Sunday 3 December 2023

An Advent Sunday sermon


Now it is time to wake out of sleep.  For the night is far spent and the day is at hand.  Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed.   So cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

That is Paul writing to the Romans.  It wasn’t read just now.  But the key phrases from it began the prayer for Advent Sunday used near the beginning of this service.  And it is scripture used as a chant at Morning Prayer every day in Advent, which begins today.  We’ll come back to it.

Over the years, I think I’ve preached on the first Sunday in Advent often enough to know exactly what I’m going to say - without actually doing any work. 

It therefore feels very strange - now that I preach hardly at all but have been asked to climb into a pulpit on Advent Sunday - that I don’t really see the real value of saying those things.

Some or most of you probably know some or most of them anyway.

The calendar year begins in January, the financial year in April, the academic year in September – and the church year begins today.

It is always on the Sunday nearest St Andrew’s Day, which is 30 November.  That’s the only way to make sure we fit in exactly four Sundays of Advent before Christmas.

The word ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin verb ‘venio’ – which means ‘to come’.  So Ad-venio is an intense form of coming – an intense form of waiting, of longing. 

What we are longing for is Christmas.  But we are also waiting for the wrapping up of the whole creation at Jesus’ anticipated second coming at the end of the world. 

In which case, for four Sundays, we are almost looking forward to our own deaths, and to some sort of judgement after our deaths.

So it isn’t much of a surprise that the bit of the Gospel read at this service came from chapter 13 of Mark which is quite unlike any of the other chapters in that Gospel.   Full of stuff like the stars falling out of the sky, God coming on the storm, the angels gathering everything in.

So a serious sombre season. 

Things like this purple stole usually come out for many funerals, and for the hearing of individual’s confessions, and for Lent.  The fact they come out for Advent is a pretty strong signal about the mood of the season.

What else?

Every Sunday the choice of our readings comes from a cycle of readings which is spread over three years.  Last Sunday we finished using the list of readings for Year A.  Today, we begin using the list for Year B.

One of the features of Year B is that it gives a lot of space to Mark’s Gospel.  Which would be the other reason we read from Mark today.

If you turn out every Sunday in the year just beginning, you’ll hear Mark read on about two thirds of the Sundays.

And by Advent Sunday next year you will have heard four fifths of that Gospel read – although you will need to be diligent in turning out on the eight days from Palm Sunday, through Good Friday to Easter Day because the whole of the last three chapters are read then, and you wouldn’t want to miss them.

And, and, Christmas preparation, Christmas decorating, Christmas carol singing are already going on – so hardly anybody really notices Advent much anyway.

Which is something those who prepared our cycle of readings realised, which is why they arranged for some of the readings on Sundays before Advent to smuggle in Advent themes already.

There you are.  That is the three or four minute summary of the sort of things with which I no longer think should clog up an Advent Sunday sermon.


Perhaps it simply gives too much of the false impression that if we are going to be better Christians it will be because we know stuff.  We are ready to navigate round the intricacies of the church year.  We are set up to score well in a religious knowledge quiz.

Which aren’t bad things.  But they don’t get to the heart of Christian living.

So what should I have been saying all those years instead?

Well, what about  -

Now it is time to wake out of sleep.  For the night is far spent and the day is at hand.  Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed.   So cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

Don’t inhabit the things of darkness, however dominant they may feel. 

Instead, be clothed in, be equipped with, be protected by the things of light, howver remote they may feel.

Feel the way our planet circles its sun. 

Notice the stage of that journey when we find we have tilted away from the sun’s warmth and have created winter.

Last Wednesday (St Andrew’s Eve), we tilted so much that we moved into that bit of the year when the gap between sunrise and sunset is less than eight hours – darkness now lasts more than two thirds of the time.

And things are not about to get better – in three weeks time there will be twenty minutes less light, twenty minutes more darkness.

So, watch, long for, wait for, ache for, the possibility that this won’t go on getting worse and we will tilt back to God again.

And feel the daily turning of the planet.  There is a point in the middle of every single night when we turn our backs on our source of light and warmth altogether. 

So sit alongside the night watchmen for whom any hint of dawn feels a long way off, a very cold way off. 

There is a hymn which includes the line ‘short as the watch that ends the night’, but I am the son of a war-time naval officer and I’ve stood next to him in church often enough as a boy or a young man to recognise the little harrumph every time that line came up – I know that the last watch of the night actually feels agonisingly long.

So watch, long for, wait for, ache for, the possibility that at the point of final exhaustion and desperation a glimmer of God will appear.

And – I’ve got to the point now - be people of light even when there isn’t any.

Be people of hope - even when things seem hope-less.

Be people of God-closeness - even when things seem god-forsaken.

Be neighbour-loving people - even when relationships and politics are toxic.

Somehow - be equipped with - be protected by - what light will be - just as we make our final tilt further away from it, even as the darkness lengthens.

That way, when the first suspicions and signs do come that there is light (and hope, and a God footprinted way, and a neighbour loved path), we will be eager and ready to possess it, because we have watched and ached for it so long.

There you are.  That is what God might have been trying to tell me all these years - while I’ve be prattling about the Latin origin of the word ‘Advent’, the use of purple vestments, how our cycle of Sunday scripture readings works.

I’d finish by saying the service today just adds that God is with us as we feel these things.

We heard the prophetic poetry of Isaiah From ages past, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 

God works for those who look for him.  That’s good enough to be a whole Advent Sunday sermon in itself: God works for those who ache for him.

We heard Paul say simply He will strengthen you to the end, so you will be blameless on the day of our Lord.  God accompanying our struggles isn’t going to stop.  He’ll even be on our side on the final judgement day. 

That is quite a promise for Advent Sunday too.  God will even be on our side on the final judgement day.

And we heard our first portion of Mark’s Gospel - our appetiser, our entree for the new year. 

The passage read ended with something which those in the know tell me has the shape of Aramaic poetry about it, which was Jesus’ language, and which was often the way rabbis used to teach so that people would remember and be able to record what they said. 

Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come – in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn – or else he may find you asleep when he comes – what I say to you I say to all – keep awake.

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Everything suddenly worse

Once we had Acts of Attainder so people could be declared guilty without any need for a trial. Despite so much else, the one thing which now chills me is a Government prepared to pass an Act saying what is true isn't true. Where does our democracy and freedom go from here?

Sunday 29 October 2023

Keeping track of payments


Walked into the Lincolnshire Archives this week to be greeted by a scholar working on a volume of Charles II’s wife’s accounts.  ‘There is her signature,’ he said.  Very neatly ‘Catherine R’.  ‘And the Countess of Suffolk, who kept the accounts for her, made wild guesses at how to spell place names – look at the jumble of letters which is meant to mean Sevenoaks where she is paying the Morris Dancers’.

Not the only highlight of the week.  I got to the North Sea Observatory at Chapel St Leonards for the first time; the picture reflects the inside as well as looking out at the sea over which the sun had just set.  And Lincoln has been taken over by inflated monsters for Half Term – a City Council attempt to compensate for the cancellation of the Christmas Market, an attempt local traders don’t think will have brought them in their missing trade.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Tears over Gaza


A recent difficult week took me back to North Yorkshire where I found this new bench heading now stands just by Deborah's grave, while knowing how the outbreak of conflict in Gaza would so much have grieved her.  

Having got her old website back up on the web again, I've been returning to her Tears over Gaza piece here - it can be seen in more detail by clicking on it.   

A sombre background to a few days retreat a little way away, not enhanced by what felt like some misuse of scripture in the addresses.  

And this week four interesting talks in the space of just three days - how much the City Council is doing to move Lincoln to net zero carbon, how Chaucer put poetic pressure on Henry IV to pay him, lots of material on a first training day as a potential Cathedral Tour Guide, and a striking amount about the impact of the life of Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk.

Monday 9 October 2023

They shall prosper that love thee


We were in Galilee this time ten years ago, on a trip half way through our Sabbatical Term at the Tantur Institute itself within walking distance of the centres of both Bethelehem and Jerusalem.  It was as important an experience for Deborah as for me, which has made tracking the ten year old Blog posts a sad experience; it was here that she developed her interest in Palestinian embroidery which was to be such a feature of the rest of her life.

One of the things I remember in particular was the language of ‘dual narrative’, the same history and the same current context being experienced and expressed in mutually contradictory ways.  I still have a school text book developed by Israeli and Palestinian teachers telling diametrically different versions of the same stories on opposite pages.  And being told how even the most committed reconciliation-minded developers of that book went on finding it difficult teaching the opposite pages to their own.

So listening to the debates going on in the most responsible parts of the media today has felt so difficult.  One ‘side of the page’ spoke of how the idea of Israeli apartheid was Soviet propaganda about an American ally before the first West Bank settlements had even happened, how many Arab citizens of Israel flourish today.  On the ‘opposite page’ was spelt out how internationally agreed definitions of apartheid map across onto many features of life in the West Bank, how many Arab citizens of East Jerusalem do not find equal access to legal status and opportunity.

What is it to live beneath the shadow of centuries of murderous anti-Semitism, with memories of suicide bombers, alongside frequent recourse to panic rooms in one’s home?  What is it to live in dispossession, corralled behind a separation wall, unable to resist even the destruction of one’s trees?

And now Hamas breaks out into war-crime scale violence, unjustifiable acts of terrorism which revolt the world, and which tragically cannot possibly enhance its cause.  Nothing less than ‘We stand by Israel’ needs to be said, even knowing it to be a slogan of some who deny the possibility of any Palestinian having any rights of any sort at all.

There will be huge numbers of people in Gaza (and, say, Iran) who are committed to Hamas, to the very idea that the state of Israel should not exist.  There will be huge numbers of people across Israel (and, say, the United States) who are committed to settler ideology, to undisputed Jewish ownership of the lands occupied in 1967.  Does either group actually represent a majority position in its own community?  What chance is there that those who do not do so finding a single narrative, a single future, any time soon?