Advent – a time of waiting. A time of reflecting on what is to be. I want to reflect a little on what this says to us about what we should be saying and doing in response to God’s call to us to be light and love within a messy and chaotic world.
Advent Sunday marks the beginning of that preparation time for Christmas. At least that’s how I see it, but it does mean that the church needs to begin by playing catch-up because most of society around us in the UK has got its preparations for Christmas well under way. It is not the same everywhere, of course. I happen to have spent a little part of Advent both last year and the year before in Zimbabwe, visiting friends and churches in the Presbytery of Zimbabwe within the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa. It is very different there with few indications that Christmas is imminent. There are some, if you look, but they are not splashed all over the place. But it is different when you are in a situation where real unemployment is massive – some would say at least 90%. A situation where you never know when you will have a power cut, but you do know it will happen regularly. They used to schedule where and when they would cut the power, but discovered gangs of thieves making use of this information, so decided a random approach was actually safer, though more inconvenient. A situation where the water is also frequently turned off, and not safe to drink anyway. Part of our thinking needs to remember those in such situations – and that is without mentioning the challenges of Ebola, faced in other parts of Africa.
But back to the UK. What are we to say to a society where the headlines of preparing for Christmas all seem to be focussed on something called Black Friday? What are we to say to a society in which most places have already switched on their Christmas lights ahead of Advent, where shops have had Christmas displays for some time, where Christmas trees, even the real ones, are already on sale? What are we to say to a society where the main point of Christmas seems to be to keep the retail sector going? Not, of course, that I don’t want to keep the retail sector going. I just happen not to think that it’s the main point of Christmas. What are we to say to a society in which the political landscape looks as though it may be changing, though less than six months away from a general election, it may change again post-election? What are we to say to a global society which faces the challenges of Islamic State, terrorism, so called jihad – always recognising, of course, that these things which are too often used to demonise Islam are not part of Islam as the very vast majority of its followers would recognise it? What are we to say to the peoples of Syria, of the Ukraine, of Afghanistan? The questions go on and on, and almost overwhelm us.
If we were with Matthew last week, listening to the final contribution of his Gospel to the lectionary for the moment, we were reminded that how we treat the marginalised, the vulnerable, the outcast is the indicator of how we are responding to God’s call. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes …. I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me! It is a challenge to work out just what this means in terms of what we do and say, but that’s what we need to do.
If we look ahead, through the waiting and preparation period, some 25 days, and arrive at the celebration of Christmas, we can see and say all sorts of things about what that means and how it should make an impact on our thinking. The incarnation, the coming to earth of God, is the essential demonstration of God’s getting alongside us. There are so many things that we can take from the story – that he is the Prince of Peace, that he is the light of the world, that he is the greatest ever Christmas gift.
What will we focus on this Advent?