A letter from King Herod to the people of Adel St John’s…words for the first Sunday of Christmas.

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Words for the first Sunday of Christmas – Adel Parish Church

Isaiah 63: 7 – 9; Hebrews 2: 10 – end; Matthew 2: 13 – end

I know, I’m the baddie; the ‘evil fairy’ at your nativity cradle; Killer, no slaughterer, of innocents. But you forget – I’m also known as ‘Herod the Great’…’the Great’ I didn’t get that title by being weak and indecisive.

You conveniently forget the peace I secured for the Jews under Roman occupation; my long reign; the magnificent Temple I built. You only remember my story because of the visit of those three travellers from the East…

And even then you don’t read it properly…’when King Herod heard the kings were searching for a baby, born king of the Jews – he was frightened’…frightened – that’s not how you picture the scheming villain in your nativity plays.

But you’ve never been the ruler of an unruly people occupied by a ruthless nation. Fear? Yes – every day.

Fear of those around me hungry for power and anxious to take my place…why do you think I had secret police listening all the time?

Fear of those who would upset the status quo – the delicate balancing trick I was playing to keep Romans, pagans and Jews happy. There were always false prophets, messiahs threatening to ruin things…’he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him’…you never remember that bit do you? It’s a lonely and frightening place – being a ruler.

So yes, they did scare me – those strange, intense travellers from the East, with their tales of a new King of the Jews – a baby worth a thousand mile journey – a baby they would bow before. All Jerusalem was unnerved – but I was the ruler, so it was up to me to act…

…and I made a mistake. I trusted that my welcome and my flattery had worked…I trusted that as I’d shared my knowledge, those travellers would do the same. I trusted they would lead me to this ‘king’ so that I could deal with the problem.

I should have recognised in their single-mindedness, their intensity of purpose, that this baby, in Bethlehem of all places, had already won their allegiance. So then what choice did I have? The gnawing fear wouldn’t go away. Fear that a baby who could draw noblemen from the ends of the earth would easily deceive the common people around him, the poor, the dissatisfied.

I had made the mistake, so I had to act. The lives of a few ordinary children? – hardly a great price for peace and stability. Many wouldn’t have lived to adulthood anyway – life is cheap in these places. If you haven’t had the responsibility of real power you don’t know the loneliness and fear that goes with it.

And anyway, before you jump to judgement – how do you feel when you think power is being taken from you? Do you fear change? – anything that threatens the status quo, the little kingdoms you’ve built? Do you slaughter infant plans and ideas – just in case? Just in case they grow into something you didn’t expect, something that forces you into the background?

 

 

The power of presence…a sermon for Christmas morning at Adel Parish Church

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The power of presence…a sermon for Adel Parish Church, Christmas morning 2019.

Isaiah 9: 2-7; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14

“Mummy – why doesn’t the moon fall out of the sky?”

“Mummy – do dead people have legs?”

There was a time when this was the sound-track to my life.

Then, when I was ordained, and began life as a curate, I found myself asking a constant stream of questions. Ones I’d always thought I knew the answer to – but then realised I’d never really asked.

Questions like, “Christmas – what’s that all about then?”

Now you are wondering what on earth they teach at theological college these days…but I don’t think it is an unreasonable question.

After all – since Christmas tells us how God, unknowable, all-powerful, creator of all – chose to become human – it is quite difficult to make sense of.

Look at the four gospels: Mark avoids the story altogether; Matthew uses a family tree to show how Jesus is the long awaited Messiah; and John resorts to poetry ‘In the beginning was the Word…’, in his attempt to capture the mystery.

Today we get Luke’s version – a very human story with Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels – and an obvious requirement for a donkey and an Innkeeper, even if they’re not actually mentioned.

A very messy, earthy story…suitably reenacted at the first crib service yesterday. Our wonderful children’s team have knitted enough sheep for every child to bring one up, so there was a glorious moment when the Christ child was entirely buried in knitted sheep.

