Friday, April 9, 2010

Wait a minute! A Sermon for Advent

Luke 1:39-55 The Magnificat

This sermon was preached during Advent (the period before Christmas).  I've only just noticed that I had not got round to publishing it.  Apologies to all!

Every morning, in my house, there is a small ritual that unfolds. The ritual revolves around whichever one of us gets up first. It's the ritual of feeding the animals.

For some reason which eludes me, our house has become home to one dog, two cats and other assorted small furry creatures. It's got something to do with my daughter, I suspect. Anyhow - assuming I'm the first one up, this is what happens. I stagger out of bed, bleary eyed and desperate for caffeine. In the blessed, halcyon days before animals, I could just about manage to switch on the kettle, and make a coffee. But these days, a river of animals follow me all around the kitchen...scrounging for breakfast.

"Meow! Feed me!!" "Whine Whine...come on! I'm hungry." 6 eyes watch my every move as I open the fridge or the cupboard. "What's that? Is that mine? Go on... I could eat a biscuit. Actually I could eat a truck-load of biscuits." In vain I try to do a bit of washing find myself a clean cup for my coffee. "Do you want that bit of baked-bean juice? On that dish cloth? I could lick that off for you if you like. There's a lot of goodness in cold baked bean juice"

It's not just the whining. They get under your feet. Many's the time I've ended up kicking the cat or the dog, just because I'm trying to make my way from one side of the kitchen to the other through a sea of furry bodies. Or they jump up onto the worktop - sticking their heads in your coffee cup. "What's that you've got in there? Milk eh? I like milk. Can I have some milk? Go on!"

If you could hear a recording of the morning ritual in the Kennar household, it would sound something like this: Meow! Whine! Meow! "Wait a minute!" Meow, Whine, "Look, just hang on...get off...get out of the way will you?" Meow! Whine! St Francis would have been very proud of me!

You see, the trouble with animals is that they don't know how to wait. It’s no good trying to persuade them to sit still and wait for a minute. They want feeding...and they want it now! They have no idea about the concept of waiting.

And unfortunately...neither does the human race.

Back in the 1980s or 90s, the rock band Queen recorded a song which summed up the mood of the time. It was released about the same time as the comedian Harry Enfield created his satirical character 'Mr Loads-a-money'. Queen's track was called "I want it all" - and the chorus had these words:

"It ain't much I'm asking, if you want the truth
Here's to the future, hear the cry of youth
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all and I want it now!
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all and I want it now!"

Wait a minute! It seems that the youth of the 80s that Queen were singing about have grown up into the bankers and celebrities of today. "I want it all" is the cry of aspiration for so many people. I want the fast car. I want the holidays in exotic places. I want the plasma screen. I want the Playstation. I want the latest fashion - a new outfit for every occasion, a new pair of shoes for every party. I want food in immense proportions. I want buckets of alcohol to pour down my neck. I want 20,000 music tracks on my mp3 player. I want to party every weekend! Meow! Meow! Whine! I want. I want. I want....

Wait a minute!!

There have been many ways of ordering our society over the centuries. The early Greeks had a form of democracy, in which leading citizens could vote for new laws. Socrates proposed a system of 'philosopher kings' - rulers who would be trained to rule from birth, but not allowed to benefit financially from their rulership. We've had Empires. We've had monarchies. We've had the Holy Roman Empire, and we've had one-person-one-vote Democracy. We've had military dictatorships, and we've had Communism. But, wait a minute. Which type of Government is it that has finally won? It's the Government of 'I want it now'. To give it its proper name - it's the Government of Consumerism.

No longer are we citizens of a nation, or even a planet, with responsibilities to one another. Instead we are now consumers - who vote for whichever Government will give us the best chance to consume the things we want. Just think about that for a moment. We will have a General Election next year in this country. What would the chances be for a political party which stated, in its manifesto, that it was going to give away 10% of the country's wealth to the poorer countries of the world. Just 10%. Doesn't sound like much, does it? And it's a perfectly biblical principle. And yet the foreign aid budget of the United Kingdom for this year is just about 1%. We spend nearly 700 Billion pounds on ourselves. And we send about 6.5billion pounds to the poorest nations of the world.

Wait a minute! That would be like me spending £700 on a new plasma TV, and then giving £6.50 to Christian Aid.

We are teaching our children that the most important thing in life is to work hard, pass exams, and get a good that they can buy stuff. That's about it. That's the basic message of western society today. All the things we could be teaching our children in school are falling by the wayside. There is no longer time in the school curriculum to learn much about art, music, philosophy, poetry, sport or religion...all the things that have given our society their depth and their meaning until now.

Ask any teacher, and they will tell you that they are bound by tick-boxes and testing, all designed to turn out identi-kit kids who can fill the factories and offices of our consumer society. Where are the next generation of thinkers? Where is the next generation of philosophers? Where are the opportunities that many of us had - the opportunities for exchange visits with other countries, or for long days out in the hills with our teachers, or visits to local churches to hear about the spiritual questions of life. There's no time in the curriculum anymore. Just like the shelves of the supermarket, our kids are being wrapped, packed and stacked ready for their role in keeping the consumer-wheel turning.

