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Sermon for Advent Sunday

I pray that I may speak and that you may hear, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So, the old year is over and we start a new year today, the Church Year, beginning on Advent Sunday as it has for years and years.

On Advent Sunday we begin to look forward to the celebration of the birth of the Christ child, but we are asked first to look at ourselves with the second coming in mind, the end of all things here on earth.

In the reading from Jeremiah we have heard this morning, he was prophesying the coming of a Messiah to re-unite the Jews and re-establish Jerusalem as their Holy City. Jeremiah was sure that this would include the northern tribes, where other prophets were not so sure.

He refers to Judah and Israel separately, and then to Jerusalem as a symbol of the Jews being physically and politically united centred on the Holy City. Israel had been politically divided since the death of Solomon, and Jeremiah could see an end to this when the Jews returned to their homeland.

The Lord our Righteousness in Hebrew was clearly a play on words on the name of Zedekiah the king at that time, who was clearly not an example of Yahweh's righteous rule. By contrast the righteous branch of David, the Messiah, who was to come, would be. The New Testament connects this epithet with Jesus Christ.

The reading from Luke is very dark and foreboding, telling us just what we might expect when he comes again. Religious fanatics see signs in everything and the imminent second coming has been declared many times over the years.

There is a popular series of novels and graphic novels in the United States which are about the end times. They are by a guy called Tim LeHaye, and he has made a fortune from them. If he truly believes what he writes, I wonder what he thinks he might spend it on.

I have just read a novel by Sam Bourne, it is an adventure story called The Righteous Men that is in the mould of the Da Vinci Code, which I know many of you have read.
I would give it about the same rating as Bishop Christopher gave the Da Vince Code, which was 'a load of rubbish but a darn good read'. It is about a Jewish legend that says that there are thirty six righteous men in the world at any one time, men who have done unselfish deeds for fellow human beings, some great some small, all without publicity, indeed the men have gone to great lengths to conceal their acts of charity and compassion.

The Hassidic legend says that whilst these thirty-six men stay alive together, and a new one is born when an old one dies, then the world is safe. If, however, all thirty-six should die at the same time, then the world will end. The Apocalypse, the final coming looked for by both Jews and Christians will come, and this world as we know it will cease.

The plot of the book is that a fanatical Christian sect, called The Church of the Reborn Jesus, have taken this myth as their own and, because they believe the world should be punished for its wickedness now, have decided that it is worth the sacrifice of the thirty-six to advance the second coming, and see only the righteous remain after it. They embark on a mission to find, and kill, them all during the period of Yom Kippur. Of course, they count them selves among the righteous to be saved when their plan comes to fruition.

Naturally disaster is avoided at the last minute and only thirty-five are killed before their heinous plan is exposed and the leaders of the sect either killed or arrested. As I said, a load of rubbish, but an exciting read with a plot that is not clear until nearly the end of the book. If you have just bought the book and not yet read it, please forgive me for spoiling it for you.

So what is the point of my telling you about this novel? Well, it is this - eschatology, which is the correct name for the study of the last things, or the second coming, has always been controversial. Jesus seemed to have taught, as we have seen in today's Gospel, and his followers certainly believed that the second coming was imminent in their day. 'Truly I tell you' Luke reports Jesus as saying, ' this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.

Well, it didn't happen then, and it still hasn't happened 2000 years later. Some sects do believe that the world is so wicked that it will happen soon, some believe it ought to, but don't know when. Some of us just don't know.

Perhaps that is just the point - we none of know when the world will end, but we may be 100% certain that it will - some day. Now I could say that with confidence, even if I had no religious belief whatsoever, since scientists can now say that the world will end one day, many thousands of year hence, just through the natural advance of the age of the planet.

Dr Stephen Hawkins, speaking on the radio last week said this 'The survival of the human race in the distant future will depend on our populating another planet, in another solar system, as this planet of ours will either break up through natural cooling, or collision with some other heavenly body.'