A messy story, uncomfortable actually, if we look properly. Almighty God becomes the baby of poor parents in an occupied country, on a dangerous journey, born in a stable. There seems a good chance the story will end before it’s even begun.

Luke – with these almost trivial human details – gives one answer to ‘Christmas – what’s it all about?’ – this baby is Emmanuel – ‘God with us’.

As a child one of my favourite Christmas songs was a very simple one – ‘Emmanuel, Emmanuel – God who came on earth to dwell – who can all our story tell – God with us, Emmanuel.’

“Who can all our story tell”

One answer to my question is that Christmas is about the over flowing love of God which results in God as a baby – an ordinary, vulnerable baby – who can be cold, hungry, scared – who will grow up to be a man who can laugh and cry and suffer and die – like us.

Not just a God who knows our story – but who can tell all of our story because it’s also his story. Truly – God with us.

During my curacy I got to know an amazing gentleman of 100, who served for 3 years in the desert during the Second World War. He was pretty scathing about the church and religion in general – but he had huge respect for the Salvation Army.

Because as he says, “wherever we were – even on the front line – they were there with us.” They didn’t stop the fighting, they didn’t save lives – they were just there – providing hot meals, hot drinks and a friendly face. And more than 70 years later he still remembered the power of presence, of ‘being with’.

I recently reread ‘The boy in the striped pyjamas’ – about Bruno, the son of an Auschwitz commander who, through the wire, befriends a child inmate of the concentration camp. He has no idea what’s going on in the camp – he just makes a friend.

At the end of the book, in what he sees as an adventure, he borrows some striped pyjamas, crawls under the wire and joins his friend in the camp.

Just as he’s thinking he should head home, soldiers start rounding people up. They are heading for the gas chamber, although the children don’t know this. All Bruno knows is that his friend is frightened, so he holds his hand and goes with him.

This should be a really depressing ending to a story – but it’s strangely uplifting – showing the power of ‘being with’ to somehow bring hope to even the worst situation.

Perhaps rather dismal for Christmas morning? Well despite what TV adverts might want us to believe – the difficult stuff doesn’t stop happening because it is Christmas. There is still suffering, war, famine…

The profound and sober joy we have on Christmas day is that God really is with us. He was the tiny baby; totally dependent on others…he wept at the death of his friend…he was despised, beaten and killed.

2019 has not been an easy year – nationally, internationally, and personally for some of you here – but if we believe that the baby in the manger is also the son of God – then we know that God is with us in the suffering. I don’t always understand why he doesn’t stop the suffering – but I do know that like Bruno in the story, in the dark times he holds our hand.

And since it is Christmas – a reminder that ‘being with’ is as important in joy as it is in sadness. Many of you will know the film Billy Elliott – the son of a miner – who, despite his father and brother’s angry resistance becomes a ballet dancer.

The really moving moment comes not when he finally makes it onto the stage with the Royal Ballet – but when his father and brother are shown taking their seats in the audience, sharing his joy…the power of ‘being with’.

So this Christmas whether we are celebrating in joy, sadness or both – we have God’s gift to us all – the gift of choosing birth as a poor, vulnerable baby to be Emmanuel – God with us.

And remembering the example of the Salvation Army – I pray that we will follow our Lord’s lead and share the simple, but oh so powerful gift of ‘being with’ – whether in joy or sadness – with those around us this Christmas.

A story with a part for everyone? Sermon for Midnight Mass at Adel Parish Church

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A story where everyone has a part…words for Midnight Mass at Adel Parish Church.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Well it’s been a funny old year…a year, sadly, with a fair amount of darkness…or at least a feeling of struggling to see our way, of being lost.

There’s been the question of who we are if we are not Europeans, of whether there’s still such a thing as being ‘British’. There’s the way many have felt their traditional political party no longer has a place for them. There’s the feeling amongst foreign nationals, Muslims and Jews, that they are not safe here…or they that this is no longer their country. And faced with the way these people have been treated, many of us don’t recognise Britain as the country we love either.

So many uncertainties that it’s easy to feel we are groping around in the darkness.

