Service for Sunday 27 November 2011
Year B. Advent 1.
Call to worship:
Happy New Year Everyone!
As Thom said last week – last Sunday was the final Sunday of the church year. Today, we begin the year again – with the first Sunday of Advent – our time of looking forward to the coming of Jesus – as the baby of Bethlehem, and as ruler and judge of the world.
As we look forward to the coming of Jesus, let us worship God:
Prayers of Adoration and Confession
We come before you with hope
hope that your promises always will be fulfilled
just as they always have been.
Hope that things that are wrong with this world
will eventually be put right
hope that your in your love
all things really are possible.
We confess that at times
we look back to the past
and see you were at work there
we prepare for Christmas
as if it was only history and a time to party
as if the hope was gone.
We confess our fear, and anxiety
at the way the world is going
we read the news,
we hear and see the worst people can do
and we act as if you were powerless
as if all you could do has already been done.
Help us to trust you with the present and the future,
not just to see you as a part of the past.
And this Advent, help us to look
not just for the baby in the manger
But for Your Spirit at work in the world
and in our lives today -
and for Jesus' return in the future.
In his name, we pray.
Declaration of Forgiveness
What do these tinselly things on the pulpit today look like? Sort of like walking sticks? (Candy canes!)
Yum. Who likes candy canes?
Let's have a look at it.... You guys have been talking in Sunday School about when Jesus was born, right?
Well, this candy can sort of reminds me of someone who was there. There were some people who would have used sticks with bendy ends like this in their work. They would have used them to help pull sheep out of trouble, and keep them together. Who were they? (Shepherds)
How did they fit into the story of Jesus being born, can anyone tell me? (Let kids tell the story.)
Did I see one of you put a present under the Christmas tree just now? Can I open it? (It's a sheep!) Wow. Let's keep the sheep up here under the Christmas tree right up until Christmas to remind us about the story.
Now – I have some candy canes here with something written on them. Who can read it? (When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Child lying in the manger. Luke 2:16-17)
Who'd like one of these candy canes? Do you think we should share them with the adults? I've got a job for you to do right now – you guys are doing the advent candle this week – and then we're singing a hymn. While we're singing, you can give the candy canes out.
Advent Candle Week 1 – Hope – Kids
1st reader: Christmas is coming there's lots to hope for.
2nd reader: Presents, and lollies, and cakes, and a visit from Santa.
1st reader: Hope is young, it looks forward to what is coming...
2nd reader: Hope waits with excitement.
All kids: We hope for Jesus this Christmas.
Light first candle.
Hymn: Together in Song 276 Light One Candle – verse 1.
This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
Today is the beginning of Advent. It's time we all started thinking about getting ready for Christmas. For a couple of weeks, maybe longer, the shops have had their Christmas decorations up and urged you to buy lots of things to prepare for Christmas.
Today my family will do things we have a long-standing tradition of doing on the first day of Advent – we'll put up our Christmas tree and nativity scene and decorate the house. Presents will start appearing under the tree over the next week or so.
In one sense that's all very appropriate – we are preparing for Christmas. In another we're a bit premature. We put out all of our nativity scene. Some families, and some churches, are a little more patient, and a little more in line with the events of Advent and Christmas. They begin with Mary and Joseph, adding baby Jesus and the shepherds on Christmas eve night, and then bringing in the wise men at Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas – the 6th of January.)
Putting the pieces in place as we remember them in the church calendar is perhaps more symbolic of what the season of Advent is about. It is a time of waiting, and it's a time of waiting for more than our celebrations of Christmas.
Advent is about waiting for Christ to come as the messiah – the baby of Bethlehem, which has already happened; but more than that, it is about waiting for him to return as judge and ruler of the world. So our readings for the four Sundays of Advent will take us through the ancient prophecies about the coming Messiah, the New Testament promise of the birth of Jesus; and also strange prophecies about the end of the world. Advent ties all of this together.
The Church is really an Advent people. We live in the time of already-but-not-yet. Christ has come, yet we wait for his coming, just as the people of Isaiah's time waited.
In the meantime, we live with the problems of the world around us. In Isaiah's time, the people of Israel were exiled, waiting for a leader who would take them home. They cried out to God for help, and the prophet brought them God's words of hope, using God's faithfulness in the past as evidence that could be relied on for trusting God in the future.
The earliest information we have about the Gospel writer Mark is that he was a disciple of Peter, and wrote down Peter's stories of Jesus. When Mark was writing, Christians had seen the fall of Jerusalem, the temple torn down. They had escaped the Holy City in time, but had become scattered. They had been persecuted firstly by Jews, and were beginning to be persecuted by Romans. Like Israel in exile, the church had become a people isolated from their spiritual home and not free to worship openly. Everything seemed to have been taken away from them.
And Mark found a message for hope for the Church in Peter's recollection that Jesus had said lots of bad stuff was going to happen, but that there was hope in the midst of the bad stuff. At some time, a time that no-one could predict (even though people will persist in trying), the son of Man would return, coming in the clouds. It was a reflection of what the prophet Daniel had said in Old Testament times.
In some of the passages we have read in the past few weeks, “keep awake” or “be prepared” has been a warning. Now it's a sign of hope. No matter how tough things get, don't lose hope; hold on, keep waiting and don't give up. Christ will come. No matter what happens, his promise can be relied upon – even if heaven and earth cease to exist – Christ's word will still hold true.
