Delayed Consumption

Sunday 10th December 2006
Year C, The Second Sunday of Advent
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 3:1-6

One of the definitions of civilisation that I really like is that it is a social structure built on delayed consumption. Some of that delay is purely technological; think what it was like when the only form of food storage was domesticated animals and, therefore, think of the delayed consumption enabled by the development of food storage facilities such as barns. But much of what we call civilisation is based on individual and social consumption delays. In economic terms this is the accumulation of capital and the payment of taxes for roads and drains. Instead of simply consuming everything we have, we save to invest. We also do this at an individual level; our form of the barn is the pension.

We ought, then, to be comfortable at Advent and, indeed, I am. It is my favourite season of the year. I like waiting; at one level I prefer waiting to having. I joke sometimes that I enjoy choosing food in a restaurant more than eating it; and while this is not literally true, you know what I mean. On the menu the food is perfect, on the plate that is not always so.

But at a wider level we have all suffered so many disappointments that we are more comfortable with the uncertainty of waiting, or even the excitement of waiting, than the disappointment of arrival. It first happened to me when my parents 'talked up' Stonehenge; and when I got there, bursting with excitement, it was just a few stones. I am not sure what I had imagined but it was infinitely grander than what I found. This has been the case, too, at the end of long separations. When I was first in love my beloved was at a different university and I counted the days, sometimes the hours, to our next meeting; and almost from the moment we met, the experience was dulled by the prospect of separation.

Our proverb for this is that the grass is always greener: we are, at root, restless creatures. We have accumulated to invest at a prudential level but we are always in a state of leaning forward.

And that is where I think we need to be in Advent, waiting yes, but also leaning forward. This is not a time to be waiting by sitting back.

The way I put it is this. It is unrealistic to ask people to live in Advent as if they could leave all the preparations for Christmas until Christmas Eve or even until the last week. There might be people who only care what presents they will receive, there might be gluttons and drunkards but I think if we could find a way of measuring we would find that Generosity at Christmas far outweighs selfishness. We would not want, therefore, to arrest the generous gesture. Besides, part of the pleasure of giving is also in waiting to give, anticipating the pleasure, and that is how it should be. So there will be some restlessness, anticipation, generosity; but we need to balance this with constructive contemplation, a lively looking forward to the birth of our Saviour.

In the reading from Baruch, a mirror image of the more famous Isaiah passage, the anticipated preparation is radical. We so often hear Handel's setting: "Every valley shall be exalted" that it takes on a rather surreal air; it certainly does not involve large mechanical diggers and shanty towns of unruly, migrant labour. Less radical but still difficult, is the making of crooked paths straight. So let me encourage us, or most of us, to forget about the major geological challenge and limit ourselves to the paths.

It is interesting that the word crooked, once applied to paths, has been translated across to apply to human behaviour. Straight is good and crooked is bad. Straight may be boring and crooked may be picturesque but there are no nasty surprises in straight whereas people can hide in the bends of the crooked. You can understand why, on this basis, people in the ancient world liked straight paths which cut down the effectiveness of bandits.

But the bandits we need to worry about in the crooked are not outsiders, they are bits of ourself that play tricks with the rest of us so that suddenly we find that although we think we are thoroughly honest, we find that one part of us has deceived the rest of us; we have deceived ourselves. That tendency, which we all recognise, explains why we find the Prophets in general and John Baptist in particular, so uncomfortable. John, speaking in the context of Luke rather than the Old Testament, sounds peculiarly fierce. He has taken up the words of Isaiah and Baruch and he tells his people to repent; and this is not a quiet piece of collective repentance like that which we undertook near the beginning of our service; this is public, like a Billy Graham meeting but with total immersion thrown in!

There is much in the modern temperament that doesn't like prophets: extreme language, extreme opinions, breaking the consensus, challenging gradualism, simplifying what we have learned to think of as complex. But what Baruch and John are saying is simple enough; and never mind the language. Turn again to God, straighten yourself out, smooth yourselves out of your rough ways and remember everything you have ever learned about love. Some people think that sinning is our natural state but in spite of all the dire warnings, Isaiah and baruch, John and, above all, Jesus, are saying, remember God, remember yourselves before you made your straight ways crooked, remember love.

If we can do this in a regular, self conscious way, taking longer over preparation, stopping when we hear a particularly lovely carol, looking at a face in a picture instead of going past, looking at the faces of friends and neighbours instead of assuming we know what the look like, listening to what they say instead of simply waiting to put our own oar in, if we undertake some self-conscious internal restraint, we will enjoy the activity of preparations even more. Instead of being fraught we will be calm, instead of Advent becoming a string of worries, of jobs unfinished, of lists that never seem to get shorter, we will find ourselves much more in possession of ourselves.

It is easy for us all to look askance at the pagans in the supermarkets where Father Christmas rules supreme and where there is precious little room for thoughts of the infant Jesus; but the way to combat this is not to condemn and then plunge in ourselves; the way to combat the early arrival of Christmas and the excesses that often come with it is to remember the prophets; remember what they promised; and, for the next two weeks, live Advent.