Sermon - Sunday, 1 December 2019

The following sermon was delivered by Very Revd Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 1 December 2019 

Scripture: Micah 5: 1-5a / Luke 1: 5-20

Text: But you, O Bethlehem who are one of the little clans of Judah,  from you shall come forth for me one who to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days    (Micah 5, 2)

Advent Sunday marks the beginning of the Christian year.

Advent is the season when the Christian church turns again towards Bethlehem in anticipation of the birth of the Christ child.

Advent – the word comes from a Latin root which means coming or arrival - developed in the early centuries of the Christian church, a penitential period of six weeks before Christmas during which Christians were encouraged to fast on at least three days each week.

Given all the Christmas dinners and parties many of us enjoy over the festive period, a few days fasting between now and the 25th December might be no bad thing.

However it is the spiritual significance and not the culinary excess of the coming weeks I want to speak about.

O come, o come Emmanuel we sing, for in the coming weeks we will tell and re-tell familiar stories about the prophetic vision of a son to be born and a child to be given, of Zechariah being struck dumb with the news his elderly wife Elizabeth was at last expecting a baby, and of an angel appearing to a young woman called Mary betrothed to man called Joseph.

We will hear when Elizabeth’s child was born to everyone’s surprise - save that of his father - the child was named John.

And we will also recall that after an arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, where no room could be found at the inn, Mary’s child was born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling bands and laid in a manger.

With glad tidings of a special birth angels will disturb shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night while, to King Herod’s evident discomfort, magi will appear from the east bearing precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the one born to be King of the Jews.

Advent: a time of waiting and hushed expectation, a time of vibrant and trembling darkness and of heart-warming anticipation, a season of watching and wondering for although many of us have heard and cherished these stories since childhood it is important we hear them again.

Why?

Because as well as being the birth narratives of two women, these ancient stories explore some of the universal human themes of darkness and light, desire and longing, excitement and disappointment, birth and new life…………….and this too, they hold up for us that most precious gift, God’s gift of hope.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, isn’t that what we say?

Some months ago I was visiting one of the older members of our congregation, a woman who had returned home after several weeks in hospital.

Grateful for all the help and support she had received in hospital and for the care package which had allowed her to return home, as we sat and chatted, the conversation took an unexpected twist.

Now well into her nineties she told me that as she contemplated the end of her life it filled her with sadness.

Although she was widowed some years ago, she had enjoyed a good marriage and had been blessed with children and a warm and loving home and family life.

There were a growing number of grand and great grandchildren in whose many activities and varied achievements she delighted.

She had enjoyed a wide range of hobbies and interests, she had been a keen golfer in her day,  and had wanted for little or nothing throughout her long life and although she had now outlived all her friends, she was very aware – and very grateful – for how fortunate she had been in life.

And yet it was with sadness she contemplated her life’s end, not sadness at the life she had lived, certainly not sadness in her belief in the life to come for her faith is strong, but sadness at the state of the world she would be leaving behind, a world which in her view is in such a mess.

Does her sadness resonate with you?

Does her feeling about the world being in a mess speak to you?

Despair at what we see happening in the life of our country and in the wider world and an almost overwhelming sense of helplessness that there is little or nothing we can do about it – it is a conversation I have had with many people.

Whether it is concerns about the climate, global warming, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the melting of the polar icecaps, the ongoing disputes in the Middle East between Israeli and Palestinian, whether it is the entirely preventable hunger and disease experienced by so many people in parts of sub-Saharan Africa or the glaring injustices we see in our own country with more people than ever resorting to food banks to feed themselves and their families, whether it is the lack of respect or truthfulness we witness in political discourse during this election campaign or the shocking abuse posted on social media sites, it is not difficult to find lots of examples of what my elderly woman described as the mess in the world.

Hope springs eternal, we say, but hope it would appear seems to be in short supply these days, hope for ourselves, hope for the future, hope for our country and hope for the world.

What better time than Advent Sunday to recall that one of the gifts of the Advent season is the gift of hope, a hope beautifully expressed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said;

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness

Hope is one of those little words we use all the time without really thinking about what it means.

Hope to see you at the match next week.

Hope you will be feeling better soon.

Hope the sun shines for the wedding.

Where there is life there is hope we say and instinctively we grasp hope matters, hope is important, and that without hope life is bereft of something crucial to our personal and collective sense of health and well-being.

As defined in Chambers dictionary, namely, to cherish a desire that something good will happen, hope is bright and optimistic, hope you enjoy the party or hope you have a great holiday.

Furthermore being aware we share a myriad of hopes with people the world over, hope is surely one of the things giving substance to our sense of a common humanity.

Yet you cannot read the Bible for long without realising hope is expressed in a very different way.

This commentator puts it well when he writes,

Although the biblical writers often still use the word (hope) in a conventional way, an expectation of good outcomes, hope is used most consistently with God as its source, its ground, its assurance and its object[1]

In other words, in the pages of scripture hope is grounded not in any human capacity or expectation – rather hope is grounded in who God is, in what God has done and in everything God promises.

And whatever else we celebrate at Advent, we celebrate who God is and what God has done and everything God promises.

But you, O Bethlehem who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth one who will rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days

Bethlehem was little more than a tiny village a few miles south of Jerusalem.

Zechariah was but one among hundreds of Temple priests.

Mary and Joseph were unheard of beyond their immediate circle of family, neighbours and friends.

And ancient Palestine was far from being the centre of the world’s power and influence.

Yet it is to this rural backwater and through these otherwise unknown people, God kept His promise, and a child was born, a son was given, Emmanuel, God with us.

Here is the hope at the heart of Advent, the hope that draws deep into the mystery of the Christian faith, incarnation, God taking human flesh, the simple yet profound insight that despite all the darkness, with the birth of Mary’s child we can see light.

If my elderly parishioner speaks for many – and I think she does – when she laments the state of the world, the question of hope could hardly be more urgent, could it?

What a gift, then, in this Advent season, to be reminded that our hope, our true ground of hope, does not lie in ourselves with all our cleverness, energy and technology, it lies in God,  in who God is, what God has done and everything God promises.

And because it lies in God, even dark and difficult days can be faced with hope.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen               

 


[1] James  A Simpson, Angus T Stewart, Alan A S Reid Keywords of faith: running the risk of heresy? Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1992, p45