Advent Sunday 2017

Advent Sunday is the first day of the church’s year. I arrived in 2014, so this is my fourth Advent. I’m starting my fourth year with you! I remember my first Advent Sunday, standing in the pulpit at St Matthew’s, and berating the congregation, bemoaning the fact that I found myself in a church surrounded by Christmas trees and not even a purple altar frontal to indicate that we were in the season of Advent.

You know that Narnia is a place where it is always winter and never Christmas. I’d come to a church where, as soon as December was in sight, it was already Christmas and never Advent. I’m pleased to say that the lack of an altar frontal has been addressed, thanks to a generous gift.

Last year, I shared an illustration with you: imagine that, instead of Advent and Christmas, we were talking about Lent and Easter. Just before Ash Wednesday, you ask me if I’m doing anything for Lent – giving anything up, or taking something on. I tell you that for Lent I’m going to eat a chocolate egg every day. Eat a chocolate egg every day for Lent? Aren’t you supposed to be fasting? And, when Easter comes, you’ll have eaten so many chocolate eggs, you won’t enjoy your Easter egg. And I say, why are you so miserable, you Easter-hating Scrooge, you! You keep Lent in your way – with your prayer and fasting – and I’ll keep it in my way by having chocolate for breakfast very day.

But that was last year. This year, age has mellowed me. I’m not going to rant and rave. I’m going to embrace the culture. I’ve already sung ‘Away In A Manger’ twice. Yesterday, I attended four Christmas events, one after the other.

Someone asked me recently, Why do you hate Christmas? (They may not have put it that strongly, but they were responding to something I often say, which I suspect is said in vicarages up and down the country: it will soon be Boxing Day. Best day of the year!) I said, I don’t hate Christmas. But I love Advent. I like Advent hymns better than Christmas carols…

This year, the latest Advent can start! The shortest Advent. But what are the themes of Advent? The word means coming or arrival. The Collect talks about Christ’s coming, first in humility and then again in glory. We look forward to celebrating the arrival of the child in the manger, daring to believe that when we look in, it will be to see the face of God. We look forward to coming face to face with Jesus when he comes again. How will that be for us? Will we be able to look upon his face without fear? Yes, if we know ourselves to be forgiven and accepted by God because of what Jesus accomplished, not on the basis of our own good works or religious practice.

The poet, Malcolm Guite, who is Chaplain at Girton College, Cambridge, describes Advent as “a paradoxical season”:

“a season of waiting and anticipation in which the waiting itself is strangely rich and fulfilling; a season that looks back at the people who waited in darkness for the coming light of Christ, and yet forward to a fuller light still to come and illuminate our darkness.”

Guite asks us to consider how Christ comes to us today. Not just that he once lived among us in history nor just that he will come again in eschatology. But how does Christ come to us today?

Jesus promised,

remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

Jesus says,

where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18:20)

Jesus comes to us in the person of God’s Holy Spirit and when we take bread and wine in remembrance of him. And, as we saw last week, in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-end), Jesus comes to us when we encounter the weak, the vulnerable, the needy. These are all advents.

In the bible readings for our main Sunday services this year, we are looking at Mark’s gospel . Someone has said that Mark’s gospel is a way of asking the question

What does it mean to live faithfully as a Christian in a dangerous world?

I can’t wait!


My bible dictionary tells me that there are 11 Josephs in the old and new testaments – from Jacob’s favourite son to several in the new testament, including one who is Jesus’ brother – but this one is “Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus” (Matthew 1:16). What do we know about him? He was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), although that word (τέκτων, from which we get ‘technology’) could mean a craftsman or builder of various types. He could have been the village odd-job man or a builder or an architect employing others. Whatever his actual trade was, Jesus is known as ‘the carpenter’s son’. In 165CE, the Christian writer Justin Martyr says that Jesus himself made yokes and ploughs, which would give a nice context to his saying

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Both Matthew and Luke tell us that Joseph was a descendent of King David (Matthew 1:20, Luke 2:4) which is why, Luke tells us, he and Mary made the journey from Nazareth, where they lived, to Bethlehem to comply with the demands of the census made “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:14). The birth of Jesus then fulfils the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5.2) that a ruler would come from Bethlehem, the “city of David” (where David was anointed king by Samuel, 1 Samuel 16:13, 15).

