First Sunday in Advent. 1 December 2019. Hope.
I know a few people who have set out on holidays, driving or even flying overseas, not knowing where they are going. It is not that they are lost. It is just that they have decided to make their plans COMPLETELY open ended, not even knowing when OR IF they would return to their starting place. It takes some very specific life circumstances to create that kind of opportunity and decision. Has anyone here ever done that? I doubt you have (though I am always ready to be surprised!).
Most of us set out on any journey with at least some planning. At times I have tended to over-plan, but I am getting therapy for that 😊. We set out on holidays or other physical journeys with some sense of where we are going, what we might encounter along the way, when the journey will come to a conclusion and some idea of what the purpose is of the journey itself. That purpose might be purely enjoyment or it could be work related or some other life focus. One of my favourite Tom Hanks movies is ‘Terminal’ in which he plays a man who sets out on a journey to complete a task begun by his father.
Planning doesn’t just happen when we are making physical journeys. It is also what happens, usually, when we engage in other aspects of life. This includes such wide-ranging areas as work practices, relationships, child-rearing, dinner-party planning, Christmas shopping … the list could go on! We plan and think and we are deliberate in so many aspects of our lives and we consider what we are doing, where we are going and why. At least, that is an effective way of undertaking life. It is also possible that we might drift, or simply carry things which affect our journeys without conscious deliberate thought and recognition of how those things we carry are affecting where we go, what happens to us along the way and how life unfolds for us.
30 years ago this year Stephen Covey released his influential book ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’. Intriguingly it is listed as BOTH a self-help book and as a business strategy book. It crosses over well into various ways of reflecting on how and why we do what we do and how that can be improved. I expect that many of us will have dipped into it, explored it diligently or at least heard of the title! In that book Covey suggests that the second habit of highly effective people is “Begin with the end in mind.”
Having an ‘end’ in mind operates in many ways. On one level that means that we have some idea of where we are going. We will be more effective if the destination, the goal, the aim is relatively clear in our minds. I am always amused when I drive out here on the Warrego Highway from Brisbane and there is a sign which declares that this road leads to Darwin, in only 3434kms! That is rarely the end I have in mind when I am on that road. It may never be. Where are we heading? It is important to know.
There is another way that an ‘end’ operates. It is about purpose. Why are we doing what we are doing? Why are we living as we do, behaving as we do, pursuing certain ends in life and work and relationships and even in the church community? We will be more effective if our purpose, the ‘end’ which we are seeking, is relatively clear in our minds.
Today we set out on a new journey, which is part of a continuing journey. This is the first day of the new church year, the first Sunday in Advent. It is a time to look forward and to prepare, and so the readings are all about a future still unfolding and a journey to reach that future.
For Isaiah (2:1-5) that was a future hoped for beyond the exile which was still coming, a future of justice and when peace would be valued more highly than warfare. For the psalmist (122) it was a future which would be a time of peace, despite peace being elusive and so rarely present in Jerusalem. For Paul, writing to the Romans (13:9-14) it was the realisation that love is what actually makes us whole. Discovering that IS the journey. For Matthew there is that strange image which is referred to as both the Second Coming and the ‘end of time’. That is a different kind of journey. Some people in the Christian community around the world and across the ages speak and act as if the end point of the Christian journey is that Second Coming. But that is not what this story is about. Some also speak and act as if getting to heaven, as a place after physical death, is the point and purpose and end of the Christian journey. But that is not what this story is about at all.
The point of the Christian journey is to discover and enter into relationship. And in that relationship to live into those things that were in the first three readings. Peace, which touches our hearts so deeply that we work for an end to violence and we strive to be and to create places where peace is discovered. That is, peace as it is in God’s vision, which is not just the absence of conflict but the presence of justice and mercy and striving for real community. Love, which is the desire for people to be treated as they are in the eyes of God, as valued and gifted and welcome, and that living as expressions of love not only completes our humanity but it ripples out as invitation to a world where selfishness and prejudice and separation so easily still take hold.
As we enter into a new Church year I look forward and I wonder where we will be, who we will be, what we will have discovered, learned and explored over the next twelve months. I want us to be effective and to begin a new year with the end in mind. That will take planning from all of us and being deliberate. Begin with the end in mind.
The end is about what we will have completed and realised after that twelve months. The end is also the purpose, and I see that purpose expressed in those readings on this first Sunday of the new year. Our purpose is found in renewed relationship, with God in Jesus. Our purpose is found in seeking peace, to be people of peace where we will embody justice and mercy and striving for real community. Our purpose is found in expressing love which will be see when we do welcome and embrace and treat all those around us as valued children of God.
That may sound just smilingly aspirational, but there are real issues to engage with to explore that purpose, that end, that completeness of the journey of this coming year.
Two years ago we set out on a vision in which we described what we sought to do and to be as the Church here up to the end of 2020. During this next 12 months we will keep striving for those things. We will also be reviewing them and looking forward another three years.
We have begun that already, actually. Both the review and the next steps. As you work your way through the booklet ‘Sharing Good News’ each of you, and we together, are starting to explore who we will be in the three years to come. Engage with that invitation to be part of moving forward together. That is an essential part of our planning.
When we ask that question about love and welcome it is important to ask who, in our hearts and in our community, might NOT be finding a place of welcome, and if there is anyone … to ask ourselves ‘why?’. I know some have asked why I keep referring to questions of sexuality. It is because there remains in Christian communities such hardness of heart in many places which has come from poor and inaccurate teaching. Will our journey of the next year lead us to be more welcoming, to have hearts more open?
When we ask the question of peace and what promotes peace it raises real questions of how we promote justice, for the land (which is one of the reasons why climate action matters), for vulnerable and dispossessed people (which is why changes of heart and action towards both refugees and indigenous people matter) and in our community, responding to need (which touches on our generosity to those who are homeless and at risk and on the edge around us).
My hope is that we will set out with the end in mind, the end of being recognised as a community which promotes relationship with God and living God’s love and God’s peace. My hope is that we will set out with the end, the purpose, clear and that by doing so we will be more effective, even ‘highly effective’.
May peace touch our hearts so deeply that we work for an end to violence and we strive to be and to create places where peace is discovered. May love touch our hearts so deeply that we will see and treat each person as they are in the eyes of God. On this first day of a new year my hope is that we will share this hope, this same hope, together.
In Jesus’ name.