Sermon: Ashburton Portreeve Service 3rd December 2017

1 Corinthians 1:3 - 9
Mark 13:24 - end

I typed Advent Calendar into Google yesterday.

For £120 I could have had a “24 day Beauty Advent Calendar” from Selfridges – “Make the countdown to Christmas even more special. It features 24 cult beauty must-haves to help make the festive period even more glamorous. “
Or £170 for 24 Drinks by the Dram.
Or more reasonably the HotWheels Advent Calendar for £12 featuring Father Christmas driving a Skidoo, each day you get a reindeer, a sledge, a hot-car or whatever.
Or chocolates for each day
Or a series of scenes, hidden behind numbered flaps, of camels and shepherds and angels, a star, a cow, a donkey, all the characters culminating in a baby in a manger.

I wonder if you have an Advent Calendar, and if so what sort?

Leading you through December, the darkest month, and promising increasing excitement and something really special to come. They all have in common a tantalizing build up to a special day – and that’s the main point – to help us look forward to Christmas Day. A day I think everyone celebrates for two characteristics – wonderful self-indulgence, and a satisfying sense of Dickensian bonhomie that encourages us to be good and to do good – to give presents, to welcome friends and family, to affirm our love for each other.

It’s a pretty good package – thinking how to please other people – and even exotic, off-beat Advent Calendars are, I hope, part of that - given rather than bought for oneself? Though buying one to make your spouse beautiful might possibly send the wrong message?

Somewhere, lurking in this, is a desire, a longing, that the world might be a better place, that broken relationships can be healed, but that not everything can happen instantly – even perfecting one’s beauty apparently takes 24 days. Everyone is agreed something needs to change for the better – and that needs us to prepare.

Like when my parents were alive and they would phone up from Scotland to say “We’re coming down to stay next week. Is that OK?” Ah – time to tidy up the house, fix the plug in the basin back onto its chain, mend the broken chair, clean the windows – why? Because I knew that sorting out the mess was worth doing, but I just didn’t normally get around to it.

Now, it may be that your life is perfectly well ordered, that you regularly keep in touch with all your friends, that you are tackling all the social issues in Ashburton, that you are always inviting your neighbours around for a meal, that you never get anything wrong and never upset anyone, and when you do you always apologise immediately?

But you may not be quite there yet? Bit more work to do on some of those? Advent gives us time to get on with it, and get ready for the birth of a baby…. And to make his birth really special.

Get our act together, “so that we may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” as St Paul said in our first reading. In the Gospel reading, Jesus does his best to make his listeners understand that life is full of choices – whether to do more of the good things, the right things, or not. And a lifetime putting off changing the balance will be like my parents turning up unexpectedly and finding chaos.

But it’s not Jesus as baby that changed the world – it was Jesus as a radical, free-thinking, affirming and challenging teacher and leader and Son of God that changed the world. Showed us how to go the extra mile.

Jesus could see that government finances were corrupt, that social care was appalling, that sexual harassment of women was the norm, that the few lived well at the expense of the many. And he determined to change society – and society objected, so they ran a show trial, they tortured him and killed him. And, as they thought, having dealt with this troublemaker, went back to their old ways.

But Christians learnt from Jesus that change could happen, that life could be made fairer and better for all – and they formed the church to learn from the biblical writings about Jesus and from each other’s experience how to make the world better – and Christians have being working away at this agenda ever since. And it’s not easy – the same problems that Jesus tackled still keep surfacing.

I, for one, know that my behaviour is far from perfect. And the worrying thing is that I may not even notice I behave badly, and if challenged I might deny it.

Have you noticed in the recent exposure of people who have been sexually harassing women (or men) that they almost invariably deny it? And as the stories break, that we, at least I, feel a certain satisfaction that someone has been found out and made to suffer for their bad behaviour – “I would never do that” I might be smugly thinking.

But Jesus told a story of a group of men about to stone to death a woman who had been seduced into having affairs – they felt justified in punishing her. Jesus brought them to silence and shame by asking if they were without sin – if so, they could, indeed, cast the first stone. One by one they walked away in silence.

Or how did Jesus tackle corruption? A cheating, corrupt tax collector called Zacheus became intrigued by what Jesus was saying, and hid in a tree to listen better – and Jesus caught his eye – made him face his behaviour – and he promised to repay anyone he’d cheated twice what he had stolen. His life was transformed.

And Jesus tackling social care – instead of just walking by a disabled beggar, Jesus gave him his full attention and he literally lifted him out of his condition, and gave him back his health and self-respect.

Why does he mix with beggars and prostitutes people asked ….

Jesus’ message that we all need to become more and more aware of our own failings is tough and painful – it’s so much easier to see other’s failings (and he talked about us trying to get the speck out of our neighbour’s eye while we have a plank in our own!)

Jesus the baby became Jesus the social reformer, and then Jesus the nuisance who had to be killed. And so we are here in church today as his followers – doing our best to continue his work. And week by week we explore our own failings and say sorry for them, and pray for the troubles of the world, and try to learn how to follow Jesus better. Which all sounds pretty grim.

But at the core of Jesus’ message is a unique sort of joy – the joy we all feel when we do something good – when we buy a good Christmas present, when we make it up with our neighbour, even when we say sorry to someone. A joy that is enhanced when being with other like-minded people. A joy that increases as we are freed from guilt and shame, freed from the selfishness that simply seeks self-satisfaction – that turns us from takers into givers, freed by God’s forgiveness. That enjoys helping others because when they are happier we are all happier.

Jesus showed us how to be liberated and free, and how to liberate and free the world. And we are all here today to celebrate that.

Geoffrey Fenton

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