A sermon for Advent 4
This year, the Church of England is urging churches and cathedrals to tweet Christmas sermons using the hashtag ‘Christmas Starts with Christ’. There’s also a national advertising campaign with the same strapline – ‘Christmas starts with Christ’. It would be hard to be more wrong. Through the whole of our Advent season, we have been demonstrating that Christmas does not start with Christ but far earlier in God’s plans with his chosen people.
As we come to the end of Advent, and as later we light the final candle on the Advent wreath, I want for a few minutes to reflect on what we’ve been doing for the past four weeks. Lighting candles, remembering figures from the depth of the Old Testament and the periphery of the New. For the duration of Advent, we’ve been tracing the links in the chain that lead us to Jesus.
We began with the patriarchs, the men and women who are pivotal in the history of Israel. Abraham and Sarah, who though elderly, left their home and travelled to an unknown land believing the promise of God that he would give them a son. Abraham’s children, Jacob, from whom Israel took her name, Joseph who prepared the future of his people in Israel, Moses and Aaron leading the people out of slavery, Joshua, leading them into the promised land. King David, who our reading from Micah this morning counts as pivotal for an account of Israel and in understanding Jesus. All of these people are links in the chain that lead us to Jesus.
Then we remembered the prophets, those who proclaimed the word of God to people who mostly didn’t want to hear it. They stood for justice, for the primacy of faith over power, and offered words of judgement and with them hope for a future beyond judgement. Throughout Advent, we have read the prophets and heard again their vision of the world put right.
Last week we remembered John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah, who offered a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and pointed to Jesus as the promised Messiah. And today we remember Mary, who agreed to become the mother of Jesus with all the pain and heartache that entailed. It is quite a chain, from Abraham to Mary. And as our reading from Micah reminds us, it includes places as well as people. There are many, many things that contribute to the story of Jesus. The chain is long and complex.
But if we think of it as a chain in this way, then we must acknowledge that it’s actually quite a precarious chain. Abraham and Sarah had many doubts about God’s promises. Jacob, their grandson, was a cheat and a liar, Moses and the whole generation that came out of Egypt were deemed unworthy of entry into the promised land, Kind David was an adulterer, the prophets were largely ignored, imprisoned, beaten and even killed; John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to find out if he really was the one promised (the sub-text being when are you going to get on with it?); and Mary, well what would have happened to our salvation if Mary had said ‘No’. The chain is a weak one, full of false starts, links that cannot take the weight, and the most crucial one that might never have been forged.
So the image that I prefer is not that of a chain forged, link by link, but that of a tapestry woven out of a host of different threads. This does not explain or excuse the unholy behaviour of many of the leading threads in the tapestry, but shows the skill of the weaver in incorporating then, and even making some of the central parts of the tapestry depend on the faults and the incomplete threads surrounding them. The crucial parts of the tapestry remain precarious – Mary’s yes is vital to the whole thing, and at the centre of the whole piece a gaping tear in the fabric is crucial to the tapestry. This is the power of God at work, working through human beings with very human weaknesses and faults, even down to killing the one in whom God himself was present, and out of them weaving the redemption of the whole of creation. This is what we celebrate with our Advent wreath – the power of God to weave his purposes out of human failings, to weave good out of evil, hope out of despair and life out of death.
But this is no tapestry to hang on a wall and look at, a conversation piece or a way of filling a wall. Rather it is a living picture, one in which you and I find ourselves bound in. Out lives too are part of the tapestry that God is weaving, centred around the life of Jesus. In our baptisms we too are joined to Christ, we too are woven into God’s great work. And it is not just the good and attractive parts of our lives that God uses in his weaving, all of ourselves, the bits we like to display and the bits we don’t, the things we’re proud of and the times we cringe to remember, all of our lives are woven into the great tapestry of God. This too is what we celebrate in Advent as we light the wreath. The figures of the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary are not characters from a story or from the depths of the history books. Rather they are part of the same story that we belong to, their lives and ours are bound together through our common connection to Jesus. In Advent we remember these people not just because of their connection to Jesus, but because through that connection they are also connected to us.
This Advent tapestry should give us three things: it should give us hope, it should give us perspective and it should give us joy. It should give us hope that the whole of our beings can be used by God, and that our failings and weaknesses are not a barrier to the work of God in and through us. Our hope is not in our own strength or talents, but in the way God makes used even of our blindspots and our losses, our sadness and our regrets.
It should give us perspective that we are part of a great tapestry that includes Abraham, Sarah and the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary because we are all connected to Jesus. We read the Bible not as a historical document, but as a living document that is still being written in our lives. And this connection through Christ does not just work backwards in time, but across borders and across continents. We are connected through Christ to our fellow Christians in this diocese, in the Church of England, to our brothers and sisters in other churches in England, and across the world. Here in Derby we have links with the Church in North India, with Osnabruck in Germany, and each of us will have other links to other people near and far. This gives us a new perspective on our own place within the church and within the world.
And finally, our connectedness to Christ in the great work of God gives us joy. Joy that God is working through our lives. Joy that our weakness and failure can be used by God. Joy that in Christ we are linked through time and space to a great multitude that no-one can number. Joy that in Christ God came to us, to bind us to himself. Truly with Mary we can sing that our souls proclaim the greatness of the Lord; our spirits rejoice in God our saviour. Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral. 23.12.12.