Sharing the experience of advent

In this extract from The Preacher’s Tale: Explorations in Narrative PreachingJon Russell shares an advent sermon and discusses how to preach in a way which invites a congregation to share common experience. 

Advent Stars: A Sermon

Does it feel strange, coming to church in the dark? It means that winter is definitely here. We moan about the cold and the dark nights, especially when it’s wet. But on the other hand, isn’t there something enormously comforting, as you pull your collar around you, and snuggle your hat down around your ears, to be making your way home, where there will be warmth and welcome, a hot drink, and the curtains drawn tight shut against the gloom?

And isn’t there something wonderful, on a clear, frosty night,about simply lifting our eyes and gazing up at the stars? You can see them much more clearly at this time of the year, and you don’t have to stay up so late.There can be nights in winter when you can almost read by them, the light of the stars is so bright.

We are very lucky, living here in the Allen Valleys. Photographs of the British Isles taken from satellites by NASA show the whole country-almost- brightly lit up by street lights and motorway lights, and the lights glaring out from millions of shops and houses. The North Pennines are among the very few dark areas on these photographs. What this means is that if you live in Newcastle, for instance, you come out of your house at night, and the streetlamps douse everything in a harsh, orange glow. It means that you can see where you are walking or driving, of course; but there is a price to be paid. It is as if a great plastic dome has been placed above the city. The sky is a thick, clogged, dulled orange-black, and only the few brightest, bravest stars twinkle weakly through.

Out here, we enjoy a night sky that’s worth going out to gaze at! Sometimes you can see Mars glowing red for months at a  time. Jupiter and Saturn are clearly discs,not mere points of light. On some nights you can spot four different satellites whizzing overhead in the space of ten minutes. But even in Allendale earth-light obscures much of what we might otherwise see above us. You can’t make out the dimmest stars because of house lights and Christmas decorations and the orange glow from street lamps.

But travel west with me for a moment, and spend a night camped out by Small Water, a little tarn high up in the Lakeland fells. We’ve climbed a couple of miles from the last road, up into the very heart of the hills. If you are very lucky, you will be shaken awake at midnight, and as you are pulled from your sleeping bag, a small voice will say to you something like, ‘Daddy, you must come and look! Look at the stars!’

Up here, when the air is clear, no man-made light from anywhere pollutes the night sky. It takes a while, but your eyes adjust to the velvet darkness. Now you can make out the outline of the hills all around: black,cardboard shapes bathed only by starlight. And for the first time you can seethe Milky Way blazing down in allits glory. Multi-coloured diamonds spangle the sky: swirls and eddies of all the millions of stars. Some of this starlight began its journey 12 billion years ago. It is as though you can see into eternity.

The story of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany is shot through with starlight. If the magi, astronomers from the east, are to arrive in time to bring their gifts to the baby Jesus, they will have set off weeks ago. In terms of the age of the universe, of course, a couple of thousand years is but the blink of an eye: so as they journey they gaze up at essentially the same star-thronged sky that we behold. But they see it more clearly than we can, because as the magi make their journey the night sky is dimmed only by the flicker of the occasional camp fire. How will they know which way to go? According to the story Matthew tells us, they are guided by a star.

Does anyone remember the comet Hale-Bopp that blazed so brightly for us a few years ago? In England the weather is so often poor when you try to observe an astronomical event. Clouds regularly obscure the showers of meteors that pass, so that  we see nothing. But Hale-Bopp blazed for weeks: an awesome, beautiful arrow of light, pointing unwaveringly over the northern horizon. It was a rare privilege to live to see it. Perhaps that star of Bethlehem that led the magi to the infant Jesus was a comet like our own Hale-Bopp 2,000 years later.

Interestingly, St John in his Gospel doesn’t mention the star of Bethlehem. John speaks of Jesus himself as the light who has come into the world, a light that darkness can never overcome.

But we are impatient of heavenly light! To see stars properly, you have to move far away from all artificial illumination, and wait while your eyes adjust. We haven’t the time to hang around like this! So we make our own light. And just as the sodium glow from street lamps obscures the light of stars, so the light we produce by which to see our lives obscures the light of Christ.