It’s been a year of uncertainties for me too…how I would cope when our vicar Matthew went on Sabbatical for three months…would I find a job as my curacy came to an end…where would it be? The unknown of being ‘Rector’ rather than an assistant curate…how I fit into this community in my new role…I’ve I felt a bit lost at times.

And then there are the uncertainties everyday life throws at us.

In the midst of it all, we’ve come this evening to share a story we know so well – the story of the first Christmas – wondering perhaps whether it has any relevance in our lives today.

It is, of course, the story of ordinary, respectable working folk. Joseph, a skilled craftsman, probably self-employed, and Mary, his wife to be.

…the story of brave young people with dreams of an ordinary, settled life together.

…the story of people who find themselves with nowhere to stay, sleeping in unsuitable borrowed rooms even though there’s a baby on the way.

…a story where the first, most important guests are the poorest, marginalised, least valued in society – a group of shepherds from a hillside.

…a story where the rich and learned from other countries and other cultures are also invited to come and play their part – three wise men setting off to follow a star which invites them to travel but tells them little else.

…the story of an unremarkable family turned into refugees, as a powerful ruler tries to hang on to power. That bit doesn’t usually make it into nativity plays. But when King Herod the Great heard the rumour of a baby king, he sent men to slaughter all babies in Bethlehem…just to make sure.

…the story of indifferent busy people rushing past, offering no room, ignorant of the gift in their midst.

That is why it’s a story that draws us back again and again…because we find that whoever we are, whatever is happening in our lives…we have a place in this story. It’s such a powerful story because it says when God came to earth; he came to and for everyone.

But God didn’t come, as we might expect, as part of the ruling class. God didn’t come with power to order people to come and worship.

The scandalous thing about the Christmas story is that Almighty God chose to come to earth as a tiny, vulnerable baby born to ordinary parents during the chaos of a census in an occupied country. God chose a life that people are free to ignore, a truly human life, a life that shows us what it is to be truly human.

In other words, God chose to need people…chose to risk human life at its most precarious…not to dominate or posses but to invite. And we are all invited, not just to be onlookers, part of the crowd. We’re invited to come and find our place in the story…a story of love where everyone is needed.

Those who like Mary and Joseph welcome Christ into their lives so that he comes into the world afresh in each generation.

Those who like the shepherds are on the margins, and who if we choose to listen can teach us so much about what is really important in life…who, even though they have almost nothing, still find something to give.

Those like the Innkeeper, who don’t really understand what’s going on, but sense something special and can’t quite turn away. Who let Christ in – at least to the edges of their lives.

Those like the wise men, of different cultures and faiths who understand the importance and goodness of this event…and although it’s not part of their world…choose to protect it from those like Herod who would destroy it.

Those who, like the Holy family, are forced to flee their country today, who know what Jesus experienced.

Those like the busy passers-by, who if only they take a moment to turn aside, can be part of the story. Who are invited, but never forced.

Maybe, if we make it our story again this Christmas, we also might start to remember that everyone is needed, that we need one another. We might contribute a little to reclaiming a country where all can feel at home.

And if we stick with the story, we might find that we need the God who chooses to need us. Perhaps we will grow a little more like the one who never forces but always invites.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

And if we find our part in his story, we might also find that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”

 

Joseph – a saint forBritain today? Sermon for Adel Parish Church Dec 22nd 2019

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Joseph – a saint for a divided nation? A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent – Adel Parish Church.

Isaiah 7: 10-16; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18 – end

“Mrs Battye…you know how ladies make lots of noise when they’re having babies…if Mary’d done that wouldn’t she have disturbed all those animals in the stable?”

I used to love teaching R.E…children ask the best questions…

That 10 year old was really asking what children often want to know – ‘why doesn’t the bible have the interesting details?’ I can sympathise as I’ve always felt this about Joseph. He’s in thousands of nativity plays at this time of year – he’s one of the few bible characters most of the population has heard of – but when we actually look in the gospels, today’s reading is almost all we get. Joseph is the earthly father of the Son of God, and yet we don’t hear one word he said.

