Today is Advent Sunday, the beginning of the Church’s year. Because of the way Advent Calendars tend to work, starting on 1st December, we have a few days left for a last minute buy, if you haven’t yet got hold of your favoured calendar or candle to count through this holy season. Over recent years the choice has expanded in every sense you care to think of it. For around £3 we can buy from the Cards for Good Causes stall a traditional picture with images behind the doors. The sweeter-toothed can upgrade to a chocolate one from the Fairtrade stall. Those who like to begin their day with a tipple can enjoy a malt whisky calendar for a mere £150, or detox with a Jo Malone fragrance therapy one for £280 – no pain, no gain. But the limit in the world of retail is only the credit limit. Harrods have a Wedgwood Advent House with a Jasperware ornament behind each door for a snip at £12,000. The petrol heads among us may prefer Porsche’s cool £670,000 one containing high value gifts. But if for that special person nothing is too much to pay the top of the range at £1.7m seems to be a diamond calendar with 24 precious stones.
We have moved a very long way from counting towards a feast based on a travelling family, given shelter among the animals and a child born in the night with only a feeding trough for a bed. Advent is not merely a count up to the Christmas feast, a time to get the presents, with a mad scramble for bargains. It is the season of the year that most reflects where we live. We live in the light of the first Christmas, when Christ came among us in that vulnerable child, and the hope he brings through his life, death and resurrection. Advent helps us look towards that and prepare with the back-story so that it sits in its context of a people’s journey with God and their longing for salvation. Very little there about material goods. Indeed when the magi arrived they expected to find the child in the palace, where else would a king be born, and were surprised to find their Satnavs redirect them to a small village a few miles from the city. They brought gold, but this king had no need of it. The cost for him could not be paid with money, but with gift, the grace that comes from God alone.
But we know that there will be a final closing, when this temporal earth and time comes to an end. Then where will our diamonds and high value gifts be? They miss the point by about as far as it is possible to miss it by. Advent also looks to the final triumph, when all things are brought to completion and the final hope realized. We live between these two times, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Even heaven doesn’t appear to be the final place. For if Jesus can say, as in that Gospel reading (Luke 21:33), that ‘heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’, then there is something even beyond that. This is because what we talk about in heaven is a kind of holding room for that moment when all creation is brought to a completion. The image is a way of trying to say that the final goal is outside of anything we can imagine, but trust that the purpose that gives us life in the first place will not let go of it.
The Gospel reading also spoke of trials and tribulation, violent times and people fainting (Luke 21:25-36). It has been possible in every age to interpret the events of that time along with these warnings. Distress among nations, confusion and foreboding, we could take a satellite journey round the world now and looking down spot places where this is true. There are enough wars and conflicts to make the links. We might not even have to leave Heathrow. Redemption is drawing close, because these events are signs that the world we live in has instabilities running through it and is not the final destination. So rejoice, raise your head and look forward in hope. Because the hope we have lies beyond and is not limited to how things are now.
Crucial in this is how we can be sustained in the journey. We will not find much to feed us in Advent Calendars that merely lock us into further consumerism and retail. The chocolate may perhaps sustain for a moment, but it too is about things which pass. It is ironic, then, that this week an advert celebrating the Lord’s Prayer and inviting people to look deeper into the purpose of life through prayer, was turned down by the cinema advertising companies. I was a little bemused that the ad had been made and did have some sympathy with the cinemas, until I heard their justification. They spoke about some possibly being offended or they thought some might disagree with the religious sentiments behind it. Well no one has a right not to be offended or to not have to face things they may disagree with. Their assumption, though, was that the materialistic worldview behind the adverts they do show was morally and philosophically neutral and would offend no one. Having been to the cinema last weekend what I saw in the pre film ads was assumptions that wealth equals worth, that certain body images are ideal and that the only relationship that is worth anything is one that is fragrance induced. That’s as offending to the brain as John Lennon’s nihilistic anthem ‘Imagine’, written in a rich man’s New York prime location flat, using a high value grand piano. Imagine there is nothing, it’s easy if you dull your emotions with mood enhancing drugs, or cover yourself with bling and shield yourself from the cry of the hungry, the screams of the oppressed and the sobs of the traumatised.
Our Gospel reading came into this again. We are to be on our guard, that our hearts are not weighed down with drunkenness and worries, but to be alert, praying that we may have the strength we need. We need spiritual tools, to be equipped for life, and these only come if we have a sense of what lies beyond, of the Advent Hope.
So have yourself a holy Advent, not one of mind dulling consumerism, or escape therapy from the sufferings and cry of justice, but one that takes you deeper into the call of Christ who died, is risen and will come again.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 29th November 2015