It is a little daunting to commit to writing a reflection for each day in Advent. It needs more systematic planning than my normal writing routine, which has become increasingly to work right up to the deadline. Whereas my early sermons were drafted and re-drafted well before the Sunday on which they were preached, latterly, I have found myself typing the last words early on Sunday mornings.
When I was at theological college, two ministers taught the course on preaching. During the introductory session, the Methodist minister explained how he read the readings on a Monday, had a first draft ready by Thursday to be finalised on the Saturday. His Anglican colleague then explained how he on a Saturday evening, often with some beers and possibly a cigarette, would put his sermon together. I have certainly moved from one method to the other!
However, despite the obvious drawbacks of this last-minute working habit, it does mean that at the very moment it is finished, what I preach or write is current and pertinent to at least one person: myself. Often this means that is real for others too. No matter how tempting it can be, when time is running out, I cannot imagine preaching the same sermon I used three years ago or copy a sermon that someone else preached.
Following Augustine, I believe that the aim of preaching is to instruct, to delight, and to move. To do this, whoever preaches also needs to be instructed, delighted and moved. The only way to do this is to look at the text afresh. The message may very well be the same, but the messenger and recipient are different, so the narrative is different too.
This is true for every story, but maybe particularly for the Christmas story. Every year, we hear the same story, the same message; yet every year, we find ourselves in a different place. The key messages is still the same, but we have changed by another year of life; a year with lows and highs; a year with losses and blessings; a year with disappointments and celebrations.
During this season of Advent, one way of preparing ourselves for Christmas to receive the message anew, is to take stock and reflect on how we have changed since last year. What have we gained and what have we lost? Have we travelled a little closer to finding ourselves, or do we feel more at a loss than before? Just as in any other situation, not all change is good!
It can be hard to admit that we need change or indeed that we have changed. Because it means admitting that, when we look at ourselves as we were and as we are, we are not perfect. But of course the great message of Christmas, for which we are preparing, is that we don’t need to be perfect to be loved and to love. God wanted to be one of us, because he loves us as we are. And it is precisely that love that enables us to become more and more the people we are meant to be.
So let’s take some time to look at ourselves, the way God may look at us. I imagine and hope God’s look to be a little bit like Christ in Rembrandt’s portrait: eyes that love me, know me and accept me for who I am, yet aspire me to be better. That is the challenge of Advent, and indeed of the Christian life as a whole.