Her we are, in the 21st century since Jesus, and he still hasn't returned. We have been through the period of Christendom, when the church held sway over temporal as well as spiritual powers; when the church, in effect ruled much of the world. We've been through the Reformation, when we discovered that the church could become just as corrupt as any political power and does at times need to be challenged, and reformed. We've been through a time when Western nations considered themselves to be Christian nations, and the only division was between Christian denominations.
Now, we've reached a time when people are free to choose what faith they will have, if any. There's no longer any social expectation that people will be Christian. We've also reached a time where the popular perception of Christianity has been watered down enough that people can call themselves “Christian” without really knowing what that means, or practising the Christian faith in any way.
I was amazed a few years back, when census results showed that the small town of Kin Kin in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland had 100 Uniting Church members – I was amazed because Kin Kin was one of the congregations I was minister for at the time, and we had four people and one horse attending worship. (The horse was named Crystal, and she used to stick her head in the door and pay rapt attention to the service.) Our membership roll included four names (the horse hadn't been baptised or confirmed.) Attending worship is pretty much the most basic of the Christian disciplines. Yet people who clearly weren't doing that still felt free to call themselves Christian.
We're also seeing a rise of other faiths in our society: world religions, astrology, witchcraft, cults of all sorts, paganism, spiritualism, ancient gnosticism in its latest guise as New Age religion.
The world we live in is resembling more and more the world faced by the early church. Our problem is that we have been through the time of Christendom, when Christianity was seen as “normal” - and we've lost that understanding of what it is to be a community of faith, in a world that doesn't necessarily share that faith. And so people in our day and age throw up their hands in horror and exclaim it is hopeless, the church is declining, it's dying.
The truth is, time is moving, and we can't turn it back to some ideal past. (And if we could, we would probably discover that past wasn't so ideal, after all.) The church is not dying. It may have to change, but it's changed endless times before, and probably will endless times again. It may need to find different ways of doing things; but it is Christ's body in this world – and it will not die.
The world we live in is in many ways like the world of Mark's day. Christianity is one choice among many for people to believe in. Any sense of privilege that attached to being Christian has long gone. In fact, for many people, being Christian is seen with negative connotations. (And it was in Mark's day too.)
In Australia, we don't live under any particular persecution, although Christians in some countries really do. But there are times when sticking to our faith may make us seem different or strange.
The Mark reading is directed at a church which is in a lot of ways like us. They're not the centre of society (for them they never have been.) Sometimes they're considered with the suspicion (to say the very least) by their neighbours.
And Mark reminds this church – this is all OK. It's all OK because Jesus said all this kind of stuff will happen – but that doesn't mean it's the end. The problems we see (in their case the fall of Jerusalem, in our case a slow decline in the number of practising Christians in our country) are only a part of a much bigger picture. In the bigger picture – these things don't matter that much compared to the promise that Jesus will come back, and make everything right.
This is the future orientation of the advent season, indeed of the whole life of the church. At some time, Jesus will come back. This isn't the kind of hope for the future that involves doing as some groups which anticipate the end of the world do and go into bunkers or arm themselves to the teeth for some great battle. It's a hope – and it's based in God – not a fear based in some expectation of the evil human beings can do to each other. There is no point in going into hiding, or storing up food or doing anything to change the pattern of our days. There is no point, because we don't know when Jesus will return. (The church has been waiting more than 2000 years, so obviously a bit of patience is required with this.)
So if we don't prepare the way the radical groups and cults do, how do we prepare for Jesus' coming?
One clue is that the angels are sent out throughout the world to gather in the elect. Obviously, God's people are meant to be out in the world. We need to be in worship – but that's meant to be the fuel we use for life in the world. Our being an active part of the world is not supposed to change as long as this world exists. We are warned to keep awake, to be prepared at all times.
If we are to be out in the world doing what it is God wants at any time, we need to go back to the basics and ask so what is it God wants of us? Jesus summarised it in two simple-sounding instructions: Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself.
They may sound simple – but they are difficult to sustain in the long-term. To always act in a way which shows infinite respect for God, others, and ourselves, is a tough call. It sounds easy – and it can be easy for a short time. But in human beings there is a tendency to want the best for ourselves – even if it costs others. (Or for some people to go to the other extreme and take so little care of themselves they are of no use to anyone else.) That's what makes it difficult long term, to put God first, and to measure our actions by what is loving towards God, and our neighbours as ourselves.
So in Advent, we are reminded to focus again on a question that has been with the Christian Church right from its birth – if Jesus were to return today, how would he feel about what he found us all doing?
And we look forward in hope, that despite all the things human beings have managed to do wrong in the world – Jesus will return – and all things will be put right for eternity.
Hymn: Together in Song 265 O come, O come, Emmanuel
Prayers of the People:
We pray for this world of yours
A world which is beginning to prepare for Christmas
A world planning to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace
while declared and undeclared wars rage around the planet
while people are still looking out for terrorists
while people in so many places are starving
while some of your people are in places where they are banned from celebrating Christmas at all.
Help us to
hear again this year,
the message given to the shepherds
of peace and goodwill from heaven to earth.
The promise that beyond the reality we know
is another reality – a reality which can give us peace in the midst of turmoil.
Help this world to have hope for the coming of Jesus -
and to learn to live his peace.
In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
The Lord's Prayer
Hymn: Together in Song 272 Come, thou long-expected Jesus