And so many of our kids will end up on that consumer wheel. They will learn, from an early age that it is their right to possess anything they desire. They will demand the latest toys - and be given them. They will demand the latest gadget, the latest fashion, the latest music...and will go out and get them.

Last year I had the privilege of marrying a very young couple. They were a lovely pair - just starting out in life. One of the questions I always ask young couples is whether they have discussed the topic of children. (It's always a good idea to make sure that they have the same view about whether or not they want kids!). This particular couple said that yes, they had talked about it. And yes, they would like kids. But not yet. "Why not yet?", I asked. "Because we have to save up for a bigger house first. This house has only got two bedrooms...we couldn't bring a child into this house could we?"

As I say - they were a lovely couple. But like so many - they had completely bought into the consumer dream. They simply couldn't conceive of having children in a house with only two bedrooms - because that would mean that there would be no spare room for when family came to stay. They were already both working full-time - for as much as 6 days a week - to afford the mortgage on their modest little home. But, rather than scale-back their expectations in order to bring a new life into their family, they were going to work even harder, even more over-time, even more hours...just to have a bigger house.

Wait a minute! That's the problem with consumerism. Its fine for those who have the cash...but it creates a way of thinking which drives everyone into thinking that they have got to live by the same standards. Anyone who doesn't have a plasma TV is thought of as old fashioned. Anyone who doesn't have a new dress for every party is thought of as 'frumpy'. Anyone who doesn't buy the latest pop album to come out is 'out of date'. Anyone who doesn't work every hour God sends in order to buy more stuff is thought of as lazy and work-shy. As a result, everyone know has credit card debts which shackle them to multi-national corporations. They couldn’t choose to live differently if they wanted to…because the credit card bill has got to be paid!

The very idea that someone might use some of their life to read books, or look after children at home, or grow their own vegetables, or attend a church. That's all just a waste of time for so many people...time which could be spent on e-bay, or at work, making money...buying and selling stuff.

And yet...wait a minute…we've been shown a different way. Mary's song - the Magnificat - which we just heard in our Gospel reading, sets out an entirely different agenda for our planet.

"(God) has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered the proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away."

This is Mary's summary of the whole of the Bible until that point - and her assumption of what Jesus', her baby's message to the world will be.

This baby won't be born in a two bedroomed house, or a three bedroomed one...or even in a royal palace. This baby will be born in a animal shelter. And laid in a food trough.

This baby won't be taught to gain stuff. As part of Jewish tradition, this baby will be taught to give stuff away - 10% of everything he earns, and generosity to everyone he meets.

This baby won't be given hundreds of pounds of plastic toys for Christmas – made of precious oil, dragged out of the ground and sent to China, to be made into toys, to be shipped to England, to be wrapped in more plastic, put under a plastic Christmas tree, to be played with for a day or two, then forgotten in a cupboard until it is thrown away in another plastic bag, and shipped off to China again to be buried in a land-fill.

Instead, this baby will receive three very special and significant gifts. A little gold - to acknowledge his royalty. A little frankincense to acknowledge that he is God. A little myrhh - to foreshadow his death.

This baby won't be a king. He'll be a pauper. He won't sit on a throne...he'll stand in the fields and the streets and declare a new way of living.

This baby won't be a friend to prime ministers and emperors, celebrities and bankers. He'll be a friend to the poor and the sick and to those who are searching for Truth.

And over time, throughout the generations, he will slowly but surely begin to turn the world upside down. In due course, he will put down the mighty, and exalt the humble and lowly. He will fill the hungry with good things...and the rich he will send empty away.

But wait a minute…when will he do this? When will this new order take place? When will consumerism and greed give way to wisdom and generosity? When will the rich be brought down? Many of us thought the time might be coming this year, as bankers were temporarily halted in their tracks. But the bonuses are back. The City has bounced back. Consumerism wins again.

I don't know the answer to that question. When will Jesus' just, merciful, generous, giving rule be established? Perhaps he will physically return - "riding on the clouds" as the Bible so poetically puts it.

Or perhaps the real exaltation of the humble and meek takes place at the moment of death. Perhaps it is then that we discover the real value of lives built on stuff. Perhaps it is when we meet our God, face to face, that we discover which parts of our life had the most meaning. Was it the hours we slaved in order to buy things? Or was it the time we gave to other people, and the hand we offered to the needy? Was it the hours we spent in front of the X-Factor or Strictly - or the hours we spent raising money for the refugees of Bangladesh? Was it the huge bill we just paid to Tescos for our Christmas shopping, or the £5 voucher we gave to the Churches Homeless Action appeal for the homeless in Portsmouth? Which of these will be the decisions by which we will want to be judged when we meet the baby born in the stable?

Unlike my cats and dogs, we will have to wait to learn the answer to those questions. But I know which path I am called to follow...however much I stumble and fail with the pressure of consumerism upon me. What about you?


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