to see the greater truth, wherever our instincts take us.
During Lent I often say that the purpose of the season is to correct our perspective, and I'm saying something similar now about Advent. But though they are both seasons of preparation, Lent and Advent are not the same. Lent is for self-examination, a stripping away of the layers with which we have covered ourselves, whatever they are, seeing the truth about ourselves. Advent is not to examine ourselves, but to examine God, to look for that truth so often hidden from us. So this season is full of the imagery of God breaking into the settled ways of the world, in the prophets, in John the Baptist, in the ministry of Jesus, in the end of all things. These are the moments when things are shaken by the presence of God, and it matters a lot less whether we know what is wrong with ourselves than that we know the majesty of God. Who cares how wrong we are, how distorted and morally corrupt we may be, when what we are being confronted with is just how
small we are and how astonishing is God?
In the natural world this may be a time of dormancy, but Advent is a really positive season. It reminds us while that God may be hidden, his purposes are inexorable, he will turn our darkness into light, he will pull all things back to himself. There is no escape - like a great magnet, we cannot escape his draw.
So it is wonderful to begin this service not only with the first of the growing number of lights in Advent, but also with a reception into our part of the Christian Church: public recognition not of a new birth, as a baptism would be, but of a new perspective, a life drawn to God, of the immensity of hope in the gathering darkness of this time. As the gospel of John puts it: 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.'
We are on a journey from darkness to light; the world is on a journey from darkness to light, and we rejoice in that light. We don't pretend that there isn't darkness, and the things that thrive in darkness and the horrors which it encompasses. But we know that darkness does not exist in itself, it is the absence something - of light: so one light, one single light, shatters the darkness, however deep it is, and lights the way to itself.
This is a new year, a new start in the Christian Church. Let us celebrate the almighty power of God, the loving power that will not let us go.