Grouches and Grumblers
Well, where did that year go?! You might have noticed that not many sermons have been put up on the website recently. That’s a combination of the unusual nature of advent (in which sermons are sometimes replaced with carols and reflections; Amnesty International work; nativities, gift sharing, singing Communions and even the odd bug-eating competition…it would have made sense if you were there…mostly!) and my inability to get far down the to do list at this time of year. So apologies for that. Below is a sermon that was offered on 11th December, after the church had danced along to the instructions of Black Lace’s Superman!
Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10
Advent is a time of contrasts and tensions. There’s the challenge of giving space for quiet reflection on the second coming of Christ when in the midst of commemorating the first; the focus on fun and celebration and joy at a time of year which can be most difficult for those who are ill, lonely or grieving; the emphasis on excess and spending money as a way of marking the birth of the one who spoke out against excesses of worldliness and instead called his followers to be excessive in their love of God and fellow human beings; and then there’s the timey-wimey, past and future nature of the advent lectionary readings…and the contrast between the two readings on this third Sunday of advent couldn’t be stronger.
In our first reading, Isaiah paints a picture of the parched land exulting, the desert blooming, the whole cosmos rejoicing. And just when it’s clear why this advent Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday – rejoicing Sunday – we come to James and his somewhat dreary reminder of the mundanity and daily grind of Christian living, telling us to be patient and stop grumbling. And part of me just loves that. Writing at a time when Christians were excited about Jesus’ return, fearful of persecution, divided over huge questions of doctrine and inspired by the fresh revelation of the holy spirit, James speaks to his fellow Christians with the words of a stressed parent on Christmas day who’s trying to persuade their child not to have a tantrum over the itchy Christmas jumper that grandma has knitted them or the extra spoonful of sprouts that’s been put on their plate by saying;
“Darling, don’t grumble.”
And with those words, my child like…or maybe childish…brain takes me to this guy…Mr Grumble. Perhaps not the best known of his clan, Mr Grumble nevertheless is another great creation of Roger Hargreaves. We are told that Mr Grumble hates singing and laughing and that he begins each day in the same old way;
“Bah!” he would grumble, every morning, when his alarm clock rang. “It’s the start of yet another horrible day.”
I did wonder about getting the book out and simply reading it through for the Mr Men and Little Miss books are perfect parables which wouldn’t be out of place in church but as I re-read those first few lines of Mr Grumpy, I was reminded about another cantankerous literary character who also cried out ‘Bah’, normally followed by a ‘humbug’ and who gets a lot of screen time at this time of year. I am, of course, thinking of Ebeneezer Scrooge, the prickly protagonist of the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol.
Ever since the story was published, in 1843, storytellers have interpreted and reinterpreted the tale through mice, musicals, melodrama and…my personal favourite…through muppets, so to tell the tale afresh to a new generation and we all know how it goes. Scrooge, the greatest grumbler of them all, gets a visit from his old partner, Jacob Marley, who warns Scrooge about his selfish ways before he gets taken to Christmases past, present and future by the appropriate ghosts.
Through the history and visions he witnesses, Scrooge’s whole outlook is thrown upside down leading him to turn his whole life around, share his wealth, see goodness in things previously ignored and, we are told, honouring Christmas in his heart all year round. It’s a conversion worthy of John the Baptist or Billy Graham and seeing as it’s nearly Christmas; seeing as James thought grumbling to be a matter of utmost seriousness for the Christian community, I hoped you would give me the good will this morning to take you on our own whistle-stop tour of Christmases past, present and future in the hope that it might remind us of another tale of the world being thrown upside down and lives being turned around that we’re to celebrate every day of the year. So let us fly off to Christmas past, present and future – and, being good non-conformists – let us begin with Christmas future.
“Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees,” Isaiah tells us. “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”
Once again Isaiah, he who throws around threats and promises in equal measure, tells us that the time is coming when justice and peace and goodness and love will be seen and enjoyed throughout the world. In this passage, he tells us that deserts will blossom and the lame will leap like deer; that Lebanon will sparkle and God’s glory will shine, that God’s people will dance along a holy highway and everlasting joy will be upon their heads. The world might seem a dark place, says Isaiah, but everything will be alright in the end for God will transform all grouching into glee; all sorrow into songs of joy that ever Mr Grumble could not resist! In our Christmas future, family divisions will be healed, gifts of joy and peace will be exchanged by all and God Godself will wipe away our tears; in our Christmas future, Lebanon will be known for its glory, not for its sea of refugee tents, creation will not suffer from overconsumption but will thrive in overabundance and the wall that even now casts a shadow over Bethlehem will be torn down; in our Christmas future, we shall all sit down at a banquet with rich and poor, old and young, with Tiny Tims, Giant Geoffs and Medium Marys…all praising God’s glory and enjoying God’s ludicrous love. This is what our Christmas future looks like and because of this, we can strive to not grumble but instead be gossipers of God’s good news.
And speaking of which, we must fly on to Christmas past and to a stable in Bethlehem. Here we peek in for a minute and listen. Here we gather with all our sisters and brothers and look on at a picture of wonder. And here, we think of our sister Enid and sing a song which she says brought her back to life.
‘Away in a manger’…
Well, we’ll skip over any hesitation about some of the lyrics and rest in an image of God incarnate as a baby in a manger. You see, one of the things that I like about James’ charge for us not to grumble is just how small it seems. Don’t grumble. And yet perhaps our striving not to grumble might hint at a bigger story. Don’t grumble because God created the world and there is so much goodness, beauty and wonder around us, if only we look out for it. Don’t grumble because we all fall short of what we might be and if we judge others for their shortcomings, how much more could we be judged for ours?! Don’t grumble, for we don’t know what’s going on in the lives of those who annoy us – what struggles, sufferings might be part of their story and is making them behave that way so instead of grumbling, let’s look out for the good, the God, in everyone.
This doesn’t mean that we have to be best friends with everyone – God forbid! – or that there won’t be tensions and challenges to face. Far from it! But, James says, we are to resolve differences of opinion and action with patience, grace and love. In such a way, that small command of ‘don’t grumble’ might reveal a grace-filled, God-infused worldview. And this is the season for the big to be revealed in the small. This is the season when we are reminded that God the Almighty became God the vulnerable. This is the season when we celebrate that love came down at Christmas, love incarnate, love divine, that God was born a baby to a teenage mum and a confused dad in a sleepy backwater town on the edge of the Roman Empire. This is the season when we are to marvel, not moan; worship, not whinge, glorify, not grumble.
But we cannot stand at the stable door all day, some of us have lunch to get to so let us fly on to Christmas present. In A Christmas Carol, we see the very wealthy Scrooge refuse to give money to a charity claiming that they are better off dead, thereby ‘decreasing the surplus population’. How prescient Dickens was!
In 2016 many of the wealthiest countries in the world have refused to offer help to those suffering the most appalling of conditions with some in the media referring to refugees as cockroaches, immigrants as vermin, those on benefits as scroungers, enabling us to look the other way as bombs hit Aleppo or boats sink in the ocean and the surplus population decreases.
This Christmas present, as we sing peace on Earth and good will to all, many in the world will go to bed hungry, many in this country will have Christmas without a home, many in this community will experience isolation or loneliness. When Scrooge was taken to see the true extent of the suffering of Tiny Tim and his family, his heart, and his life, was changed. May we open our eyes to the needs of others in our beautiful but broken world this Christmas. May we remember how the baby born in a stable became a refugee in Egypt, a criminal abandoned by his society, a preacher who told his friends to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned. May we remember the extravagant love that God has shown us that we too might love as we have been loved, serve as we have been served, bless as we have been blessed. May we be giving, not grumbling, this Christmas.
So there we have it – our voyage to Christmases past, present and future where we have glimpsed God’s goodness in the age to come, wondered at God’s humility as Christ is wrapped in swaddling clothes and been reminded of God’s call for us to live out the kingdom of justice and peace in the present.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year,” Scrooge declares after his time travels. “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.” Perhaps, then, we might take a leaf out of Scrooge’s book. Perhaps we might turn from any grumbling and instead be giving, good-newsing and glorifying God. Perhaps, on this Sunday of Rejoicing we might even follow in the footsteps of the man who embraced spiritual revelation about the fragility and sanctity of this life and who subsequently, Dickens tells us, “went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.”
Happy Gaudete Sunday. God bless Us, Every One.