I used to tell the kids that the gospel writers included things that say something important about God. So perhaps we should look at what we do hear about Joseph, and what might we learn from it.

Well we first come across him receiving a dreadful shock. The girl he’s about to marry is having someone else’s baby…devastating, and a terrible source of shame. But he doesn’t react how we might expect – he doesn’t expose Mary to public disgrace, even to salvage his honour.

Instead he decides to divorce her quietly. He knows it’ll be even worse for Mary – and he’s willing to spare her as much as possible. Joseph – a man for whom compassion is more important than either revenge or his own position.

We also learn that Joseph was a thoughtful man. The Good News translation says ‘while he was thinking about divorcing her quietly’, an angel of the Lord spoke to him. While he was thinking about it…Joseph an Advent Saint – willing to pause for a while, willing to wait.

And that pause gave God the chance to speak to him. Which was vital, because he had huge adjustments to make. Mary finding someone else would be sad – but not unheard of – but a child from the Holy Spirit…that turns all his plans on their head. I guess he dreamed of having a son…who would join him in the family business, take over in time. However little he understood the angel’s message– he must have realised that the future wasn’t going to be how he’d imagined it.

But by pausing, and letting God in, he saw there might be a larger story. He saw Mary’s side of the story – and had the imagination to see that his challenge might be just a small part of God’s enormous story. Joseph…an Advent saint…looking forward in the expectation that God might act.

I think Joseph is very much a Saint for our times. It’s not been very comfortable being British lately. In a nation that prides itself on tolerance and fairness, Brexit has shown how racism and prejudice often lurk under the surface. We seem to have forgotten that we can disagree and still respect one another.

In the recent election campaign, many of those who hoped to govern the country used personal slurs and downright lies to discredit their opponents. For lots of people voting was a negative thing, voting against a particular prime minister or governing party, choosing the least worse option.

Last week’s election result saw some jubilant and others despairing and genuinely fearful for the future. Whatever our political beliefs…as Christians we’ll agree that our country desperately needs healing, reconciliation, ways of coming together.

Compassion not revenge; pausing to let God in; expecting God to act…Joseph gives us a powerful example to follow however we feel about recent events.

If we always wanted to leave the European Union…and have perhaps become angry at the delay, and those who’ve caused it…we need to take seriously the fears of people who wanted desperately to remain. Our country really doesn’t need a Brexit of revenge. It needs Joseph’s example that caring for others – however we feel about what they’ve done – is more important than our reputation or what the world expects.

If last week’s results seem like a catastrophe…the end of our hopes…we need to readjust as Joseph did. We might still regret the result, but we need to be part of the bigger picture of the future of our country. We need to take seriously the hopes of people who see that future outside the European Union. We need to join the debate so there’s a chance of building a Britain for everyone.

We’re not all suddenly going to change our political views, and nor should we. There is no healthy democracy without disagreement. But we urgently need a different model of dealing with difference.

Joseph’s public reaction to difficult, perturbing news was not a knee jerk reaction – not angry, or vengeful. However he felt inside – he waited and thought before he spoke and acted…allowing God to be part of his reaction.

Britain needs people willing to do that. Most of us are not in positions of power; we aren’t going to be on national media outlets. But in a country of free speech we do have a voice.

If our local MP is not who we hoped for, we need to give him a chance, listen to him, challenge him and hold him respectfully to account.

If our government are not who we hoped for, we need to encourage our MP to listen, challenge, and hold them respectfully to account.

Joseph’s response to his life’s plans being turned upside down was to accept the change and play his part in the different future as faithfully as he could…

…I suspect Brexit won’t give anyone the exact future they hoped for and I’m not saying it’s part of God’s larger plan. But I’m pretty sure healing and reconciliation are. So I pray that with compassion, pausing to let God guide us, and looking forward in hope, we might help our country to unite and move forward.

 

 

 

Pointing to Jesus…words for evensong at Adel Parish church, Advent 2.

