St Francis, Terriers - Advent 1  (03.12.2017) Tony Dickinson

Apparently there was an outbreak of Meghanmania in Nottingham the other day – that’s Meghan with an “h”, by the way: nothing to do with either the organist’s daughter or the churchwarden’s granddaughter. The outbreak was so severe that even the normally republican “Guardian” was carried away and put a picture of her on the front page. It almost made up for some of the viciously racist comments about Prince Harry’s best-beloved that have been appearing on-line in some newspapers’ comments section. And the joy and excitement at this royal engagement is understandable. The rest of the news is so unrelentingly grim. Leaving aside the slow-motion car-crash that is Brexit, we have the continuing stand-off between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the ever-widening impact of continuing civil war in Syria, the horror story that is Yemen, and now the President of the USA retweeting openly racist and islamophobic material from a British source and refusing to back down when taken to task by Britain’s Prime Minister. It would, I think, be something of an understatement to say that the last year has been difficult.

One of the worst things about it has been the way in which Christianity is being used to support the worst of racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and unjust and inhumane politics and policies, in the USA, in Poland and Hungary, in Russia – and in this country. It makes me want to echo the prophet’s cry at the beginning of today’s first reading: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” We have made such a mess of the world for which we’re supposed to be caring that we need God to come and sort it out.

A similar thought seems to have struck Diana Butler Bass, who writes about the interface between faith and politics Stateside. She recently tweeted about re-reading the Bible (and especially the Law and the Gospels) in the context of a presidency which has gone beyond egomania into some very dark places indeed – and apparently taken half the nation with it.

She offers her conclusion in these words: “These stories have never seemed so completely truthful, so beautiful, so powerful. Against the background of all this stress and despair, their ancient wisdom blazes. But not as comfort. They are not comforting. Instead, they are deeply critical…” They are critical because they take seriously the human race’s apparent inability to keep awake when faced with difficult situations – or worse, to refrain from cosying up to power.

Ms Butler Bass reminded her followers on Twitter that “Whenever human beings "build" social structures that reward the few and oppress the many, God has something to say about that. And it is never good for those who create such structures.” She was writing those words in the context of the budget passed by the US Senate late on Friday night, a budget that rewards the rich and oppresses middle-class and working-class people. She might also have been writing about events this side of the Atlantic. Structures that protect the rich and disadvantage the poor are diametrically opposed to God’s dream for humankind – which is summed up in this morning’s first reading as gladly doing right and remembering God in all our ways. As another prophet didn’t quite put it, we are called “to live well and humbly in the world, to care for the earth and each other, and to "walk" in harmony with the divine presence here and now”. We are invited to use those gifts which St Paul described in the opening of his first letter to Corinth as the people there waited for the coming of God’s kingdom – which they expected imminently.

Last Sunday we reflected on what it means to describe Jesus as a "king". The New Testament vision of his "kingship" is that of the divine presence "with us." Not above us: not “out there”, remote and uncaring. There is no kingly hierarchy. Jesus our king takes his place among us in humanity and humility. He offers a meal that isn’t a royal banquet but a supper shared at a table where all are welcome, where former enemies become friends and serve one another, and where we eat the bread and drink from the cup through which he “strengthens [us] to the end, so that [we] may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the day when, as we heard in this morning’s Gospel “[the Son of Man] will send out his angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

It is a beautiful vision, and one that is renewed in us every time we gather round the Lord’s table to share the gift of his life. As Diana Butler Bass reminds us, “Anything that claims to be Christian that is counter to this vision is deeply unfaithful to the central story of scripture and of Jesus, adding that “… in this difficult year, it has become very clear – what is love and what is not love. And clear what is fidelity, beauty, joy, and grace.” We are now, perhaps, in that time of which Jesus was speaking in today’s gospel when he told his disciples “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates.” As we recognise the signs of the times, we can feel our own awareness of these things heightened, our understanding of sacred things deepened.

The call to keep awake was not only given to the disciples. Jesus tells them, “What I say to you I say to all”. In this age, as the conflict intensifies between lies and falsity on the one hand and the truth of God on the other, between those who claim the name of Christian but deny Christ by their actions and those who may not claim, or even know, his name but follow his way, may we all be alert to Christ’s love and grace guiding us, and his courage emboldening us.

In this Advent season the world may look an ever more threatening place, but we can be grateful for the clarity which this brings to our understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming and the urgency which it brings to our hope of his return, the same clarity which enabled the prophet to recognise the failure of his people. We can also be grateful for the ancient scriptural wisdom that has power to inform us and shape our response to the perils which surround us and, above all, we can be grateful for all those who live in love and work for God's dream, kindling the flame that signifies Christ’s coming as light into our darkness. To him with the Father…