Posted by: owizblog | November 30, 2014

“Down To Such A World As This…” Sermon, UCB, 30 November 2014 (Advent 1)

Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:28-37

This is going to be one of those odd sermons this morning: we will come to the Gospel reading at its end. It can sometimes be very important to allow the sermon to be completed by the Gospel reading. Perhaps we should do that more often…

1

Memory is a strange thing. I think I’ve told you before that I’m slightly ashamed that, for me, a grim and Calvinistic Minister of the Church of Scotland, something fluffy and Christmassy stirs in me when I am in a supermarket in December, and I hear certain music being played over the PA system. It isn’t what you’d expect; carols from King’s, or bits of Handel’s Messiah. I blush to say it, but hearing Mariah Carey giving her rendition of “All I want for Christmas is you” or Wham singing “Last Christmas I gave you my heart/But the very next day you gave it away” takes me back years, to times when we would be quite literally assembling Christmas for two small children.

Indeed, extracts from Messiah – especially “Ev’ry valley…” or “For unto us a son is born…” take me back still further, to the start of Advent every year of my childhood, which wasn’t so much the official first Sunday of Advent as December 1, my mother’s birthday. My mother had sung Messiah with the Rhyl Choral Society and the Royal Liverpool Phil under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult, and the first thing my brother and I would hear on December 1, in our separate rooms, was Messiah on the record-player.

If they are playing carols over the supermarket tannoy, the tumble of memories becomes a cascade, and I can be swept away. And memory takes me back to all sorts of points along the timeline of my life. But something else is happening, too.

With carols, or Messiah, as you’d expect, I find that I’m taken back in memory beyond the beginnings of my own memories. I’m taken back to the remembrance of what Christmas is.

But I also find that with Wham, and Mariah Carey. I’m taken back, yes, to Christmas 1996, when both the children got bikes, but I’m also taken back to Christmas, Christmas when Christ was born for us, and we had to put the bikes together in the few hours between packing the children off to bed, and me going out to conduct Watchnight because Christ is born for us.

Or I’m taken back to that Christmas when I was in ASDA in Toryglen looking for turkey drumsticks, which nobody seemed to be stocking that year, for Simon and me, in between conducting school services and carols in Old Folks’ Homes because Christ is born for us.

I’m taken back, in other words, to when Christmas 1967, or Christmas 1996, or Christmas 2001, was intersected by Christmas, when [present tense!] God the Son takes flesh for us and for our salvation. It’s as though the boundary we put up between the sacred and the secular, between the big questions and comfortable routine, between God and what we call, in our arrogance, real life, is just burst, smashed down, so that the ultimate invades the here-and-now, and time is transfixed by eternity.

Which is exactly what Karl Barth says worship is!

2
Which means that even the aisle of a supermarket, to faith, can suddenly be flooded by the sense of the presence of God, and angels really sing through the PA loudspeakers. I’m not naïve. I know that the great engine of the twenty-first century Christmas is consumerism, and the creation of desire. It’s manipulative, and it’s ugly. But the Christmas Gospel is that God, in the words of the carol we’ll sing in a few minutes, has, in love, “come down to such a world as this.” And that is something that makes new and shattering sense when it grabs you in a supermarket aisle.

There are two senses of remembering.

One is the remembering we do as we dash around with our Christmas lists, making sure we have presents for everyone. It’s what we didn’t do when that card arrives, the day after last posting, from someone we forgot to send a card to. And don’t we hate that! It’s recalling something that might get away from us, something we might get distanced from, might forget.

Let me remind you of something we say, in some way or another, every time we celebrate communion. Christian re-membering is a different kind of re-membering; a more ancient kind. It’s quite literally a re-membering, a re-assembling, a putting-back-together of the bits of a reality, the “members” of a reality, so that the reality of an event is reassembled for us. It’s a re-minding, the re-assembling of an understanding, the calling of something that happened then into the here-and-now. We live in a culture where remembering is a sort of scrabbling about to see how much of something long, long ago we still have access to, we can still put together. What we remember of something is, we expect, less and less every year.

Ancient remembering, Christian remembering, is for the present, now, to be invaded by what happened uniquely, once-for-all, then, so that we are in its presence, so that it fills our reality. So that Christmas 2014 is just Christmas, Christ come for us, born for us, God with us, in the middle of 2014.

So that we can look around from the axial point, the anchor-point of Christmas at the real world of 2014, where we have to live our real lives, with everything they contain, and hold the two together. So that our Christian faith is generated by the intersection of the reality of God with the reality of our day-to-day living in the dreich world of the here-and-now.

That’s what it means to sing the line we’ll sing in a few moments’ time about Christ’s coming “Down to such a world as this…”

This kind of re-membering is difficult for us, just because we live in “such a world as this.” We need to take every opportunity to step aside from the commercial, the social, the sentimental and the downright manipulative pressures of Christmas 2014, to grasp, and to allow ourselves to be grasped, by the coming of God in openness, vulnerability, incarnation, the human reality of a baby in a world that kills babies and starves children and disregards the poor, and blames the homeless and the refugees for everything.

“Down to such a world as this…”

3

Did you see the pictures? It came as close to us as Silverburn – maybe Greenock, I don’t know. Let me tell you, my affection for the apparently non-religious bits of the twenty-first century Christmas has been sorely tested this last week. I’d never heard of “Black Friday” until this year – and I count myself as reasonably in-touch. A frenzy of hype, whipped up on an American marketing model, to induce an outpouring of greed – what’s not to abominate?

And lest we sit and judge: who is to say what, in the lives of these folk motivated the desperation to possess, to gain, to have something that perhaps was beyond their reach ordinarily?

