Afternoon! Look I am early! Here's tomorrow's sermon... today!
Harry Potter - couldn’t help but look to the end of the story. I have to say that it made no sense, not until I had read the rest of the story... Same is true of Advent and it’s twin season of Christmas. The trouble is that we think we know the end of the story. We think that this time of waiting that we call Advent is all building up to the joyful time of Christmas. In fact, it can hardly be called a time of waiting at all.
The Christmas lights and decorations often precede Advent, and some people are well into their Christmas shopping. No shocks for us; we know what to expect. When we’ve celebrated the birth of the baby, everything will get back to normal again until this time next year.
So who is this strange, hairy man, striding out of the desert; doesn’t he know that this is a time for the family, not a time for unpleasantness? Why is he shouting about repentance? And he seems to have skipped all the bit about the angels and the shepherds, surely the real point of Christmas, and gone straight on to something about baptism and the Holy Spirit. That’s not part of this story as far as I recall it. Doesn’t that come in some other story, which we’re not really interested in? No thanks, let’s get back to the baby...
Isaiah seems to be getting into the mood rather better. At least he’s talking about comfort and tenderness. But, no, there he goes, too, ruining a perfectly nice message. He seems to think we only get to the comfort when we’ve faced the devastation. He’s on about the wilderness, as well. What’s more, he seems to think that we are sitting in a desert because that’s what we have made of our lives. He suggests that we’ve pulled up our roots, and turned away from our ground, our source of water, which is God. Now we are so weak and dry that we drift about aimlessly.
For Isaiah, the coming God is not a sweet little baby that we can coo over, and then ignore while we get on with our party. Instead, God is like a breath of fire on the dried grass of our lives. When he breathes on us, all that is left is the wilderness and God. When, at last, we have noticed that there is no life in us, then we will see the beginning of the extraordinary transformation of the desert.
Where there was the empty waste that we made, there will be paths, heralds, shouting; a huge crowd following the glorious king through the wilderness. Everywhere he goes, life springs up, life that is directly dependent upon him, and knows it.
All the Christmas presents, tinsel and plastic reindeer are just a wilderness without the life of God.
So perhaps the birth that comes at the end of Advent is not the end, but the beginning. That would make sense, after all. Most births are the beginning of something.
When we have met this strange God at Christmas, we must resist the temptation to pack everything way until next year, but we must start the journey with him, watching him grow, finding out what he is like, waiting to see the story unfold.
There is such a lot of waiting in the Christian story. Each time you get to a point that you think is the end, you find it is actually another beginning. After the birth, there is the ministry of Jesus, which seems to end at the cross.
And then, suddenly, there is another beginning in the resurrection, and things start up again, and end again, as Jesus ascends. This time, the new beginning is the Christian community, living by the Holy Spirit. The history of the Church’s life has been a series of deaths, or near-deaths, and rebirths, each one unexpected and unpredictable.
What is John the Baptist really doing here though? Surely he is here to remind us, not of an austerity and simple living that we should buy into to prepare ourselves for the gluttony of the immanent birthday party, but that the completion of God’s work of creation promised in this coming infant begins with the hope of our own transformation promised in Baptism.
In Baptism we align ourselves and our will, our story and history, with Christ’s. St. Athanasius reminds us that the incarnation restores in sinful men and women the divine image that they were originally created and Christ’s dying and rising overcomes death, the result of sin. Baptism, our baptism, allows those events to echo down through history and to be heard and seen and felt in our lives.
Advent challenges the world to hear and answer John’s call to repentance again. Our Baptism must mark our lives as part of God’s work of perfection, transformation and glorification of all creation which began with the birth of Christ. As St Augustine put it ‘...He [the Christ Child] is wrapped in cloths but he clothes us with immortality...’ for that baby also comes as judge placing a special onus on the Church to ready herself and the world for his return. This is why the Advent readings always contain the sombre note of warning. You think you want the coming of Christ: are you sure you know what you are asking for? So make the most of this period of waiting; be grateful for Advent and use it, not just to prepare for the birth of the baby, but also to prepare a world where this baby, righteousness incarnate, will be at home and prepare to have this world - yours, mine, ours transformed, perfected and glorified by him.