Advent 1 • 27 Nov 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Rev. Chris Udy

Today is the 1st week in Advent,
which means we’re also
4 weeks from Christmas –
and despite the interesting year we’ve had,
soon we’ll all be telling each other
to be happy:
happy Christmas, happy new year,
happy holiday …

Happiness has been getting a lot of attention
over the last few years.
It’s being suggested as a better way
to measure the health of a society
than some of the traditional indicators
like national productivity or personal wealth.
In Bhutan the king started measuring
‘Gross National Happiness’ 25 years ago,
and economists and politicians around the world
have said that increasing happiness
should be a key element of government policy.
In the US, one of the more helpful responses
to the recent Presidential elections
has seen a rash of people wearing red hats
that read ‘Make America Happy Again’ –
and that seems to be a very sensible idea.
Apparently we here in Australia
are already fairly happy;
we regularly score 75 out of 100
in the annual survey of happiness -
although, understandably, some places have problems.
We’re happy partly because, as a nation,
we’re fairly secure financially
and most of us report
that we live in satisfying relationships -
that the people we share our lives with
bring us joy.
But there are some very interesting findings
emerging from research around the world
about what makes us happy,
and about the sort of things
that happy people do.

Jessica Irvine wrote about the first one
for an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.
She said: “Drawing on the Gallup World Poll,
a survey of about a quarter of a million people
in 136 countries,
the researchers claim to have proved statistically
the first universal rule of human psychology
to exist regardless of culture or relative income:
give, and you shall receive happiness”.

In a program produced by the ABC a few years ago,
called ‘Making Australia Happy’
it was fascinating to see
that the both the hardest
and the most rewarding task
participants were asked to take on
was to do something generous -
to give something away, with no strings attached,
to a stranger - to someone they didn’t know.
It was an exercise backed up by serious research.
In the research - as in the TV program -
the participants were first given $100
to spend on themselves -
on anything they chose - a meal, clothing, anything -
and they were then asked to record
how happy that $100 made them feel.
The next week they were given $20 -
so one-fifth as much as they spent on themselves -
and told to use it for someone else’s benefit -
again, whatever they chose -
and asked to record their feelings.
Not only did doing something generous
make people feel more happy
than spending it on themselves,
but the feeling lasted much longer,
and had other positive effects.

And generosity isn’t only about money.
In the TV program the participants were asked
to repeat another study,
where the student subjects were directed
to commit five random acts of kindness
every week for six weeks.
The students had their happiness levels measured
at the beginning and at the end of the six weeks
and the researchers found
their happiness had increased
by more than 40%.
So give, and you’ll receive - happiness.

The second interesting finding
in studies on happiness
is that people who are religious -
people who worship,
people who spend time in prayer and meditation,
people who belong to a faith community -
have higher levels of happiness and ‘life satisfaction’
than those who don’t.
Religious people - according to these studies -
tend to live with a stronger sense
of identity and purpose;
they receive support
from other members of their faith communities,
and even when things do go wrong in their lives
they tend to be more resilient -
they “suffer less psychological harm”.

It’s striking how similar
the exercises in ‘Making Australia Happy’ are
to traditional spiritual disciplines and teachings.
The program started with an exercise
many people have tried:
writing their own obituary or eulogy,
and being aware of the difference
between what someone might say about them
at their funeral if it were to be held today,
and what they would
want someone to say
about their lives, and their relationships,
and the values that they lived by.
The presenters in the program
then taught the participants
the disciplines of mindfulness -
which is active meditation -
a kind of contemplative prayer.
It involves living in the present,
paying attention to what’s happening now,
seeing the beauty in the world -
and also its sadness.
Mindfulness is the discipline
of staying in the world as it is,
not running back
to stew over past hurts and resentments
nor jumping ahead
to whatever’s next to come,
but staying present, listening and seeing,
tasting and touching,
and being aware of our feelings,
but not being ruled by them,
as they come and go.

