A Sermon for Advent
December 20, 2012
“It’s your busy time, now isn’t it?” everyone says to me, in shops, on buses, everywhere I go. Busy, busy, busy. The secular preparation for Christmas has this sense of hyperactivity. The message from all sides seems to be that if your activity levels haven’t gone into overdrive, you’re not doing it right. So in Advent we Christians, of all people, must be seriously busy, mustn’t we?
Well, at one level, yes, of course celebrating and helping others to do so takes some time and care. I’m really grateful to the people who give their precious time to making Christingles and cooking Christmas dinner for the lunch club and singing carols on street corners – the Christian Aid sing in Fargate raised £1 400 by the way! For clergy like me, though, December is a month when the round of meetings that keep parish, Diocesan and Ecumenical life chugging along grind to a temporary halt, and I find some precious windows of empty space opening up in my diary. “Remember you’re a human being, not a human doing” our friend Jim used to say. That’s a good word for Advent! I’ve been using my empty diary moments this week is to slow down, do less doing and more being. I need to take some time to recall what Christ’s coming really means. When I’ve understood that, then I’ll know better how to prepare.
At Christmas we will celebrate the coming of the one who is God’s saving, redeeming love for us and for all the world. A love that is not an idea, not a concept, but a person: an earth flesh and blood person. In Jesus, we reckon with a God who invite us into relationship. Being a Christian doesn’t require us to sign up to a twelve stage programme, or even endorse a complicated set of doctrinal statements. What a relief! We’re simply invited to enter into a relationship of love. And the fact is we have done nothing to deserve this. We are sinful people, and the root of our sinfulness is our constant putting of ourselves at the centre of our universe. But God doesn’t wait for us to get ourselves sorted out: he simply comes to us as we are. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. Eternal life, beginning in the here and now: the quiet joy of sharing in the life of the Spirit. The free gift of grace.
That’s the reality at the heart of our Christmas celebration: something earth shatteringly huge, and yet extremely simple. And of course it is not only true at Christmas, but at every moment of the year. Celebrating the Christian year means that we can savour every aspect of salvation history: we can unpack the full glory of Christ’s coming during epiphany, contemplate the passion and death of Jesus during Lent and Holy Week, rejoice in the Resurrection through Easter through to Ascension Day and celebrate the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. The story of God’s saving love for the world is like an epic film too big for us to grasp in one snap-shot, and so following the year’s rhythm through enables us to savour it one episode at a time.
When we strip it back to the essentials, Christmas is about grace: God’s free gift of his saving love in Jesus. The birth stories remind us how this took place in humble circumstances, the saviour born into a situation of vulnerability and risk. Christmas reminds us of the simplicity of God’s ways with us; that we should not confuse salvation with success, that we shouldn’t imagine that spending power has anything to do with the power of God’s Holy Spirit. “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all” we read in Paul’s letter to Titus. This grace, this self giving of God in Jesus is our hope, our joy, our delight.
So yes let’s celebrate that. How? Let’s sing carols. Let’s thank God together in our worship. Let’s meet with him in the bread and wine. Those things are essential. It might be nice to share a meal and a bottle of wine with family or friends on Christmas Day. We could buy a present for people we care about if we feel we can afford to. We could send some cards if we have the time, but not if we haven’t. Anything else is extra. If Christmas is about the grace of God, all that we need to do is receive it. Living by grace means more receiving, less achieving.
At college I had a wonderful theology tutor called Tony. He used to say, I’ve only really got one sermon. I always preach about grace.
I know where he was coming from. The gospel of grace runs so much against the grain of everything we learn about life that we fail to properly take it in. From the cradle on we’re taught to view life as what Richard Rohr calls a worthiness contest. It’s a kind of existential game show in which our score is determined by our achievements, and our score determines our worthiness as a human being. We mentally file our achievements under different categories: education, work, appearance, relationships, social life. High score in some or all of these categories means that we have much worth as human beings. Low score in some or all means we have low worth as human beings. If we enter the worthiness contest we constantly compare our scores with those of other people. We become envious and resentful of others who appear to be scoring higher than us. If we see our score sinking we start to feel that life is pointless.
In the worthiness contest, celebrating Christmas simply becomes another category in which we can fail. The tastefully co-ordinated decorations, the creative choice of gifts, the impressive yet apparently effortless catering, the conflict-free family gathering are simply beyond our grasp. We might as well give up now.
From a Christian perspective, the worthiness contest view of life is utterly untrue, mistaken and wrong. It is a spiritual dead end. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we are not contestants in some cruel worthiness contest. The gospel of grace simply cuts through this false doctrine of achievement and reward. Our human worth is not given by what we achieve. What we do or achieve is marginal to any assessment of our worth as people. This is the good news of grace: our worth as human beings comes from God’s self giving to us in Jesus. That’s it. We can’t ever deserve it, we can’t add to it or subtract to it from what we do or don’t achieve. All we need to do is open our hands, open our hearts and receive. God’s grace is overflowing for all of us: sinners and low achievers all, those of us with untidy houses, long-abandoned diets and misplaced shopping lists; the disorganised and disappointed: for us, the grace of God dawns in the coming of Jesus Christ.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! So writes Paul the Apostle. And if we have truly heard and received the gospel of grace, how can we keep from rejoicing?
In this last week of Advent let’s prepare to receive God’s grace afresh. Let’s simplify our hearts and lives: spend less, do less, worry less, laugh more, listen more, pray more. Let’s forget multi-tasking and do one thing at a time, consciously and appreciatively. Let’s enjoy some quietness, create a still place within ourselves into which the Christ child can be born. Maranatha: come Lord Jesus.
Frances Eccleston, December 2012