In Matthew’s nativity story, Joseph hears that Mary, to whom he is engaged but before they live together as man and wife, is pregnant and resolves to “dismiss her quietly”. A reasonable response! He’s “a righteous man” and a gentleman. He doesn’t want to “expose her to public disgrace”. What on earth could make him change his mind? Nothing on earth: it takes an angel! The angel appears to him in a dream and reassures him that this is God’s business and that he has nothing to fear (Matthew 1:18-25). (Unlike the annunciation to Mary, none of this finds its way into the average nativity play!)

The child is to be named Jesus, which, like Joshua, means “God is my saviour (v21)”. Born of a virgin, he will be Emmanuel, which means “God is with us” (v23). Luke tells us that shepherds, “keeping watch over their flock by night”, are summoned by angels to go to Bethlehem where they find “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:8-20).

When the child is born, another angelic dream (in Matthew’s account) warns Joseph to take “the child and his mother” and to flee to Egypt so that they can escape the jealous wrath of Herod. They stay there, refugees, until the death of Herod means that they can return to Nazareth (Matthew 2:13-21).

We are told that Joseph was “a righteous man” (Matthew 1:19). He was a devout Jew, travelling to Jerusalem to attend Passover each year, including that occasion when Jesus, aged 12, went missing (Luke 2:41-52). I wonder how Joseph felt, to hear his son’s explanation that he had to be in his Father’s house? (v49)

By the time we arrive at the Crucifixion, Joseph has disappeared from the story. Mary is present but not Joseph. Perhaps Joseph was older than Mary and had died. We don’t know when that might have happened, but when Jesus is rejected at Nazareth, he (Jesus) is referred to as “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55), so presumably Joseph was still alive when Jesus began his adult ministry.

From the end of the second century CE, it was being claimed that Jesus’s real dad was a Roman soldier, with whom, willingly or otherwise, Mary had conceived her child. But Matthew gets in quickly; even before the accusations start to fly: Joseph may not be the father of this child (what we would call his ‘biological father’) but God is. Both Matthew and Luke agree that Mary was an engaged virgin when she conceived Jesus (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:26). Her pregnancy was “from the Holy Spirit”.

The ancient understanding of conception may have been different to ours – there was less understanding of the biology than we have – but they knew enough. The announcement of a virgin conception that the Holy Spirit has brought about is the curtain-opener for a story of God’s engagement with His world. It’s a way of saying that this man, born in this way, is going to do something extraordinary; that God has a plan for God’s world.

Poor old Joseph may not get top billing in the nativity play but he has a supporting role in the story. He is a decent chap, wanting to do what is right; protective of his missus and her son.


God our Father,
who from the family of your servant David
raised up Joseph the carpenter
to be the guardian of your incarnate Son
and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
give us grace to follow him
in faithful obedience to your commands;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


John the Baptiser


Before I’m A Celebrity’s Bush Tucker Trials there was John the Baptist, eating locusts. (Did you watch David Attenborough, Planet Earth II’s plague of locusts and think, They look tasty!?)

Before TV fashion makeovers, before Gok Wan, or even Trinny & Susannah, there was John the Baptist, wearing camel hair clothes and a leather belt.

Before Escape to the Country, Location, Location, Location, and a million other property shows, John the Baptist, appeared in the desert.

Before political correctness, there was John the Baptist:

…  when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matthew 3:7-10

You don’t want to get on the wrong side of John the Baptiser! Like the prophets before him, he shows no fear or favour. You think your impeccable pedigree will save you? Think again! Even rulers show some respect. And Herod himself can’t escape John’s censure: Herod, you may think you’re the boss around here, but that doesn’t give you licence to do as you please. Even you, Herod Antipas, will have to answer to God for the choices you have made, not least that dodgy marriage to your half-brother’s wife!

Such words are not designed to give the prophet an easy life. But then, John never asked for an easy life. Into prison he goes and pays the price for his plain speaking, victim of Herod’s arrogance and pride. What price your life, John?

But then, you never wanted to be popular, did you? You never wanted to be in the spotlight. That place belonged to another – that cousin of yours, the one whose sandals you couldn’t bring yourself to untie.


Jesus is coming. John the Baptiser calls on God’s people to repent, to get ready, to make way for the King, the true King.

