The Christmas Advertisement

A sermon preached at St Saviour's St Albans by Imogen de la Bere for the fourth Sunday in Advent 2002.

You may have seen the latest Christmas advertisement from the Churches Advertising Network. It’s up on billboards round the stations and in the tube.

It features a beautiful Old Master painting of the Adoration of the Kings. A aged King kneels humbly in adoration at the feet of the Christ child. Above the picture in ancient type reads the logo:

At this point the first king discovered he’d left the price tag on.

You look again at the picture, and see indeed a little price tag dangling from the king’s gift.

Underneath the slogan reads: “Losing the plot? Give yourself a break at church this Christmas”

According to the designers, the theme of the ad is this:

“As the Christmas rush starts to take hold, CAN’s new campaign asks people whether they are losing the plot and missing the real meaning of Christmas. Whilst the world careers frantically towards a 24 hour a day, 365 day a year shopping opportunity, we point the need for rest, reflection, wonder and worship. “Give yourself a break at church this Christmas” We would like to restore to this holiday the age old meaning of a holy day”

Perhaps not the most profound message but I like the joke.  Some of CAN’s other campaigns  are rather good. I warm to the “Christians make better lovers”  campaign, though there might be two opinions on the message.

Another Christmas campaign featured  a classified  advertisement:

One star accommodation. Self catering only. Animals welcome. Cot provided.

For Christmas  94 they produced an  Up The Pub poster, which read

Up the pub.
Christmas 1992
Up the pub.
Christmas 1993,
Up the pub.
Christmas 1994
And underneath it reads: And you thought Christians were boring.

Another reads:

Give Jesus a birthday present.
Wrap up the kids and bring them to church.

Good fun stuff, whether it works or not, at least it portrays us as less stuffy than the dreary old wayside pulpit.  According to the world of CAN, we are stylish, witty, less boring than the average man in the pub, and good lovers.

I’m all in favour of humour in religion, and let’s face it, the church gives us plenty of scope.

There’s a slogan they haven’t used yet, to my knowledge, and probably isn’t clever enough, but makes a point worth reflecting on.

‘The baby is for life, not just for Christmas.’

I don’t know about you, but I often long for something as simple as the Annunciation.  There she is, lovely young Mary, and in pops the angel, clearly not the travelling knife-grinder. The wings are a dead giveaway. And the lighting effects.   After clearing up a little bit of initial confusion about his credentials, Gabriel gives Mary a simple choice –  do the most shameful and embarrassing thing a young girl can be asked to endure for God, or don’t.

You can safely assume that all the other girls had turned him down.  They said no, Mary said Yes, and from then on salvations was assured.

A stark moment of choice – do you remember that wonderfully terrible old hymn – Once to every man and nation/ Comes the moment to decide/ In the strife of truth with falsehood/ for the good or evil side…..

I used to love that hymn when I was young, because I just knew I would choose good over evil, and moral life would be plain-sailing.

It’s same every time we sing ‘Hear I am Lord, is it I lord, I have heard you calling in the night.’

Every time, inside I am saying, Yes lord! Yes! Like a revivalist preacher. Yea Lord, alleluia! Amen!

But sadly it has never been like that for me, and I suspect it has not been like that for many of you. I have not met an angel, wings or lighting effects notwithstanding. I have never heard God calling me so clearly that I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t my overactive imagination. I have never faced a clear moment of deciding between good and evil.

How much easier our spiritual journey would be if it were a Lord or the Rings type quest with a clearly defined great  moral deed, and lots of extremely ugly baddies to defeat.

It’s not though, is it? The moments of moral choice often pass us by, and only afterwards do we realise we have made them, for good or ill. They are often the tiniest choices, and often negative ones. Not applying for a job that might have been good for the soul. Not going down to the hospital.  Letting ourself, tiny selfish deed by tiny selfish deed , calcify into a deeply selfish person, who cannot be turned to God except by a long, painful chipping away.  That other advertising campaign,  What Would Jesus Do? tacky though it is, highlights the truth that at every point Christians who are awake – have to ask themselves, what is the right thing to do, here, now, at this moment? What should I do, what would Jesus do, what does God want me to do?  Every moment of our life is our Annunciation.

The baby is for life, not just for Christmas.

There’s a spin-off campaign from the What Would Jesus Do? campaign called What would Jesus Drive? I know this might seem silly on the face of it, but it’s designed to make the American driving publish consider the moral implications of their gas-guzzling road monsters.  Every choice is a moral choice, even deciding on a car. Of course it is not of eternal significance if you choose a Skoda over a Vauxhall, but consider the global effect of all those big American cars, those Sports Utility Vehicles or SUVs that most middle-class American woman use to pick up the kids from school and go to the supermarket. The fashion for SUVs is catching on here, and it’s fairly appalling. But there’s no angel standing in the forecourt of the car dealer, pointing out what you’re doing to world by buying an SUV. Or at any rate, no visible angel.

Tiny choices, one after another for the whole of your conscious life.

The baby is for life, not just for Christmas.

But you know, it wasn’t that simple for Mary either. Sure, according to the story, she said ‘Yes’ and salvation was assured. But in fact, she had to bear that baby, bring him up according to God’s laws, nurture him and teach him and love him, and then let him go, she had to learn not to mother and over protect him, not to be selfish and demanding,  she had to see his divinity – learn not to say: “He’s not the Messiah he’s a very naughty boy.” She had to suffer with him and carry on his work after he’d died. And she did this, like every Christian, day by day, minute by minute.  The baby was for life, not just for Christmas.

And the baby is for life.  That is what we choose every time we make the right choice. Mary chose the life of the baby, and the baby was Life himself. Every tiny choice for right rather than wrong makes us more alive. Every choice for self, every choice for wrong  moves us infinitesimally nearer dying as a person, dying to God.   You can arrest this process at any moment, but the deader you are, the harder it is.  Choose life, and keep on choosing life, over and over and over again.