I don’t know about any of you, but I was a bit surprised to wake up this morning and find myself at Advent Sunday. Yes, of course, I knew in my head that’s where we are in the year – not least because I had to prepare this sermon – but I didn’t feel quite ready for it to be Advent yet again. I wonder whether that’s in part because we have lived through so much turmoil and change over the past couple of years. Our whole sense of how we inhabit our world and how we go about our lives has changed dramatically. We think twice about travelling; rather than filling our diaries with social engagements, we cautiously consider whether we might dare to do one or two things in the course of a month – making some kind of risk assessment in order to do so. There is so much new vocabulary – LFTs and PCRs are now acronyms that trip off our tongues. Two years ago most of us had no idea what either of them was. We’re having to revise or perhaps learn the Greek alphabet in order to keep up with the emerging variants.
There is sometimes a narrative that life has been on hold for the past year. But I’m not so sure that is true. Life has been challenging and unpredictable and subject to more restrictions, but it’s not stopped.
Life’s major events have continued to pepper the months. Babies have been born; couples have married; loved ones have been diagnosed with medical conditions – some have died. Children have started at schools and universities; people have started new jobs. Others have retired. Some jobs have come to an end. And in the midst of it all, we’ve continued to question and wonder – when will this all end; what will happen next; will things get worse before they get better. The public health messaging has encouraged us to be fearful, in order to ensure that we take the pandemic seriously. Other people are potentially vectors of infection and we are, rightly, encouraged to be wary of them.
Alongside our newly learned ability to live in pandemic times, we’ve also lived in a country that hosted the COP talks this year. Our understanding of the imminent pressures around climate change has been heightened – none of us could now imagine that doing nothing is an option. We are already experiencing changes in our weather systems; we’re seeing the impact on other parts of our world. And we are afraid.
The second verse from this morning’s Gospel reading could have been written for contemporary times and it doesn’t mince its words:
‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world’. (Lk 21: 26)
Well, there’s a reminder, if we need one, that fear about the future isn’t something new. From the very earliest of times, humanity has lived with the anxiety that disaster is just around the corner. If we think about the history told in the Hebrew Bible, we read story after story of persecution; of nations fighting over land or resources; woes are catalogued, tribulations are spelled out. The narrative serves as a constant reminder that danger and threat are never far away.
If you were to read the newspaper headlines on any day over the past year or so, you would believe that things have never been so serious, that humankind has never been so threatened. And, of course, there are very good reasons for us to be concerned, even frightened. Very good reasons for us to take seriously the threats to our planet and our future.
But one of the things that we know about fear is that it is disabling. It stops us in our tracks and makes it almost impossible to have a rational or measured response to what is in front of us. We have a visceral response to fear that is biologically very helpful, but societally less helpful.
And that is where the New Testament writers have something to bring to the table. However frightened they are, however alarming their world may feel, they are driven by the belief that there will be unimaginable change within their lifetimes. There’s a real urgency in their writing – this morning we read: your redemption is drawing near. Something significant is about to happen.
Luke was encouraging his readers to see beyond their fear, to see beyond their immediate experience and to trust that things can and will change. Jesus says: when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads. Stand up and raise your heads. Fear makes people cowed and turned into themselves. Jesus encourages confidence, not fear. Jesus helps us to look beyond the immediate threat, to shift focus.
Acknowledge the fear for what it is, but know that it’s not the final answer. It’s not what defines you, it’s not what defines God’s people. It’s not the driving force in our world – and it’s not a force for positive change. Fear is a force for stagnation; it encourages people to hunker down, to lower their eyes, to make themselves small.
Change and movement come when we manage to find a place of hope. When we manage to lift our gaze to see beyond ourselves, beyond our immediate situation or environment and to catch a glimmer of light in the midst of the darkness. Change comes when we focus on that which is of God, when we look beyond the immediate towards the promises of the kingdom.
We are at a point in the evolution of our communities where we can either be disabled by fear or inspired by hope. Being hopeful, having a forward looking focus isn’t the same thing as being reckless. Of course we need to take the actions that we know mitigate against the threats that we face. So we need to continue to wear our masks and sanitise our hands. We need to continue to look for ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels and to waste fewer of the earth’s resources. We need to find ways to take care of the most vulnerable people within our world. We can do those things whilst simultaneously moving our attention towards what comes next.
Within the church we don’t inhabit a place of stagnation. Our church year forces us to move from one season to another, from one focus to another. It stops us from getting too comfortable – or too uncomfortable, stops us allowing fear to completely disable us. Today, we are called by the church to begin, again, the story of our salvation. To begin again the story of God’s direct intervention into the life of our world. Over these few short weeks we will be retelling the story, re-experiencing the wonder and the joy. Journeying, yet again, to that stable in Bethlehem. And this morning, the preparations begin.
Laying the ground; retelling the stories that remind us of God’s promises to humankind; retelling the stories of hope and gift and redemption. Lifting our eyes and hoping to catch just a glimpse of God’s promise to us.