Sermon delivered on the Third Sunday of Advent, the 13th December 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Zephaniah 3:14-20         Philippians 4:4-7         S. Luke 3:7-18

Philippians 4:7 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice”
S. Luke 3:8 “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” - St John the Baptist

Our state of mind at this time of the year is probably a greatly mixed-up one. We enjoy the idea of Christmas and there is the anticipation of it, which no doubt is less mixed for a child due to thoughts such as "How can I possibly get everything done in time? than it is for adults. Some children also are inclined to prepare, after a fashion. I remember seeing in a Blondie cartoon a pre-written “Christmas character reference”, as Elmo called it, that he had made up for Santa Claus' scrutiny over how he had behaved, and the reference read, “The naughty or nice deal may be overrated … Elmo gave it his best shot." Perhaps adults are mixed up not just on how to get everything done, but on other levels: the universal Church tells us that contrary to what the supermarkets and the stores as well as indeed some in the Christian Church herself are telling us, it is actually not yet the season of Christmas, like Cayman 27's "27 days of Christmas" ending on Christmas Day, but the season of Advent (and I kid you not but I heard someone on the radio saying that Christmas Day was when you were supposed to take down your Christmas Tree). While keeping in mind the approaching Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, we are also to be greatly mindful of the fulfilment of the Incarnation's purpose in the final coming of our Lord to judge the living and the dead. And then approaching us with considerable weight and enough to require active resistance, is the mindset that insinuates it is wrong to express any Christian content at all to the celebrations that have become part of the standard practices of our society and many others around the world; for, they say, it would be undiplomatic to visitors of a different persuasion, or it would be insensitive to the convictions of those residents and customers of different religions in our multicultural society, and we must “celebrate diversity”, they say, rather than celebrate anything more specific and particular. But if we go down this road we will start being convinced that the most unchristian thing a person can ever do is to practise Christianity.

Advent is the coming of the Lord, and there is a sort of mix in His coming in judgment and the coming of the Babe of Bethlehem at Christmas. There’s the mix of time perspectives. The Advent season is clearly about looking forward to new beginnings, yet the new year of the Christian calendar begins at the beginning of Advent, propelling us to the idea that we have already begun something new. In some sense we have already begun that new thing to which we are looking forward, because God has already begun to speak to His people in His Son. For St. Alban’s, one new thing to which we looked forward for many years was to worship in our own church building, and that began at the beginning of Advent too, in the year 2000. And there is another important mixture of themes in Advent, the joyful themes and the solemn themes, and these are reflected in our choice of the two texts: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice”, and “Bear fruit worthy of repentance”, both from the New Testament. For you can’t get Advent right without both the joyful and the solemn. There is the solemn obligation placed upon us to get ready, and to make the changes to our life that “getting ready” enjoins upon us, and at the same time it is a wonderful and joyful thing we are getting ready for. It’s not so much like a student getting ready for an examination, as a bride with butterflies in her stomach getting ready for her marriage, or indeed as a woman “great with child”, to use the mightily expressive biblical phrase, preparing to give birth. “At that time,” promises the Heavenly Groom to His beloved bride, “I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes.” In Advent we are counselled to get ready, to put ourselves together, so to speak, in order to be brought by the One who loves us to our true home.

Chapter 3 verse 15 of the not very well known book of Zephaniah in our Old Testament lesson today begins, “ The Lord has taken away the judgment against you.” From then on until the end of the book there are repeated references to the great gifts of God’s love: the removing of disaster no matter how deserved the disaster might appear to be to others, dealing with oppressors, gathering the outcast and so on. This comes after the first 2½ chapters of Zephaniah in which judgment figures strongly. We may not know much about the historical situation in which the expected judgement was taken away. Did the people “get ready” and the Lord showed mercy, as with Nineveh in the book of Jonah? Or did God quite gratuitously and of His sovereign choice extend to His people an additional time for them to turn to Him? Was it because they were not ready that he delayed? We of the new covenant age also wonder at the meaning of the two thousand year delay, as it appears to us, of the final coming of the Lord Jesus after His first appearance. The Lord knows the “when” and “if” of His judgments and we cannot pretend to know a timetable that is not revealed to us. But we must recognise that at any time the unexpected can break in. There will come a day of the Lord’s breaking in, and we are counselled, at all times, to be ready for that day, rather than just following the fashions of this one.

St Paul in the New Testament lesson reminds us however, that as the Lord is at hand, we need have no anxiety about anything. In Him we have the sure refuge, even when all around breaks up, which is perhaps what we in the West greatly fear. So what we ask and pray for, we do so not with the tension of one pulling at our heavenly Father with a tight-rope, but with thanksgiving, for either He will give it as we have asked, or He will vary the gift. In whatever manner He answers our prayer and supplication, we are right to be thankful. The pink candle in the midst of the darker purple ones of the traditional advent wreath reminds us that in the midst of the seriousness it is a time of joy. The wedding day is at hand and the Bridegroom is on His way.

Yet it is a day that many will miss and not be ready for. John the Baptist’s words in our gospel today remind us that being inwardly ready is of a different category than being only outwardly demonstrative. He counselled his audience to bear fruits worthy of repentance rather than thinking that their coming to be baptised by him earned them any points in the judgment. Let them share their goods with those in need, let those in authority exercise it honestly and without oppression. That would be a sign that they were getting inwardly ready for the one that was mightier than himself. John the Baptist spoke of the wrath to come and Jesus spoke of the bridegroom coming. Are the two images irreconcilable? No, this is the expression of our Advent mix. The Lord shows us how to catch the wedding and escape the wrath, and taught that it was foolish to assume that one could do so without deliberate preparation and discernment. Indeed those prepared for the reality of the joy and the wrath to come are those who, knowing God and His gifts, enjoy more, and are more respectful, of what He has given them already. But if it is the kingdom of mammon and greed and fleshly comforts that we seek, and (in the words of Jeremiah) putting one’s trust in man, taking man for one’s defence and going in one’s heart from the Lord, this will kill all the joy and godly respect and discernment that was furnished to us in Christ unto eternity. Praise God for the Advent joy of Christ. Let us be respectful of its demand upon us. Let us get ready with joy for the return of the One who is mightier than us all.