Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon for Sunday 10th December 2023 – the Second Sunday of Advent

One of my favourite memories of Christmas Eve when I was a child, was polishing silver.  It may seem an implausible pleasure but it is true.  My mother had about six silver bowls, some small and others medium-sized which were carefully stored away during the year.  On Christmas Eve, they would be ceremoniously brought out of the cupboard, wrapped in last year’s newspapers. Despite the care taken in their storage, they would always be black and grimy and my mother would cover the kitchen table with fresh newspaper, bring out the silver polish and rags and get my brothers and I to work. It was a fiddly task as some of the bowls had little legs and ornamentation and you had to rub carefully with great attention to remove all the specks of black. It was certainly a brilliant way of keeping the children occupied on Christmas Eve!

The result was always stunning.  We would buff the bowls till they shone brightly, then carefully wash them in warm soapy water and dry them.  Then and only then, would my mother bring out the Christmas sweets which we would pour into the bowls and distribute them throughout the flat.  It was at that point, as children, we felt we were ‘ready for Christmas’.

Today in our Bible readings the theme is our need to get ready. John the Baptist proclaims to the people that the Messiah is coming soon and they must be prepared. It’s wonderful news but only if they are ready. And getting ready in John’s eyes, meant several things. First of all, to wake up spiritually – to be alert and honest and take a long, hard look at what was going on in their lives and in the world about them. Perhaps today, he would have said to them. “Get real”.

‘Make his paths straight’ involved them thinking about what was getting in the way in their lives between them and God. The lies, the deceptions, their exploitation of other people and the ways in which they had been content to live in society which condoned this. Just as Moses had challenged the Israelites in the wilderness, not to hanker back for the fleshpots of Egypt which were an illusion and had merely enslaved them, so John calls the people to remember what their true calling is, which is to be God’s chosen precious people and to live up to that calling.  Not just for themselves, but for the community and society in which they lived under the Roman occupation.

And this is a message for us too on this Second Sunday of Advent as we too wait for Christ’s coming at Christmas. It’s time for us to reflect where we have been sleepwalking in our lives, reluctant to be alert and responsive to God’s call. Time to think honestly about those layers of spiritual grime covering us at present which are both getting in the way between us and God and also meaning that we show that grime rather than God’s glory to the world. And time to think, perhaps more hard than ever this year, given the terrible events which are taking place in Israel and Gaza, of how far we are sleepwalkers in society allowing in justices to perpetrate rather than those who are prepared to stand up, like John the Baptist, and witness to God’s call of what needs to change.

At our service tonight, that wakeup call is going to come through to us powerfully. On 10 December 1948, just three years after the end of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris. It set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. Our service this evening will mark the 75th anniversary of this event –  in a world in which human rights seems under particular pressure.

 It’s worth reading the 30 short but powerful Articles which make up this Declaration. For they both remind us of the vision that inspired them to be proclaimed after the bitter suffering and oppression of two World Wars. But they if we take but three of them – Article 3 ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms’;  Article 5 ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ and Article 19 ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’, we realise how far we are falling short. And it is a real challenge to us as Christians in Geneva, blessed with so much freedom and dignity, making us think how far we are really using that to help and champion the needs of others and tackle injustice, and how far we are merely content to accept the status quo because we benefit so much from it.

Our Epistle today from the 2nd Letter of Peter is particularly interesting because it is one of the few places in the New Testament in which the author tackles the knotty question – what do we make of the fact that not everything that Jesus promised has happened. In particular, the Second Coming of which Jesus spoke, has not taken place. What does this mean?

It’s also an interesting passage because it has been frequently misinterpreted to mean that when Jesus comes again in glory, it will be to destroy the world – the world will literally be burnt up. But scholars today have pointed out that this is a misunderstanding – the image is that of a refiner rather than a destroyer. In other words, Jesus is coming to create a new heaven and a new earth but based on the existing ones, and will purify the world as a purifier burnishes silver and gold.

And it is this context that the author of this letter interprets the apparent delay in Jesus Second Coming, not as a sign of God’s unreliability but rather of God’s mercy, Human and divine timescales are not the same, he points out vividly – ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day’. Rather what we should take from this, the message of God’s infinite compassion on us – giving us time to come to our senses – to turn from evil and destructiveness and instead, make straight the way for his coming.

We are also reassured today that we do this within the context of God’s love and God’s mercy. The prophet Isaiah is commissioned to proclaim God’s forgiveness to his people – Although they have sinned, and sinned grievously, God will have mercy and restore them.  Moreover, God expresses, through the prophet, a great message of tenderness to his people.  He reassures them that they should not hear; that he will protect them and will as a shepherd to them We know that these words were written at the time of the Israelites’ exile in Babylon in the sixth century before Christ, living under Babylonian rule and having witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem.  They would have been words of enormous comfort and encouragement.

And in Advent, it’s important that we keep these two threads together. We need to get ready, to come to our senses, to repent and know that true repentance is going to mean they we amend our lives – that we literally put ourselves in a right relationship with God. As a society we have to reflect on what we are doing, or often what we are failing to do to challenge oppression and injustice and to connive with the economic benefits to us which underlies so much modern day slavery.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing in a prison cell after his arrest in 1943, wrote these words:

‘The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come’. The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time there will be a new heaven and a new earth’ (‘God is in the manger – reflections for Advent and Christmas’ – quoted in +Arun Arora’s Advent Book 2023 ‘Stick with Love’).

So it is right that during Advent, we too should be ‘troubled’ in soul’ as this is the catalyst which will bring us to our senses and on the path back to God.  But we should also, quite rightly, have joyful hope and expectation for we know that the one who alone can help us, is coming into our world. Our psalm today is perhaps a fitting note on which to end for it gives us a glorious image of the new heaven and earth, which Christ will bring:

‘Mercy and truth are met together,

Righteousness and peace have kissed each other

Truth shall spring up from the earth

And righteousness look down from heaven.

(Psalm 85 v9 & 11)

May the burnishing of our hearts and lives that we undertake this Advent, prepare us to reflect and shine God’s glory when Christ comes.

Marantha – come, Lord Jesus!