This is clearly the intersection of the marketing strategies of big retailers, with the realities and lives of millions of people, with the kind of society our society is becoming and has become.

None of it is simple. But none of it is very pretty, either. It is hard not to watch images like these without thinking of that line from the carol: “Down to such a world as this…”

[BREAK: Hymn 179 See! In yonder manger low]

4

There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about sin. Sin is doing bad things. Sins are the bad things, specified in lists and lawbooks, that we aren’t supposed to do. Sinful people are people who should be avoided, because they are different to us, and we are righteous and respectable. Above all, that God can only love us if we are righteous and respectable, and stay righteous and respectable, and even then God can only love us because Jesus, who was innocent, was killed because somebody had to be killed so that other people could be let off.

No, actually the worst nonsense is that this is what the Bible says. It doesn’t. Things like this are cobbled together out of bits of the Bible, disparate bits that fit a pattern that meets the needs of religious people. It isn’t what the Bible says.

Sin is broken relationships. Broken relationships between us and each other, above all the relationship with the very Ground of our being, with God, damaged, broken, by us. Us, not me. Broken justice, broken pledges, broken politics, a broken economy, a broken environment. A world damaged, polluted, metaphorically, and, now, in an age of human-induced global warming, literally polluted by us. By the way we live our shared lives.

Remember those images of Black Friday, of the scrums and scrambles and pushing and grabbing. Perhaps when you were watching, a particular person, in a particular pose, with a particular contortion of their face, attracted your attention more than the others. It’s so easy to pluck a face out of the crowd, and say “That’s what’s bad, and wrong, and wicked! There’s sin for you! There, in that person!!

Which is nonsense. As much nonsense as it is for us to sit at home in our armchairs, and think that all of this is nothing to do with us. That we are innocent, and that we can sit back and express our horror and condemnation.
5
The reading we heard, from the prophecy of the Third Isaiah, to a people trying to put its community life, its society, back together again, repeatedly uses the words that make that interpretation impossible. Us. We.

You come to the help of those who gladly do right,

who remember your ways.

But when we continued to sin against them,

you were angry.

How then can we be saved?

All of us have become like one who is unclean,

and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;

we all shrivel up like a leaf,

and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

No one calls on your name

or strives to lay hold of you…

It’s what gets between us and God. What we put between us and God, that alienates us from the Ground of our being. Or that’s how we experience it:

for you have hidden your face from us

and have given us over to our sins.

Except, of course, that God hasn’t… But it can feel that way…

We are part of it. We are complicit. But we are also loved, and set free. When we sing

What a tender love was Thine,

Thus to come from highest bliss Down to such a world as this…

we’re singing about us, too. What shall we do about that? What does it mean for us, for our faith, for who we are as the Church in the world? In “a world like this”?

6

The world is the way it is. And we daren’t pretend that it isn’t. We daren’t sentimentalize any aspect of it, or dilute its difficult truth. One of the things that I know worried so many of us about Remembrance this year – and about the ongoing process of remembering the First World War – is its sentimentalization, but that’s just a part of a pattern of conscription, the conscription of remembrance to commercialization and consumerism.

I’ll say it quite bluntly: the strange peace of that first Christmas of the First World War, that outburst of sheer shared humanity which made men in British and German uniforms just human beings playing football and trying to chat, is something immensely complicated and sacred, and its conscription to the business of selling Sainsburys products this Christmas is utterly shameful.
So it’s no small thing to say that I myself was in danger of sentimentalizing the commercial aspects of Christmas when I became all dewy-eyed at Mariah Carey and Wham. I was. Maybe seeing the really quite repugnant scenes of Black Friday scrums and punch-ups has thrown me back on the real ugliness of all Christmas commercialization.

But here’s the thing. I am part of this world, this consumerist society, which destroys the planet, and beggars struggling families, and impoverishes farmers and enslaves third-world workers, and, increasingly, people nearer home. So much a part that it seems almost hypocritical for me not to sing along with the songs that connect me to previous Christmases.

But carols go deeper than that. They connect me to the Christmas that is there beneath the Yuletides and Xmasses. The Christmas that bursts out in the fullness of meaning now, where people remember the poor, and resist the world the way it is.

The Church is called to be a point of resistance in this world, by pointing to the God who comes in openness and vulnerability, the child of a refugee family, an unmarried mother, into “such a world as this.” The Church is called to point to the coming of Christ into the world’s reality, and the beginning of the coming of the Kingdom, and the dawn of the hope that everything will be different.

The Church is you and me. And Advent is very precisely when we turn – even before Christmas – to look, not back to what was, but forward to what shall be. Because the Christian faith isn’t that Christmas is something that happened, that we have to get back to. Christmas is something that heralded something, something before which, when it comes, the world as it is will pass away. It isn’t the supermarkets that tell you what the world really is, and where God fits into it. It’s the foodbanks and the shelters, the things that point beyond the way the world is, but shouldn’t be, to the justice and love of the Kingdom of God. And, please God, the Churches.

As you’ll hear now, in our Epistle and Gospel readings, that’s our calling. To bear witness in “such a world as this” to the coming of God in the pink, vulnerable flesh of a newborn baby, but also to what is to come, to the meaning of the Kingdom, to the subverting of the world of globalized commercialism and consumerism, where the “haves” count and nobody else does, to the world as it should and shall be.

We, the Church, are called to live as though the world were passing away, and we were freed of it by the coming of God in Christ. Because it is, and we are. And so shall everyone else be. We are called to be ready for that, and bear witness to it.

And that’s exactly what our Gospel reading says today.

Hear again the Word of God:

Mark 13:28-37

28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

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