In Advent, we consider our lives: are we pointing in the right direction? Have we made the right choices? Are our lives bearing good fruit? Are we prepared to welcome the King when he comes?

Father Abraham

Reflections on the Advent Wreath

1. Abraham

Abram: his name means ‘exalted father’, but this Abram has no children and the prospects don’t look good. It’s enough to make you laugh, really! Laugh, or cry. An old man and his wife who’s barren, supposedly. And he’s called ‘exalted father’! Father Abram! But Abram is a man with a mission, and he’s on a promise:

‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ Genesis 12:1-3

Abram – ‘exalted father’ – it’s not a big enough name for you! How about, Abraham – father of a multitude! So many offspring that you’d be as well counting the stars in the sky!

Well, it didn’t seem very promising, at least, not to begin with. But Abraham’s God is a God of promise, a God of covenant. Although there was a bit of a false start with Hagar and Ishmael; and that troubling incident with the young Isaac that made it look like the whole thing might be doomed before it had begun. But Father Abraham was to be the father of a multitude that no one could number. And so it was to be. Through faith in God, Abraham was blessed and through him we are all blessed. Because Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob… and so on and so on, via one king David, and so on, until from this strange and mysterious genealogy comes another Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

When this Jesus talks of his Father, it’s not Joseph he has in mind, but the One who says, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. Abraham, Jesus says, ‘rejoiced to see my day’.

The New Testament tells us that when we live by faith, we too are descendants of Abraham, part of the family.

And so, as members together of this family – the one with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as our Father, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – we join in worship as we rejoice to see God’s promise fulfilled in Jesus.

God of Abraham and Sarah, and all the patriarchs of old, you are our Father too. Your love is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of David. Help us in preparing to celebrate his birth to make our hearts ready for your Holy Spirit to make his home among us. We ask this through Jesus Christ, the light who is coming into the world. Amen.

Common Worship:Times and Seasons, from which this prayer is taken, is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2006.

Taking the Wanting Out of Waiting

Advent Sunday Evening

6:30PM 27th November 2016

You can read the text below and / or listen to the sermon here

I was going to call this evening’s service an Advent Carol Service. That’s what it is. The trouble is, when people see the word ‘carol’, they assume we’ll be singing Christmas carols. Even though there are Easter carols and Advent carols, and, probably, Michaelmas carols, people are more familiar with Christmas carols.

There’s a bigger problem. You see, I say ‘Advent’ and you hear ‘Christmas’. It’s a strange psychological phenomenon…

In a previous parish, I was talking to a primary school teacher about songs for assembly. I said it was the start of Advent, she said, “Let’s sing something festive: ‘Away In A Manger’.”

Let me illustrate: imagine it’s late February next year. You say to me, “Alan, what are you planning for Lent this year?” (Ash Wednesday is on 1st March in 2017.) I say, “For Lent this year, I have decided to eat chocolate eggs. One a day, every day in Lent. I’ll have a little Lent calendar with chocolate eggs behind every window…” That’s 40 chocolate eggs. You say, “But chocolate eggs are for Easter, not Lent. In Lent, people normally give up eating chocolate rather than take it up.” I say, “But I don’t like Lent. I like Easter, so it’s chocolate eggs every day.”

It’s not quite fair: the mood of Lent is penitential – we cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes and feel miserable. The emphasis of Advent is not quite that. Advent is about expectation, looking forward to the fulfilment of promise. The trouble is, we’re not good at waiting. Previous generations saved up for furniture. We buy on credit cards. One of them used to have the slogan:

Take the waiting out of wanting.

The modern world is best pictured as someone tapping their fingers on the top of the microwave shouting, “Come on!”. Amazon Prime: order almost anything and they deliver it next day. Amazon Prime Now will deliver in 2 hours. And it’s available in my postcode area. I’ve checked.

You may know the marshmallow experiment.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.)

In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.[1]

We’re not good at waiting but Advent is about waiting hopefully. We look back to the way in which God’s people waited for their messiah. We look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus. We look forward to God fulfilling his promises. As someone has said, in Advent we celebrate God coming to us in:

  • History – the incarnation, the birth of Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem
  • Mystery – by God’s Holy Spirit, the promise of Jesus to be with us always
  • Majesty – the second coming, the promise of Jesus to return.