Saturday, 8 November 2014

Shop Early for Christmas

 ‘The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the
bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ (Matthew 25)

So a Gospel Reading about preparation. Strange thing. We live in a world where what's often applauded is spontaneity; the original, the quick-fire, the witty. "What do you want for Christmas?" we ask, and people say "surprise me". I surprised Young Keith last year. I bought him Bucks Fizz's greatest hits. It surprised him. Won't say it delighted him, though.

And yet it's a world where things only actually work if people are very prepared. Let's take the world of retail. The Christmas ads spring into life as soon as Guy Fawkes is over - we swoon or vomit over the penguin in the John Lewis ads, wonder which Z-lister is going to Iceland. And yet the ad campaigns are already ancient history to those that planned them. They were worked out months ago - alongside the merchandising plans, which were put in place after the orders were placed - way back in the spring - for the Christmas merchandising which has spent the last six  or so months being hauled across the oceans, piled up in the nation's warehouses, all waiting for the vital day - the day the Hallowe'en merchandise sold through, in some cases, or the day - prepared a way off - when, the summer fashions sold off at 70% off, the winter collection could take its place on hangers and shelves all over the country.

In the world of retail, Christmas doesn't just happen. In three months' time, the first Christmas cracker samples will be arriving in the nation's retail head offices, ready for consideration for Christmas 2015. They'll be playing back the post-mortem of the Christmas which, for the rest of us, hasn't happened yet - learning lessons - did they buy too much or too little? Could they have planned for whatever freakish Christmas weather - floods, or sunshine, or even snow - they're gonna blame their poor results on this time? When people complain that Christmas starts earlier every year - it doesn't, generally speaking - they live in some mythical world where retail warehouses of infinite size are stuffed, like Fairyland, with Christmas goodies, just waiting for the one day when the whole lot can be teleported magically into the shops at an appropriate time - say the 3rd of December - when people claim they really want Christmas shopping to start. And it can't be done, can it? Because firstly people actually want to do their Christmas shopping in November. And secondly because they couldn't do it without Father Christnas's help. And he can't can he? And you know why?

Because he's too busy helping The Doctor this year, that's why. And wondering how to deal with the loose end from this latest series finale of Doctor Who - which is where the Cyber-Brigadier is heading off to, on his mission to spread 1960s moustaches and received pronunciation to an unsuspecting universe.

So the arrival of the Christmas everybody expects in the Western world - or, at least, all the ones with money - is the result of an immense amount of planning and preparation, by an immense number of people from all over the world - from the factories of China and the Philippines, to the sailors of container ships, to truckers and merchandise planners and smart kids who work out demand elasticity and wastage projections.

The grocery company who phoned up the turkey farm on Christmas Eve, to find out if there were any going because they were expecting a bit of a rush, would be out of business in the New Year. The fashion retailer whose shelves were still full of summer frocks because they were hoping for a bit of an Indian Summer, and then realised they really needed to get some jumpers in sometime in early December, likewise.

And Jesus tells us that, when he comes back, he's expecting preparation himself. Not logistics or marketing campaigns or price negotiations or Point-of-Sale material or all the things retailers do. No. But maybe something requiring as much effort.

He doesn't go into the details in this parable himself, except to say "keep awake". But I reckon we get enough clues elsewhere as to the preparation required. If retailers plan for when Christmas arrives, how do we plan for when Jesus arrives? For when Heaven arrives on earth?

In Heaven, we're told, there's praise that goes on day and night. So to praise and worship God on this earth - that's not an affectation, it's not a waste of time, it's not about our own nice feelings. It's practising the thing we'll be doing forever. And if I'm sounding a bit flippant, then it's more than that. It's doing the thing we were designed to do. We were created to love God and each other. In worship we do the former. And when our praise and thanksgiving to God spill over into telling the good things he's done for us - not just to him, not to each other, but naturally and not in some programme of evanglism to others - just the love of God spilling out into our natural lives - then we're doing both at the same time.

That God we love, is love, we're told. And we'll be recognised in Heaven for the love we showed others. When everything we've done - everybody we've helped, everyone we've crossed, everyone who needed us and we either responded or let them down - turns out, all along, to have been standing-in for Jesus. If God is love, then Heaven is a place of love. And if love is the currency then it's our active deeds of love - not the personal gushy feelings of loves - that we'll be recognised for. The poor fed, those in prison visited, the sick seen, the aid given. The people we don't even like made time for. Heaven's a place where there there is no darkness, no evil. And our call is to let the loving and kindness we show to others drive out the darkness. That worship for God flows over into calling on the Spirit to fill our hearts, minds and spirits - to give us new gifts, new callings, new vision, new priorities. And where we harbour grudges, the Spirit wants to convert those to consideration for others. Where we claim parts of our life for ourselves - put our own selves on the throne - the Spirit wants to knock us off the throne we are trying to claim for ourselves - to put us in the place we're called to be. A more natural place. A place that's like home.

And in heaven, for now, we're told by John in Revelation, the cry goes up - as it does all over the earth - "How Long? How long till the hungry are fed, till humans are at peace, until the martyrs who gave - and still give - their lives - for the Prince of Peace receive their rewards? It's the cry of God's people down through the ages. "How Long?" It's not a cry of despair, although it comes from the point of despair. It's the cry of faith, the cry of hope, the cry of defiance. The Ruler of this World shall not win. The evil in this world will not prevail. The proud will be thrown down, the dictators shall fail, the mighty shall see their might crumble and the humble shall be lifted up. 

And we work for that - as we prepare for the coming of our Lord. We must never give up on this world - we must keep fighting, longing, struggling, giving, so that the Kingdom may find its footholds in the nooks and crannies of this world of pain. Every kindness we do, every time we love another as ourselves, every time we try to understand God's will in our lives, every word we breathe in prayer or praise - is a tiny pocket of the Kingdom, shining in the darkness.

But the source of those tiny chinks of light is the glorious light of our Lord and our God. The light of heaven shines in just through cracks for now - but we look forward to the day that all darkness is driven away, the day that the victory which was won on a hill in Jerusalem, is made clear in the making of a new Heaven and Earth, in a new Jerusalem - in the Devil admitting he's beaten once and for all Then, the little lamps we've kept burning will become part of the whole Universe shining with the glorious brightness of our Lord. And we will enter in and be with the bridegroom, and join in the party that lasts forever. And every tear we've shed for this troubled place will be wiped from our eyes.

So stay awake. Be prepared. Watch, and pray, and work.We may not know the day or the hour, but we know it's always Soon.

Come, Lord Jesus.

And now we sing the closing hymn, "The Carpet Crawl".

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