We need a little Christmas now!

This is the sermon I preached today (29 November, 2020) for Advent Sunday at Putney Methodist Church. The texts I chose were Matthew 1:18-25 and Romans 8:18-25.

Introduction

Our Advent worship this year follows a Circuit-wide theme, which in turn is inspired by the national Methodist Church’s Christmas campaign: ‘God is with us’. At a time of social distancing and greatly increased isolation, the theme picks up the traditional Advent promise of ‘Emmanuel to emphasise the good news of Christmas: God is truly with us. Each week in our Sunday worship, we shall start with an advent candle liturgy that picks up a different outcome of that incredible promise: peace, joy, love, and in this first week, hope. The rest of our worship will then reflect on that theme.

Today, therefore, our readings follow the theme of hope. I have been very naughty in disregarding the set Advent texts today and leaping straight ahead to a Christmas reading: the less well-known story of the annunciation to Joseph. I chose that because it contains the promise to God’s people that inspired our advent theme, that Emmanuel was truly coming. The second reading is also fairly familiar but is not one we would usually have at this time. It comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans and speaks in more detail of that most precious gift of hope.

Matthew 1:18-25 (The Birth of Jesus the Messiah)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Toros Roslin – ‘Joseph’s Dream’ (c.1262)

Romans 8:18-25 (In hope we were saved)

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Sermon

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Date:                 29th November, 2020 (Advent Sunday)

Place:                 Putney Methodist Church

Text(s):             Matthew 1:18-25; Romans 8:18-25

“God is with us in Hope”

Introduction

Our Advent worship this year follows a Circuit-wide theme, which in turn is inspired by the national Methodist Church’s Christmas campaign: ‘God is with us’. At a time of social distancing and greatly increased isolation, the theme picks up the traditional Advent promise of ‘Emmanuel to emphasise the good news of Christmas: God is truly with us. Each week in our Sunday worship, we shall start with an advent candle liturgy that picks up a different outcome of that incredible promise: peace, joy, love, and in this first week, hope. The rest of our worship will then reflect on that theme.

Today, therefore, our readings follow the theme of hope. I have been very naughty in disregarding the set Advent texts today and leaping straight ahead to a Christmas reading: the less well-known story of the annunciation to Joseph. I chose that because it contains the promise to God’s people that inspired our advent theme, that Emmanuel was truly coming. The second reading is also fairly familiar but is not one we would usually have at this time. It comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans and speaks in more detail of that most precious gift of hope.

Matthew 1:18-25 (The Birth of Jesus the Messiah)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Romans 8:18-25 (In hope we were saved)

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Sermon

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen

In churches across the world today, we are marking the start of the solemn season of Advent. With advent candle liturgies like our own, with well-known hymns such as ‘Hills of the north’, with increased devotion and prayer, or with special services, like tonight’s traditional Advent Carol service at St Mary’s Putney. All of these will emphasise the element of ‘waiting’ within Advent; the ‘not yet’ of Advent.

Yet, all of us here today also know that there is always a great tension within Advent. So often, Advent can get squeezed out by the overwhelming dominance of Christmas in the lives of our churches, and even more so in the world around us.

Usually, my fellow clergy and I would be doing our best in this season to help our congregations observe the season of Advent properly and joining the chorus of those bemoaning Christmas decorations going up in October and all the rest of it. At the same time, though, we would also usually already be leading carol services for schools, scouts, and different community organisations, and be attending events where people desperately wanted to be singing ‘O come all ye faithful’, not ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. (We could spare a thought for Nicola, the Methodist chaplain of the nearby University of Roehampton, who always has to have to her Christmas carol service around now anyway because of the academic term!)

The tension was beautifully illustrated for me by one of the churches in my old Circuit in Hertfordshire. It is an Anglican / Methodist Local Ecumenical Partnership and had an excellent Anglican priest. She was an accomplished writer and very strict liturgist, so she was always very firm with her congregation: Christmas starts on Christmas Eve, it does NOT start in Advent! So, the tree and a few decorations would only go up on the 24th December and that was final.

Well, one year, the vicar went on a very well-deserved sabbatical early in November. (You can probably all imagine how this story is going to end!) I happened to be preaching there on Advent Sunday, and that year I think Advent may even have started in November, as it does this year. Now, if you can imagine what would happen if a medium-sized Anglican church collided with an articulated lorry full of tinsel, then you can pretty much imagine what I saw when I opened the door. There was not one but about three trees up in the church and every nook and cranny was full of Christmas decorations, nativity scenes and all the paraphernalia of Christmas. While I was taking the scene in, the churchwarden sidled up to me, looking rather sheepish, and muttered, “There was a lot of pent-up Christmas in the congregation.”.