He went on to explain that he had said 'in another solar system' as there was not another planet in our own system which was either habitable, or could be made habitable. So our descendants, who knows how far into the future, will have to find another star, with another planet like the earth, and move there, lock stock and barrel. Does that seem likely to you? It doesn't to me - perhaps Jesus knew this, and his word generation meant those who will live on the earth, which has finite bounds, whereas the universe and his realm are infinite.

Should we worry about this today, or dismiss it with a Gallic shrug, saying 'it's their worry, not mine.' It would be very east to do, we all have a tendency to procrastinate, to leave things until they become urgent, then deal with them, but we can't in this instance can we?

If we truly believe that, even though we may have shuffled of this mortal coil in a physical sense, we will have to stand up and be counted, when the time comes, then we have to attend to our behaviour now, not next week, not next year. Not only should we do this because it is the right thing to do, but because it might be urgent, Jesus might just surprise us all, and delight some, and return just when we have become complacent, and begun to believe it was someone else's problem.

It is a problem for all of us. If any one of you can tell me that you have nothing whatsoever to reproach yourself for when you kneel before your God in a few moments, then I'll polish your halo for you - I certainly won't be wearing one.

It might not be anything big, perhaps just a cruel remark about Mrs. so and so's awful coat she was wearing the other day or, did you hear old Mr. So and so's voice the other day - does he know what a tune is?

Perhaps you didn't tell a cashier, when they gave you too much change from a tenner (I bet you did when they short changed you), perhaps you were short-tempered with one of your grandchildren when they telephoned in the middle of your nap. All little things, but they all add up. I am sure you have seen the television programmes Grumpy Old Men, and now Grumpy Old Women, well a friend and I were having a good old moan the other day, and we both suddenly looked at each other laughing, and said 'grumpy old men.'

We need to look at ourselves, sort ourselves out, stop being grumpy old men and women, tell the cashier she has given us change for a twenty when we only gave her ten, politely tell her when she has given us change for a tenner when we gave her twenty, without accusing her of daylight robbery. Then we can turn our lives round and be ready for the second coming if he comes next week, next year, in a thousand years.

Society has become so used to everyone being grumpy, rude, miserable and just a tad dishonest, that it is in danger of becoming the norm. I will give you an example, not to put myself in a good light, but to show you what I mean.

I have a direct account with Marston Books Ltd. They are the main wholesalers for many book publishers including SPCK and Church House Publishing. The Resource Centre I run for the Diocese is the twelfth largest retailer for Church House, and about the same for SPCK.

I had ordered five copies of an official Church of England publication published by Church House, and I received ten copies. The cover price of the book was fifteen pounds, so I called them and asked them what they wanted me to do. 'Send them back' was the reply, of course, but the lass on the phone discovered that there wasn't a code for 'oversupplied, now returned.' As they had never had an oversupplied reported to them. Plenty of 'shortage, please re-supply' but never oversupplied. It really surprised me, especially since I was talking to the Christian Book Section.

Had I done the same at some time? Sadly perhaps I had - 'one or two copies, not worth the phone call!' We all, at sole time, fall into the trap where it is easier to be dishonest then honest, the way of least resistance, which is exactly the opposite way from Jesus.

So as we prepare for the festive season with great joy and apprehension, let us set our own house in order and try to be more Christ like so that, if he does creep up on us unexpectedly, we are ready to greet him with open arms and a clear conscience.

Amen

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, we remember today that though your people looked forward for so long to your coming, many were not prepared, failing to recognize you when you came.

Forgive us that we are equally closed sometimes to your coming into our lives, forcing you into a mould we have made for you, presuming that your thoughts and your ways are the same as ours. Forgive us that our expectations are small and limited, shaped by looking at life from a human rather an eternal perspective.

Forgive us, and help us to be prepared. Teach us to examine ourselves - our words and deeds, thoughts and attitudes - and so to live each day open to what you would do in me and through me, to the glory of your name. 

Amen

Ron Upton
 3rd December 2006

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