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A sermon for evensong at Adel Parish church – 2nd Sunday of Advent

1 Kings 18:17-39; John 1:19-28

It’s a great story isn’t it – Elijah and the prophets of Baal? I used to love looking at it with my year 2 class. I got the children to act it out. The prophets of Baal would get really carried away dancing and crying out to God. And if I picked a good Elijah…they would go to town, a bit like a magician, making sure everyone saw the quantity of water poured on the altar before, *, and it was consumed by flames.

You can imagine a 7 year old Elijah – he’s pulled off the most fantastic stunt, he’s made fools of all those prophets of Baal – usually they couldn’t resist ending by taking a bow!

But of course that wasn’t at all the point Elijah was trying to make. He wasn’t trying to show how clever he was – but to demonstrate to the people the glory of God. It seems to have worked, as they fell on their faces proclaiming ‘The Lord indeed is God’. But we can imagine how tempting it must have been for Elijah to bathe in a bit of reflected glory himself.

We have the same sort of example in our second reading tonight. John the Baptist was clearly a pretty charismatic chap – despite his lack of dress sense. People flocked out into the wilderness to listen to him, even though his message wasn’t always easy to hear.

They were so impressed they thought he must be one of the great figures their religion told them to expect…another prophet like Moses…Elijah returned…or even the Messiah the one coming to save us all.

But John’s answer to all these questions is a firm ‘I am not!’ All I am, he says, is someone pointing to the Messiah, pointing to God.

This is a great reading for preachers to hear. It’s lovely when, occasionally, people say nice things about our sermons. We all need reassurance and praise sometimes…but we also need to be reminded that the only point of a sermon is to point, in some way, to Christ.

And that isn’t just a message for me – but for all of us. We are rightly proud of our beautiful, ancient building; of how well we look after it. We’re proud to belong to such a friendly and welcoming congregation. When I was looking for a job – every church I came across claimed to be a welcoming church – and it’s not always true. I feel very lucky to have joined a church that genuinely does work hard to welcome all people.

But…there’s always a but isn’t there?…the beauty of the building and the welcoming community have entirely missed the point if they don’t point to Christ.

We may come to this church because when we first ventured across the threshold someone was very welcoming. We may come to this particular service because we love the timeless quality of the words, put together hundreds of years ago and used ever since.

But presumably we also come, or keep coming, because we have found in Christ a meaning for our lives…because we have found in Christ unconditional love…because somehow we grasp that with Christ the world is a better place.

Hopefully when people now venture over our threshold, they are not only welcomed, but they find a community that takes faith seriously. Hopefully when we invite people along, we don’t just talk about the architecture and the peace, but we dare to mention Jesus Christ.

In a few minutes we will sing ‘Hark the glad sound the saviour comes’. We will proclaim that Christ comes to release those imprisoned by sin, to bind broken hearts, to cure bleeding souls, and to enrich the poor.

We can see why John the Baptist thought that something worth pointing to – I hope we do too.

‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…’ Words for Advent 2, Adel Parish Church

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A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent at Adel Parish Church.

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12

At my interview for the post of Rector here, I was asked to suggest something about me that annoys other people. Well, by now you’ll have drawn up your own lists…

my answer was my tendency to point out misplaced apostrophes and commas. In my defence here’s an example of the importance of punctuation…where an encouraging invitation “let’s eat, Grandma”, can become the rather sinister…”Let’s eat Grandma”…

Sadly, my first thoughts about today’s gospel reading were to do with punctuation… The reading tells how John the Baptist was foretold by the prophet Isaiah. We hear he’s the ‘one who cries in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord”’. But when I looked up the passage in Isaiah – what it actually says is “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’”

Now you’re thinking ‘well I can see how she annoys people…’ but that missing comma suddenly seemed important to me. It’s not just John the Baptist who’s in the wilderness, but it’s in the wilderness that we’re called to prepare the way of the Lord. It’s in the wilderness that the way begins.

Advent is about hope; it’s about preparing for the coming of the Christ child. But it’s not about ignoring the difficult stuff in our world, in our lives, and putting on a false smile for Christmas.

If Christmas means anything it’s got to be more than just one day when we celebrate all the good things in our lives. Or one day when we pretend everything’s ok, when we get on with the family we don’t speak to for the rest of the year, when we try to pretend there are no money worries.

Advent is about hope in a world that looks hopeless. It’s about light shining in the darkness.

Isaiah, from whom we hear so much in Advent, spoke to people who had been exiled from their country, and who were still exiled a generation later. Jesus, whose birth we’re looking forward to, was born into a country occupied, pretty unpleasantly, by the Romans. The Advent story is very much one that begins in the wilderness, where everything is not ok.

Some of you here today will already be in your own wilderness, facing difficult things in your lives. For others, going into the wilderness might mean facing what’s wrong with our world today, and our part in it. For me, it’s the horror of climate change. But whatever our wilderness, I think today’s readings tell us to let the Christmas story start in the darkness, in the difficult places.

When clergy get together, the talk always turns to funerals. There is the inevitable competition for the worst funeral experience ever…but I think it’s also because it’s at funerals that the story we tell matters most.

As I once read in a book about funerals, “we stand beside the grave, at the brink of all we fear. If faith has no word for this, it has no word at all.” Funerals are the place where the resurrection gospel we tell really matters…where it is literally a matter of life or death.

And the thing about a ‘good’ funeral – if you can have one – is that it doesn’t pretend death hasn’t happened. It says, even in this wilderness, in God we have hope.

‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’

Last week a young man called Jack Merritt was murdered in London. In life he was dedicated to bringing hope into other people’s lives. He worked for the rehabilitation of offenders – he believed in second chances and that everyone should be offered hope.

He was murdered by one of the people he tried to help. It’s no surprise that the immediate response by politicians has been calling for longer sentences and other measures tougher on prisoners. We might expect Jack’s family to feel the same.

But Jack’s father, in a newspaper article, said this is exactly the response Jack would have hated. He talked instead of the world Jack wanted to build – of rehabilitation not revenge – of believing in the goodness of humanity, even when it’s difficult to see. It feels to me that he’s saying, ‘if Jack’s message of hope means anything – it has to mean it still, even in the wilderness of his murder by the very person he helped.’

Christmas can be wonderful, but it can also be very hard…for the bereaved, the estranged, the lonely, those struggling with debt or poverty. But the story of Advent says these places of wilderness are where the story starts. Because if it doesn’t it’s not a story worth hearing.

For me, this week, John the Baptist has said – what does hope look like for me in my wilderness? Last week I suggested we bring our longings to God. Perhaps this week could be about letting God into the wilderness bits of our lives, or of the world around us. And thinking about what hope looks like in that place of brokenness.

Sometimes, with the familiarity of the Christmas story, we forget that it tells of God risking human birth in a poor corner of an occupied country. We forget it tells of God as a refugee child.

So Advent might sometimes be about admitting the darkness of our lives, or of the world we live in. But hoping in the good news that God comes into the darkness to find us.

There are times when we can’t see a way out of the darkness – but having someone in the darkness with us brings a flicker of hope.

I will end with the opening to a poem from my Advent book…

…In the Holy Child

God comes close to us,

that we might come close to God.

Amen

 

 

 

 

Advent – a time to bring our longings to God? Words for Advent Sunday at Adel Parish Church.

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Sermon for Advent Sunday at Adel Parish Church

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-end; Matthew 24: 36-44

Did anyone go to the Headingly Christmas light switch on? Was it good? If it passed you by, it was last Tuesday. Or perhaps your run up to Christmas started with the John Lewis advert – 10th Nov this year…or with Leeds lights switch on – November 7th…preaching at the start of Advent can feel a bit like getting the time wrong and arriving half way through the party.

When Christmas appears in stores in early November, I have to admit to a terrible urge to stand in the middle of the supermarket and shout, “It’s not even Advent yet!”