This year, that tension is all the more evident and is beautifully summed up in one my favourite songs for this season. It comes from the musical ‘Mame’, written by Jerry Herman. You’ll probably hear it in the coming days on the radio, usually sung by the great Angela Lansbury:

Haul out the holly

Put up the tree before my spirit falls again

Fill up the stocking

I may be rushing things but deck the halls again now

For we need a little Christmas right this very minute

Candles in the window, carols at the spinet

Yes, we need a little Christmas right this very minute

Hasn’t snowed a single flurry, but Santa dear we’re in a hurry

Climb down the chimney

Turn on the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen

Slice up the fruit cake

It’s time we’ve hung some tinsel on the evergreen bough

It speaks very eloquently of that need to experience all the best things about Christmas – it’s good cheer, brightness and sense of fun – right now. The song goes on to express something slightly deeper, when the character of Mame talks about why she needs Christmas right now:

For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder

Grown a little sadder, grown a little older

And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder

Need a little Christmas now

Those sentiments seem particularly apposite this year. I know from speaking to many of you, and others, that we have all found 2020 a very difficult year, and this second lockdown particularly so. The sense of isolation; the lack of physical touch and human companionship; the lack of things really to look forward to. I am not at all surprised, therefore, to read newspaper reports and Facebook posts about people throwing off all restraint and putting up their trees and decorations as soon as humanly possible. It seems this year that nearly all of us, ‘need a little Christmas now’.

That is why I unashamedly changed our readings this morning. Talking to my fellow preachers about this season, we all agreed that we really did not need to hear more sermons about waiting nor rather gloomy passages about death and the end times. We have had quite enough of all that already this year!

Instead, we start our Advent journey like one of the stories that I now read my young son. Sometimes, if he is feeling a bit ‘wobbly’ (as we say) he will reject well-known stories because they have scary bits in or he will ask, “Does it end happily?”. He needs the reassurance that all will be well, before even embarking on the narrative. So, today we start our Advent journey in these uncertain times with the reassurance that Joseph received from the angel or, in the modern parlance of television box sets, a ‘spoiler alert’! All shall be well. There are trials and tribulations to come – long journeys on a donkey, grumpy innkeepers and wicked kings – but the light will ultimately triumph over the darkness. The Christ child will be born and he shall indeed be Emmanuel, ‘God is with us’, and he will change our world for the better forever.

That is good news for us all, and we need to hold on to that good news and proclaim it more than ever this year. Most of us have become so familiar with the nativity story – even bored with it, dare I say – that we have forgotten its power to bring hope and joy. Again, I am looking at the story through fresh eyes this year, with our newly adopted son. Like so many children in our country, he has had practically no Christian input or teaching in his life so far, and his grasp of the Christmas story is sketchy to say the least. A few weeks ago, his class learned about the Hindu festival of Diwali, which is a great thing to know. But he then recounted over dinner a slightly bowdlerised version of the epic of the Ramayana, which involved Rama and Sita encountering Mary and Joseph on a donkey! So, next week, when we get the nativity set out and talk about all the different characters, there will be at least one person in the congregation hearing it (correctly) for the first time. And I pray that all of us may experience something of that novelty and wonder this year once more, and recapture the hopefulness of the story. A people, waiting in hope for a Messiah. A couple, waiting in hope for a child. Wise men, traveling in hope across a barren landscape. And all of them ultimately seeing their hopes fulfilled in a tiny child, born in poverty beneath a star-studded sky.

That theme of hope continues in our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The apostle is addressing quite a different context to our own but there is so much there that resonates both with the Christmas story and with our own age. A woman “groaning in labour pains” to accomplish God’s purposes. Creation waiting “with eager longing” for deliverance from darkness, from disease, from lockdown. And peoples of all times desperately seeking something or someone in which to hope.

Paul reminds his readers, and through them us, that we are inherently people of hope: “For in hope we were saved,” as he wrote. That hope is not based upon what is seen – the things of this world – like the hope that the bus will come, or that we’ll win the lottery, or even that a vaccine will save us all. It is a hope based upon what God has already done: in creation, in the life of God’s people and Church, and most of all in the person of Jesus Christ, the living embodiment of Emmanuel (God with us). But is a hope based too on what God is still to accomplish, when Christ comes again to complete his work of redemption and wipe every tear from our eyes and abolish mourning, crying and pain forever (Revelation 21:4). God’s story, which is also our story, gives us hope for today, tomorrow and for all time. For it teaches us that there is nowhere that God cannot find us or reach us, not the darkest dungeon, not the longest lockdown, not even in death.

In these difficult days, made even worse by the shortening days and long nights, the challenge for us all is to be people who seek to embody that hope. I know we shall all struggle with that challenge – I certainly do – and sometimes be overcome by hopelessness and despair. But if we do, then I for one will not blame you for crying out that you too “need a little Christmas now” or that you too need to read the end of the story first, and know for certain that our hope in not in vain. As we begin our Advent journey once more, let us cling on to, and proudly proclaim, the eternal hope and truth that the real story of Christmas encapsulates: Emmanuel – God is indeed with us, and will never leave us. I leave you with Paul’s final blessing to those first Christians in Rome: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13) Amen.

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