Sermon Preached by Tom Clammer on Advent Sunday 2013
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In my more self-obsessed and vain moments I sometimes wonder if there is something distinctive and useful about my ministry as a priest. Reassuringly for you, and fairly depressingly for me, there is only one distinctive strand which has run through my first three appointments. In all three contexts in which I have ministered so far, I have been called upon to write an order of service for the blessing of a toilet. Three for three, as it were.
Today, on this Advent Sunday, the first day of a brand new Christian year, we’re doing a lot of things. It feels like quite a busy day to me. We’ve admitted new children to communion. We’re about to dedicate and bless Little Paradise. Then, after a hurried mid-afternoon Evening Prayer we’re into the third of our great Advent Processions. Quite a lot to do, including blessing some toilets!
But actually there’s a golden thread running through everything we do today, on this Advent Sunday, and indeed it is a thread which continues to run through the whole of this season, if we let it speak to us, and if we can manage to hold in tension the competing demands of being an Advent people in the midst of a Christmas world. I’ll come back to what I mean by that in a minute.
This Sunday we launch into the reading of Matthew’s Gospel. We’ll read it for the whole of this year, up to and including the Sunday before Advent 2014, and we will read our way through the birth, and life, and ministry, and death and resurrection of this man Jesus, towards whom everything points, and who is the centre, the heart, and the wellspring of our lives.
And, as perverse as this might sound, I’d like to talk about what we’ll read in 51 weeks time, just for a moment. When we get to the end of this New Year and we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, the Gospel reading we will read is Matthew 25 – the parable of the sheep and the goats. “I was hungry”, we will hear our Lord say to us, “and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was sick and in prison and you did not come to me. And they shall say to the King, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty, or sick or in prison and did not care for you?” And the King shall say to those on his left hand, “truly I tell you, whenever you did not to this for the least of these who are members of my family, you did not do it to me.” We are starting this New Year with the end in mind, this morning. Where we are going is that terrifying and illuminating parable where Our Lord makes it absolutely clear that when we see, and notice, and react to, and make decisions about whether or not to act or not, towards the needy in our world, we are seeing, noticing, and choosing whether or not to ignore him.
The call, throughout Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed throughout the whole of the scriptures, is to justice. Advent is about justice. It is, at its heart, about that cry which wells up from the very depth, from the bone and the marrow of creation; that cry, that yearning, for a world that is fair, and just, and honest. Advent, and indeed Jesus Christ, is about integrity. How is it that this baby in the manger, this shabby itinerant preacher, this crucified criminal, has something to say to me, to you, about how the world could be different, gentler and yet more robust… transformed?
So we begin, on Advent Sunday, holding in our minds the sheep and the goats, and we start with Isaiah. Isaiah the prophet, who probably stands in the middle of the prophetic tradition. This extraordinary prophetic tradition which begins in about 780BC, something like that, with Amos, and stretches all the way to Ezekiel in the mid 500s BC, who is probably the last of the Jewish Prophets, is like a loudhailer with a conscience, if you like. It’s as if someone is sitting on the shoulder of the people and shouting into their ears – ‘will you please look around you and what’s going on. Look at your society, look at your religion, look at your heart. Can you not see the inconsistencies, the hypocrisy, the double-standards?’
And what does Isaiah want to talk about, right at the beginning of his work? He wants to talk about what is going to happen to weapons. He wants to talk about swords being so entirely put beyond use that they can be used to furrow the ground instead. About spears so decommissioned that you can use them for your gardening. He wants to talk about justice. About a God who is coming to exact fair judgement upon the world. Weapons – swords, spears and so on, are needed because there is imperfect judgement, unjust rule, bias, criminality, corruption, jealously, covetousness. It is these things which result in a need for weapons. Because if the Treasurer sees my television and likes it, she might come and steal it in the night. So I need to go up to the sports shop and buy a big bat so that I can lie in wait for the Treasurer.
Injustice breeds mistrust and hatred and that pollutes society. And Isaiah is crying out to the people, a people who have drifted and relapsed and forgotten the principles on which their nation was founded, he is crying out to them to walk in the light. To make a radical decision to move into a new mode of being, a new set of assumptions about how we do business one with another. A society of faith and trust, where it is God who gets to judge – where it is God and God alone who gets to decide how much you, or I, am worth.
But that is not a world which has yet appeared – the Kingdom is coming, but is not yet here. And so we do need to keep awake, the attitude which Christ calls his hearers to adopt in today’s Gospel reading. Do not be taken by surprise, is his message. The new order is coming, and it is not going to look very much like what you recognise now.
Just like, of course, at Christmas we recall that when the King entered his kingdom he did not look very much like a King. And as we heard last week, when the King was enthroned, that throne looked rather like a cross. And as we will hear in 51 weeks time, when we meet our King in the street, he probably doesn’t look much like a King either. He looks like a sick friend, or a homeless beggar, or a disturbed visitor to the cathedral, or the problematic and irritating person we most want to avoid.
There was an amusing and salutary story in the news this week of a new pastor appointed to one of these super-churches in the States, you know, congregation of 10,000 or something. And on his first Sunday, with only the elders in the know, he turned up for church dressed as a down-and-out. And he waited to be ministered to. He was first of all asked whether he was in the right place. Then he was moved by a Steward from the front row of the church, where he had sat down, to the back. When before the service he asked for some food, none was offered, and neither were any details of local food banks or hostels. His congregation were rather dismayed when, at the notices, when he was welcomed by the elder, he got up from his seat at the back of the church, climbed into the pulpit and began to preach. He preached on the sheep and the goats.
Advent means “arrival”. The arrival of the King. And the King shapes around himself, by his presence and power and through his Holy Sacraments and his people, a Kingdom of justice. A kingdom of inclusion, of compassion, integrity and generosity.
Now back to that golden thread linking all this together today. The service began this morning with the welcome of young people into the communion of the church, into the family of those who sit around the King’s table and share his gifts. The service will end with the dedication of Little Paradise. At once a rather comical and light-hearted liturgy, but actually deep in the heart of it, here is something about us saying: if people are going to come here, to this holy place, as visitors, tourists, pilgrims or worshippers, or often of course it is all four of those things at the same time, and we are to welcome them properly, and make provision that is of a high quality and which enables access for everyone, and honours the stranger as well as the familiar person. And all of that gets gathered up in the Procession this evening, where overflowing from the words of prophecy, comes this assertion from God, eternal and everlasting, that the Kingdom is coming, and it is the kind of Kingdom where no one gets excluded, and our rather weak and feeble attempts to gain for ourselves power and status and authority are going to dissolve like the snow before the justice of God, and all that will be left for us to do, in rapture, is to gaze upon those glorious scars.