Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Cor 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-end
We begin a new liturgical year today, as Advent Sunday, this Sunday, is the beginning of the Church’s year. Advent is the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and the traditional themes of this period are Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell – cheerful themes for this time of year. These traditional themes are ones which are part of life and part of the Gospel – as the Christian Gospel is not always like a Starbucks Coffee – light and frothy. But I’d like to distil those traditional themes into two areas which I understand as themes coming out of them – faithfulness and preparation.
Faithfulness. All Churches are required to be faithful. This may take many forms, and it certainly has different manifestations. Faithfulness may be demonstrated in our keeping faith with the wellsprings of faith. For example, I believe it would be impossible to continue as a Parish Priest without the daily offering of regular, disciplined, sustained prayer. Good days, bad days, up days, down days, Prayer is there at the root of the tree. If the roots are not nourished, the whole tree dies. So it is with us. We need to remain faithful to our roots through regular prayer. That’s why coming together week by week to be nourished by the sacrament matters more than we can easily explain. We are often told that without vision the people perish. So it is in this matter of faithfulness. As a Church, we must remain vision driven to be faithful to our origins. We know that Churches which slip into maintenance mode, delude themselves, and are probably in all reality in decline. The same is true with our bodies. If we don’t look after them, they go into decline- which they will do quickly enough anyway, without any help from us. In this process of faithfulness, we therefore need each other, because there are times when I can lend support and help to you, and times when I need that help and support from you. Yesterday we hosted a big gathering of Iraqi Christians who can tell us what it means to keep the faith under the pressure of violence persecution, and displacement. They have much to teach us. You could also argue that the income of a church is a manifestation of its faithfulness. When churches are seen to be giving, generous, active, and vision led, then the income will follow. This is as night follows day. To take one example – when we started our restoration work, we had literally not one penny in the bank, but through faithfulness and being vision led, we raised £1.5million. So in terms of faithfulness and our income, what has happened in the Parish this year? Some areas of our work are high performers and are ahead of their targets – our community outreach and our Filipino Chaplaincy are just two of them. One aspect, however, lags behind, and that’s our regular committed stewardship giving to support the work of the Church throughout London – so this Advent, if you’re in a position to help, please consider a thanksgiving offering to help us reach our Diocesan Common Fund target of £78,600 which we need to give as a Parish. The PCC have set a very simple equation – our Common Fund should be matched by our stewardship.
Now, Preparation. Advent, which begins the Christian liturgical year, is a time of preparation. Spiritually, we go back to our roots to prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This is a coming like no other, because it will have an effect on all our lives. Advent helps us to get the spiritual balance right. Traditionally, the time of Advent is a time for reflecting on the things, which we would actually rather push away to the back of our minds. Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell. The last things, the end of time. All our religious tradition teaches us that to live in a state of preparedness represents being spiritually awake. Anyone who works with me will tell you that I am allergic to lastminute.com, and find it stressful when forced into that mode of work. I recently had to lead a Bible study for a clergy gathering and the passage they chose for me was the foolish virgins. You will remember that five were prepared and had enough oil in their lamps to welcome the bridegroom and five didn’t prepare and ran out of oil, and couldn’t therefore join in the celebration. My Bible study was short – and went like this. “They were too late. Too bad.” That was it. Or like those who say “ Oh, my phone ran out of battery” as though it happened by magic and was not connected to the fact that they had not charged it. The Gospel set for today reminds us that we need to be prepared and ready at all times, and that, mercifully, we are spared any knowledge about the end of things. We just don’t know. The Christian tradition is, in this sense, the opposite of that most widely read woman in England, Mystic Meg, with her horoscope in The Sun newspaper. Hear this, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” My grandmother, who brought me up, told me that we should always change our underwear, for we never knew if we might be involved in an accident. Preparation, keeping awake, being ready. There are many ways in which the life of a church will demonstrate this readiness, and one manifestation will be a church’s expenditure. How we spend our money will not only demonstrate our priorities, but also our preparedness for the future. So what has happened in 2017? We have kept our expenditure down by controlling costs, and spent where we have to. In addition to the Common Fund payment, there are all the regular bills- utilities, keeping the church open, insurance, running the office and paying those who work for us, which is the bare minimum to function. At the same time, the level of our activities increases daily – from the beginning to the end of this year there has been a significant increase in the range of different community groups using this church, and this is set to increasing yet further. Improving our facilities and being ahead of the game is also a manifestation of being prepared and ready- not just for the now, but for the future. We are fortunate in the PCC of this Parish, and in powerful discussions this year, we have teased out what it would mean theologically about our beliefs if we ran a deficit budget in the church. This was real leadership in the things of God. I’ve used this quotation before but I use it again. It is Archbishop Justin Welby who says “Everything to do with money is simply theology in numbers.”
So as we enter this season of Advent may it be a time for all us of faithfulness and preparation. It’s also true to say that with this in mind, much of the physical preparation for Christmas, which we make as a Church and community, as families, and as individuals becomes less stressful. These twin towers of faithfulness or income and preparation or expenditure, will encourage us as we start another year. It’s pretty simple. It isn’t rocket science, but if we are able to live it, it will transform our lives. The Apostle Paul can often be a stern and gloomy moralist, but today he encourages us in this final word from his letter to the Corinthians, “God is faithful” In faithfulness and preparation, may all of know God’s blessing this Advent, as we prepare to welcome Jesus the Christ into our lives. Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus.