Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
I have a habit – a not entirely good habit – when people come round or come to stay, of tidying up in such a way that I give the impression that my house is always in a pristine state; that sheets are habitually ironed; that flowers bloom year round in the living room, rather than wilting sadly in situ for a couple of weeks before I remember to put then in the recycling. And I suspect I’m not alone in this habit, or in wanting to communicate the sense that my life, in this case mediated through the house, is tidy and well-presented. To look behind closed doors or in cupboards, of course, would be to give the game away: mess is shoved out of view; anything that doesn’t meet the surface presentation is kept hidden away.
If I’m not careful I can carry this habit over into my spiritual life, where it can be just as tempting to attend to presentation while keeping all the mess safely behind closed doors. This is one of the reasons why I find Advent such a helpful season. It won’t let me pretend. If Advent asks me to prepare a way for Jesus, the one who is coming to dwell with us, then it also reveals the shallowness of much of my surface presentation.
I very easily succumb to the temptation to think that I have to get everything sorted and ready for the coming of Christ. But too often that results in me carrying over my attitude to home presentation into my interior life. The things that have long been gathering dust because I don’t want to look at them get pushed safely out of view; the bits of me that are in need of healing or forgiveness stay hidden away. I’ve prepared a way, of sorts, but only to the parts of me that I think are acceptable to Christ’s gaze. He can come into the room I have prepared for him, as long as he doesn’t go poking around in all the chambers of my heart I’ve kept closed off; the places where fear and hurt and sin and vulnerability dwell.
God hasn’t let me do that this year. During my retreat last month, and following on from it, he has been too present, too insistent, for me to be able to ignore. ‘When the Lord comes he will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness, and will disclose the purposes of the heart’, declares Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians. And while some years I find that vaguely threatening, knowing that there is plenty enough in the secret storehouses of my heart that I don’t want God to reveal, this year it has been good news.
Long-held memories of hurt and failure that I had come to believe were simply an unchangeable part of my make up God has gently brought into his light. The tangled knot of fears that make me cautious and defended he is starting to unpick. He is preparing a way in my life where I saw only dead ends, and all he has asked for from me is my trust.
And this is why Advent has been such good news for me this year. When I am trying to keep all the mess out of view, and maintain the futile pretence that it’s not there, it’s much safer to hear the Advent proclamation addressed to others. This year I’ve heard it addressed to me.
In our Old Testament reading we heard those great words that Jesus takes up in St Luke’s Gospel as a kind of manifesto for his ministry: ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…’ And we rightly hear that as a call for Christians – corporately and individually – to share in this ministry that Jesus has entrusted now to his Church. We are to proclaim that same good news.
But here’s the thing. We can’t proclaim it until we’ve received it. What Isaiah prophesies and Jesus proclaims is addressed to us, too. We are also the ones who are broken and in need of binding up; we are captive and need to be set free.
It is so much easier if we think the gospel is addressed to someone else. But Advent gives us this good news: Christ is coming to bind up the broken-hearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. To prepare his way, to make his path straight, is to let him in to the places where we are broken; to the parts of our lives where we are not free.
I kept Christ at bay for a long time because I feared his judgement. As I’ve gradually let him in I have discovered not the judgement I feared but a healing I didn’t think was possible, and a mercy I know I don’t deserve.
Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. What might that mean for you? Who is Christ coming to this Advent and Christmas, behind the mask that puts a good face on things? Where in your life do you need his gifts of freedom, of healing, of good news? Maybe things are hard at home or work, or some bad news has knocked you sideways. Maybe you feel lonely and lost, or burdened by worry or debt. Maybe there are parts of your life that you keep well hidden out of shame or fear or guilt. Those are the places where Christ wants to enter to bring good news.
And the good news is that Christ is coming to bring healing and salvation and freedom. But he will not coerce. He asks from us an invitation, a way in. There’s a week of Advent left. And there is probably lots of getting ready for Christmas still to do. But amid it, try turning towards Christ’s light. Pause with one of the lectionary readings for the day. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the grace of trust, and tell God what’s really going on for you. I find it helpful to talk all this sort of thing through with someone: if I can help with that, I’ll be really glad to see you or to pray with you.
The winter sun streaming through the windows in the vicarage reminds me that I still haven’t cleaned the windows clear of builders’ dust since we moved in. Two rooms have permanently closed doors because the unpacking we never quite finished got shoved into them. It’ll all get sorted – the bishop is coming to dinner in the new year, and old habits die hard. But inside? The locked doors behind which I kept all my own mess are being broken open. Pain and hurt is being healed. It feels strange, this unfamiliar landscape of the kingdom Advent tells us is dawning in Christ, like emerging into light when you’ve got used to the shadows. But this is the life and the freedom Christ comes to share with us, if only we will prepare a way for him. He is coming. He is near. Let him in.