Thursday, 4 December 2008

A sermon for Advent Sunday

Advent 1 2008 Year B RCL

Looking for the Light

Have you started dreaming about what presents you hope to get for Christmas yet? Have you started thinking of the wonderful reaction hope to see on the faces of friends and family as they open up the gifts you bought them. Are your expectations high? Us human beings are pretty good at building up our expectations - a theme that is particularly pertinent as we dream of the wonderful gifts we hope to receive and as we tell ourselves that we’ve finally found the perfect present for the person who has everything.

Unfortunately most of these expectations seem to be dashed as we find our new video game, gardening equipment and expensive jewellery have become badly knitted jumpers, funny coloured ties and an abundance of hankies with your initial on the corner - and that the inventive and original gift you gave is exactly the same as that which three other people gave as well. Our expectations never really seem to be live up to.

God never seems to live up to our expectations either. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, though. If I were to turn to Isaiah 64, one of the readings set for today, but not one of this readings we are using for today’s theme of looking for light, we would read a prayer that begins:
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil...”
This was how the Israelite prophet Isaiah hoped that the Messiah would appear, in glory, bursting through the gates of the sky to reveal the power of God to all the nations and to exalt his chosen nation Israel. This was the hope of the people who heard the prophet Isaiah, or the third prophet called Isaiah as we believe this part of the book comes from. These were those who pictured the light of God as a blinding light, an overwhelming and challenging light, those who thought that the messiah was to be the Messiah of the Jews, a warrior Messiah who would rid Israel of its oppressors and make it a nation to rule over the Gentile, a powerful force who would show Yahweh’s power to the world. In this picture the Messiah will be "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."- a strong leader, one who would carry the power of God to put down the rebellion of human hearts against God.

Israel had good reason to hold these expectations, they were the chosen people of God, connected to him by a covenant that bound them together. Yet by the time of Jesus they had been exiled not only once, but twice and were under occupation by Rome and under Roman rule. What had happened to the land that God had promised them? Where was the light in their darkness?

It was perhaps natural to expect God to redeem them, to send a Messiah who would be the Saviour of the Jews, to restore them to their land - to fulfil the promise that God would save and redeem His people. This was the hope that had been built up over hundreds of years, it had become a longing - a longing for a redeemer who would liberate the Jewish people and exalt them so that they could take up their rightful place as the chosen people of God. They understood the writings of the prophets to point to the one who would, as Isaiah wrote “rend the heavens and come down”, they believed they were waiting for a political Messiah, a mighty Messiah of power to meet their need for freedom from their Roman oppressors.

It wasn’t that their expectations were wrong, they were the result of a certain way of seeing the promises of God, they were expectations of a certain kind held because of a certain situation. It wasn’t that these were bad expectations, or false ones - but that God often doesn’t live up to our expectations - in fact God holds to a very different way of doing thing than we do, a way we do not easily understand and which we often find difficult to grasp, a way that is often surprising and confusing, and often the opposite of what we would expect or hope for.

And it is because of this thwarting of expectations that we celebrate the birth of Christ every year. In fact, we celebrate a God who came in human form, who was born vulnerable and lowly, who lived the life of an itinerant preacher, teacher and healer and who died, almost in obscurity, an agonising and dishonourable death. It is this God that we think of at this time of year as we move towards Christmas, and this Christ, this Messiah, who rose again and whom we long to see and who we long to come and live with us, we think of in this season of Advent.

Jesus wasn’t anyone’s idea of a Messiah, he turned things upside-down, Jesus shows that he has a different understanding of God, different expectations. He brings out a meaning other than that which had been expected He talks of justice, freedom, salvation for all - not just the Jews, God has redeemed and saved his people, but his people are all of the inhabitants of the world he created. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the light, not just for God’s original chosen people, but for the whole world.

And this theme of expectations goes on throughout scripture. These expectations comprise new values, new hopes - they are about love, wholeness, self-sacrifice, servanthood and justice, they aren’t about political power or favouritism but about God’s love poured out on to all humanity, God’s free gift of grace. This is the light of the world, the light which we are all called to live by and the light we are called to shed throughout all the world. And all of this is unexpected, undeserved, the result of a God who takes our expectations and goes further than we could ever expect, it isn’t that God doesn’t live up to our expectations but that our expectations could never live up to what God has in store for us.

God can do more than we ever ask or imagine, God is a God of surprises who bursts out of our unimaginative bonds and can bring us to new life in him. God calls us to dream and to set our hopes high and to seek Christ in one another and the world in which we live. These are the expectations to aspire to, to let ourselves be gripped by God and to be set free to serve Him in love and to dream dreams of the kingdom of God, and of the return of Christ into our lives - this is the advent hope and we start by expecting it today.

But what are our expectations this Advent-time as we lead up to another Christmas? Do we expect the same routine of TV, Carols, Mince pies, Shopping and all the paraphernalia that goes with modern Christmases? How low are our expectations? Low expectations are the kind God must find it hard to break out of, ones that not only have missed the point but that give Him nothing to work with.

It is easy for us to look back with the benefit of hindsight and say that the Jews were wrong, that they had false expectations, that they were misguided, and many Christians do make such negative assumptions - but those we read of in scripture were seeking God and the fulfilment of His promises, faithfully searching for the end of God’s plan - today many in our world seem to have given up looking. Have we lost the vision of God’s upside-down kingdom, have we let go of the hope of a Messiah, Yeshua, the Christ who redeems our world and longs to draw all people to Himself?

This advent season I hope we can all take the time to examine yourself and look at your expectations - be prepared to have them dashed, but try and give God something to work on to start with – let us together long for the life and light of Christ be shed abroad. And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen


Savile said...

I have now downloaded this first round - rather late! - and will try and catch up!

You are certainly right that we use words we do not understand - probably still true after two meetings!


Savile said...

We have printed out your first meeting - certainly true that we do not understand the meaning of words we use - was true and I fear still is!