The presenters in that program
also placed a strong emphasis
on being thankful - being grateful -
through an exercise called ‘Three Good Things’.
The participants were asked
to keep a diary and record three good things
that had happened to them each day -
like a daily discipline of thanksgiving -
saying grace before a meal,
reviewing a day before falling asleep
highlighting moments of beauty,
or affirmations of friendship and love –
that sort of thing.
Generosity then comes naturally -
we become generous because we’re grateful.
We recognise how important
and how precious and how fragile,
our relationships are,
so we strengthen them -
we help them deepen and grow.

So what does all this happiness have to do
with Baptism and with Advent?

Miki has asked us
to celebrate her baptism,
and we have affirmed
God’s blessing and love for her.
Our conviction is that God’s hope for her
is happiness:
to live a life of purpose, peace and meaning.
So she needs a community –
family, friends and neighbours who care for her.
She needs people to share life with and to learn from;
people who can encourage her,
and challenge her;
people who’ll remind her
to be mindful, and thankful, and generous.
In this faith community we also affirm
that Miki is a child of God,
and all God’s daughters and God’s sons
are Miki’s brothers and sisters.

Last Friday Pope Francis
made some headlines around the world
by saying that in God’s heart
there are no enemies, no aliens;
“God has only sons and daughters,” he said.
“We are the ones who raise walls,
build barriers, and label people.
God has sons and daughters
precisely so that no one will be turned away.”

Celebrating Baptism with Monique
is also an excellent way
to celebrate Advent Sunday;
to begin a whole new year of worship and life
in this community of faith.
We remind ourselves
that we also have a place among God’s children -
we are also daughters and sons of God,
and we are also, along with all our neighbours,
God’s concern and God’s delight.

Advent can be a profoundly happy season.
Unfortunately sometimes we get pushed
to jump over it to Christmas;
we start singing Christmas carols much too soon,
we go to party after party after party,
we get anxious about planning and buying
for Christmas Day
and we easily forget to live each day,
mindfully, gratefully, and generously.

So Advent re-sets the calendar.
It’s is a wonderful season to be mindful.
We’re surrounded by beauty:
jacarandas filling the trees with Advent purple,
the agapanthus buds that survive the kids
all bursting into flower,
days that aren’t too hot and aren’t too cold -
even if they can be a little bit wet and windy.

In Advent our sources of fear and frustration
take a break.
Politicians and current affairs shows go on holiday
and we start focussing on the people
and parts of life that really are important.
We have chances to spend time
with people we love;
we’re invited to be thankful,
we’re encouraged to be generous -
we’re given permission
to do all the things that lead to happiness.

The essential spiritual discipline of Advent
is active waiting -
conscious, alert, hopeful, joyful waiting.
Advent waiting is similar to mindfulness -
but it has another dimension – a deeper story.
It’s being aware that the gift of life
always comes with history and with promise,
and that the promise of life is always
about to be fulfilled -
but Advent’s challenge to dwell in the now,
not in the past or the future.
Advent is Mary, although she’s too young
to be confronted with such responsibility,
saying ‘Yes’ to life and to God,
and Advent is also Elizabeth,
who thought she would never have children,
feeling her baby grow in her womb
wondering whether she could still take new life on.
Advent is getting ready, becoming prepared,
enjoying life’s potential -
but not being flustered or overwhelmed;
not getting anxious about the details
or letting family politics frustrate us.
It’s being awake, and alert,
thinking gratefully and hopefully
about the people we love
and thinking about a way to let them know
that they’re precious to us.
It’s about knowing
that we, and the world, and the world’s life
are so important to God
that God has come, and keeps on coming,
to share it with us, and to help it heal.

Advent waiting is about living
mindfully, gratefully, generously.
It’s the season when we can genuinely
wish for - and work for – happiness:
the happiness of those we love
and for the world.
So, as Jesus in our Gospel reading said –
be ready, stay alert and be awake,
for the night is gone,
and the day is near:
and Happy Advent.