But although we might dismiss the ever-earlier start and the hype as just ways to get us to spend more, we’re still drawn into the anticipation. Looking forward to something special seems a good thing. Perhaps that’s because yearning for something big, something beyond ourselves, is part of being human. What we’re being offered may be overpriced nonsense, but companies are tapping into something greater than mere consumerism. The longing is real and profound.

I think that shows in the contents of today’s adverts and light switch on events. Headingley had communal Carols and a brass band…Christmas adverts are often about nostalgia for simpler times, childhood wonder, making sure no one’s left out.

Those who create the adverts seem to know that we’re longing for big things. Perhaps wishing we could still believe in childish dreams that seem impossible to our adult selves…the healing of divisions…peace on earth…goodwill to all.

The trouble is – we’ve been let down before. Depending on how old we are – we’ve lived through various ‘new dawns’ when we were promised better things. Even though for most of us, life is fairly comfortable, the world today can seem a very uncomfortable place. So dreams can seem laughable, best left in TV adverts. Maybe pinning our hopes on Christmas presents and family feasts is a safer option than admitting our longing for something greater.

In church, though, we’re accompanied through Advent by readings from the prophet Isaiah – a prophet called to speak to God’s people in equally difficult times. His words include warnings about God’s judgement, about what happens when people forget God – but between these, he brings God’s promises.

And on the Sundays in Advent what we hear are the promises, Isaiah describing in various ways what the future with God might look like. Today, from a time when God’s Temple in Jerusalem had been overrun by foreign powers, Isaiah offers a vision of God reigning over all, visible to everyone. He talks of a time when everyone will go to God’s house to learn God’s ways and walk God’s paths.

The church gives us Advent not as another Lent – a time to repent – but as a time of promises, of longing – a time of opening ourselves up to the seemingly impossible.

So perhaps when we put aside a bit of time in the coming weeks – as we’re asked to do in Advent – we should spend it with our longings. In so many of his encounters with people, Jesus asked, “what is it that you want?” I don’t think he was just talking about the obvious – like the blind wanting to see. He wanted us to think about our deepest yearnings.

And he had to keep asking it – because it’s not an easy question to answer.

So Christmas adverts offer us…the Christmas truce in World War I, or a baby dragon changed from destructive outcast to friend by the care of a child… stories to chime with our yearnings. But then give us a shop full of stuff and tell us that’s the answer.

We know they’re wrong – but our bigger longings are hard to put into words, hard to pin down; they can seem like childish dreams.

What if this year we stick with the longings? Dare to spend some time with God trying to work out what we’re really hoping for this Christmas.

May be it’ll seem ridiculous – impossible. But naming dreams is important. No doubt education for all, the National Health Service, a black president in South Africa…all seemed impossible once – but when they were spoken they became concrete aspirations, rather than a general longing for healing or goodwill.

Our reading from Isaiah ended ‘Come – let us walk in the light of the Lord’…an invitation to live now as though that vision of the future is possible. He seems to be suggesting that even if God’s people can’t change their circumstances in the short term, they can change the way they look and think about them.

Let’s bring our longings to God this Advent – let’s try to answer Jesus’ question “What is it that you want?” And if we seem to be hoping for the impossible, let’s at least try to live as though it might happen one day.

Or maybe our longings are difficult to admit because they’re much more personal, and we’ve never tried to say anything personal to God. May be our deepest longings are about wanting God to be more closely involved in our lives…and we don’t know how to say that.

Well we can start by finding some time this Advent to come into God’s presence and admit the longings to ourselves. In my experience God’s pretty good at overhearing!

After all Christmas shows us God longs to communicate with us…enough to come into our human world as the child in the manger so we could learn to communicate with Him.

So let’s enjoy the Christmas adverts, let’s get drawn into the longing for something big, something life-changing, something beyond the everyday. And in the quiet time we put aside this Advent let’s try to name those longings. Let’s bring those longings to God who is always ready to listen – who is always asking “What is it that you want?”