We know what we want to see at Christmas: good food, lots of presents, time with the family, something entertaining on television! But in trying to illuminate all this, Christmas can easily become a morass of worry and debt and excess and rancour; so that the last thing we feel like doing is waiting for our eyes to adjust to the birth of a baby! Instead of watching the skies, we watch the television; and the glory of the Christmas story is outshone by the EastEnders omnibus. Why do we do this? So that the flickering screen in the corner of our living rooms might shield us from looking at our Christmas, and at our lives, and at who we are, and at what we have become? But, like street lights, it will cheat us out of seeing ourselves in the light of Christ.

The thing is, this light of Christ is not harsh and judgemental, like the orange glare of our towns and cities, and the car headlights that blind and dazzle. The light of Christ is as gentle as starlight, inviting us to glimpse eternity. God, who creates the heavens and flings galaxies into space, comes among us in Jesus. He risks everything as a helpless, vulnerable baby, whose gaze simply invites us to love him.

It seems almost that we can’t believe our eyes. Is that because we never give them time to adjust to his light?

A number of homileticians lament the fact that present-day congregations are much less familiar with the Bible than were earlier generations. How much less those who come only irregularly to church? This sermon was written for a carol service, which would attract many occasional visitors: parishioners who perhaps come to church only two or three times a year. They have not read the Bible, nor become knowledgeable about its interpretation. But they come, knowing that the familiar elements of the Christmas story will be rehearsed once again: the wise men, the star, the birth of the baby Jesus at Bethlehem.

The sermon starts, therefore, from an experience that everyone has just shared: that of coming to church on a winter’s evening. The sermon is essentially an argument, but one that develops around the multi-faceted image of starlight. Though alluding both to Matthew’s version of the nativity and to the prologue of John’s Gospel, both of which have been read during the service, there is no detailed exegesis or exposition.These would, I judged, have fallen very flat at the point where the Christmas gospel ought to soar. Instead, after exploring a number of differing experiences of starlight, we conclude that most people miss out on something wonderful. By analogy, the congregation is invited to reflect now on common experiences of Christmas, and led to ask whether here, too, we might be missing out on something wonderful.

The stories are all either commonplace or personal experience: they are not‘merely’ imaginary (although the phrase ‘outshone by the EastEnders omnibus’is unashamed alliteration!). The star of Bethlehem is an historical and scientific mystery. That does not make it complete fiction, but a carol service sermon was not the place to argue for its historicity or otherwise. The reference to the Hale-Bopp comet suggests that we have experienced something almost as extraordinary in our own lifetimes. As a boy, growing up in a sodium-lit town, I could never understand when astronomers on television spoke of the colours of different stars: to me there weren’t very many stars anyway, and all of them were orange. But living and working on the Isle of Wight, and  later in the North Pennines, has allowed me to see the sky much more clearly. I have indeed camped at Small Water in the Lake District, and awoken to be overawed by the night sky; but it was my sister who was awoken by my nephew, desperate to share his wonder at seeing the Milky Way properly for the first time.

I had a curate in training once who wrote two versions of the sermon she was proposing to preach. The text was the baptism of Jesus by John. In the first version, she told us about her recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in particular her visit to the River Jordan. How hot it was, how amazing to standby the very river in which Jesus received his baptism, and so on. In the second version, she instructed us to ‘step down from the cool of the air-conditioned coach into heat that hits you like a bus. Feel the glare of the sun as it narrows your eyes, while the soles of your feet heat up through your sandals.’ Come Sunday, she preached the second version. Instead of telling us what the experience had been like for her, she used her experience to help the congregation to have an experience: to feel for themselves something of what it is like to arrive at the River Jordan. Her sermon was so very much better for recreating experience, rather than leaving the congregation envious, or bored by someone else’s holiday snaps.

Such stories as that in ‘Advent Stars’ would be dull if delivered as reports. Rather, the task in writing the sermon was to enable the congregation to share the experience, and perhaps catch the excitement, and open themselves anew to the wonder of the Christmas story. David Schlafer puts it succinctly: “Don’t hand out scripts with stage directions. Produce scenes.” (David J. Schlafer, 2004, Playing with Fire: Preaching Work as Kindling Art)

Jon Russell is a parish priest in Northumberland. For the past ten years he has taught narrative preaching, firstly as part of Reader Training in the Diocese of Newcastle; then, since its inception, as part of the Lindisfarne Regional Training Partnership, training readers and ordinands in the dioceses of Newcastle and Durham. He is the author of The Preacher’s Tale


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