This is my sermon for Advent Sunday.
I was brought up in a vicarage. My father was the vicar of a Somerset village, and life revolved around church activities. Advent Sunday was the beginning of the church year. We look forward to the birth of Christ at Christmas, and then go through the annual cycle with Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Along with all the saints’ days the whole system added up to a regular annual cycle, beginning each year with Advent.
That emphasis on an annual cycle, doing the same things at the same time of year, works well for many people. Farmers fit their lives around the seasons of the year and celebrations like Rogation Sunday and Harvest fit naturally into the pattern. If you have a regular lifestyle, expecting to do the same things each year, when one celebration finishes you start looking forward to the next one.
This was the lifestyle I was expected to conform to in my vicarage childhood. I couldn’t. There was always something else I wanted to do.
So I’m pleased to say there’s another side to it. Advent is supposed to be looking forward to Jesus coming at Christmas. Why look forward to Jesus coming? Because he is going to change things. Because in future things are not going to be the same.
This is why the people who tell us which bible readings to use have chosen, specially for Advent Sunday, this utterly obscure passage which actually comes from Mark’s gospel but sounds as if it comes from a Spiritualist seance:
The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.
It’s not talking about billions of years in the future when the sun burns out. It goes on:
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
And in case you still haven’t got the message, it adds:
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
This kind of language doesn’t exactly encourage us to buy Christmas trees. It sounds as though by the time Christmas comes Liverpool might not exist!
So here’s a contradiction, embedded in traditional Advent. Are we to be content with the way things are, and celebrate and enjoy doing the things we always do at this time of year? Or should we work for change?
I think there is a proper role for both. What I’m going to do now is describe the history behind both ideas.
Until 3,000 years ago our ancestors characteristically thought of time in two stages. In the first stage the world was created, as it is now. That was primeval time. From then on, things have basically stayed the same. The community struggles against floods, plagues, and other natural disasters, so they work together to keep things the same. Change is danger.
They expected life to carry on much the same whatever they did. Whatever happened in their own day did not mean anything in its own right. There was no sense of working towards a better world. It was primeval time, way back then, that had meaning and value. What gave meaning and value to present time was the sense that they participated in primeval time. They would treat their own activities as holy when they thought they were repeating actions performed in that past age by the gods or ancestors, or whoever they believed in. In this way they would treat their own actions as ceremonies, and celebrate them, as a way of participating in eternity. This was especially true of eating and making love.
This way of thinking began to change, a bit less than 3,000 years ago, in four parts of the world: China, India, Israel and Greece. This was the age of Confucius, Buddha, Socrates and the Old Testament prophets. These places had long established cities, with empires, armies, hierarchies, laws, rents and debts. Group loyalty was breaking down. For increasing numbers, the struggle of life was directed not against nature but against the king or the boss.
For these people, keeping life the same was the last thing they wanted. They wanted change. Different people looked forward to change in different ways. There were three main types of hope. All three have influenced Christianity and are still common today.
One type is asceticism. Never mind the way other people are treating you, the way to a better life is through inner peace. Reconcile yourself with your situation. What is important is your inner spirituality.
Another type is to abandon hope in the present age, and to wait for God or the gods to produce a better age in the future, either in this world or after death. This seems to be what Mark believed when he wrote that passage in his Gospel.
Others again thought a better future was possible in this life, and thought about what to do to make it happen.
All three options influenced Christianity but it is the third option, of gradual change in this life, which now dominates modern western society. To modern science, the history of life on earth is a history of continual change. Instead of two ages there is a single continuing line of history from the Big Bang to the end of the universe, and our lives are a tiny part of it, moving along in our day. The future will be different from the past.
All of these beliefs have been held by different Christians, and you can interpret Advent any way you want. I am now going to tell you my own way of making sense of it.
I am going to put aside two of the options. The inward turn has its place as a coping mechanism, but when some people make other people’s lives a misery it isn’t the solution. Nor do I think it is at all constructive to complain about the situation, and just wait for somebody else to put it right, even if the somebody else you are waiting for is God.
So I keep coming back to the other two: the early idea of accepting the present age and learning to live with it, and the modern idea of gradual change into an unknown future. I suspect that there is a place for both.
The good thing about the early theory was the lack of pressure. You struggle against the bad things of life, but you enjoy and celebrate the good things. That’s it. There is nothing else for you to do. The disadvantage is that, from this point of view, in the long run nothing matters. Your day-to-day decisions make a difference to yourself and your family, but if you believe that in a thousand years’ time nothing will have changed, in the long run whatever you do is completely unimportant.
With the theory of gradual change it is the other way round. The advantage is that our lives matter. The way we live can make the world a better place. We have been entrusted with responsibility. This is a positive gift. The disadvantage is that the responsibility can be too much. We can make the world a better place but we can also make it a worse place. The three biggest mass killers in the whole of history were Hitler, Stalin and Mao. They were all trying to make the world a better place, and thought they knew how.
At the moment we have no killers on that scale, but modern society is still driven by a search for change. It is as though the present situation is never good enough. We are constantly being urged to do more, work harder, earn more, spend more, produce more, consume more. When can we stop? When can we be content with what we have got, and celebrate it?
So the tension is still there. The way I make sense of it is by returning to the main reason why people started to demand change, nearly 3,000 years ago. It wasn’t because of the limits to nature. It was because some people used their power to oppress others.
This, I believe, is still the situation today. God has put us in a good world, to live constructive lives caring for each other. We are responsible for each other, and as long as some people are being mistreated, responsibility is being misused. There is room for progress. It will come about not through the skills and techniques of economics and technology, but through basic morality, through caring for each other better. When we do, we create a happier, more contented society.