Good morning and welcome to the Auld Kirk, we also welcome those watching online and those listening to the Dial a Sermon Service.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the season that leads us towards Christmas and reminds "that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not put it out".

We begin with the Advent hymn "Tell out my soul".

Let us pray.

Loving God,

we rejoice in this season of good news and good will, we celebrate once more the birth of your Son,

our Saviour Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace

the Lord of lords,

the Word made flesh,

and we praise you for the assurance of his final triumph.

As you came through him,

so you shall come again.

For coming among us through Jesus, for bearing our flesh and blood,

for living our life and sharing our humanity, for entering our world,

loving God, we praise you!

As you came through him,

so you shall come again.

For suffering and dying among us, for your victory over death, your triumph over evil,

and your promise that the kingdom will come, loving God, we praise you!

As you came through him,

so you shall come again.

For the wonder of this season,

for its message of love and forgiveness, its promise of peace and justice,

and the gift of life everlasting of which it speaks, loving God, we praise you!

As you came through him,

so you shall come again.

Loving God,

We rejoice again in this season of good news and good will,

And we look forward to that day,

When the Jesus of Bethlehem will be Lord of all.

As you came through him,

So you shall come again.

Here now as we pray together in the words that Jesus taught us:

Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy Name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

The power and the glory.

For ever and ever.

Amen.

Our reading this morning comes from the OT and the book of Isaiah.

The people walking in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace

there will be no end.

He will reign on David's throne

and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it

with justice and righteousness

from that time on and for ever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty

will accomplish this.

Reflection

Well, as I said earlier, today is the beginning of the season of Advent; a time when the Church starts preparing for Christmas. It is the time when we remember that the "light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not put it out".

In other words, Advent is a time of Hope and that is something that is in short supply at the moment.

This morning I want to look at some of the traditions that have grown up around Christmas and our preparations for the "big day".

But before I do that, I want to tell you a story.

A school-teacher was supervising the construction of a manger scene in a corner of her classroom. The barn had been set up- the floor covered with real straw-then the clay figures of Mary & Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men, and all the animals.

All were placed to face the small crib in which lay a tiny doll representing the baby Jesus.

One little boy couldn't tear himself away from the scene and kept returning, totally engrossed with a puzzled look on his face.

Eventually the teacher went up to him and asked what was bothering him. With his eyes glued to the manger scene, the boy said, "What I'd like to know is, where does God fit in?"

"Out of the mouths of babes!!!"

Advent ought to be the time when we work out where God will fit in to our festivities. Is he the guest of honour or just the awkward uncle who is only invited out of politeness?

You have four weeks to make up your minds, but let me help you by looking at some of the traditions that have come to be associated with Christmas.

Two weeks ago, Alan Templeton our organist, asked me a question about the shortening of the word Christmas to Xmas.

I have to confess that that used to annoy me intensely; that is until I read a book written by James Simpson, a former Moderator of the General Assembly.

In his book he tells his readers that the letter X was an ancient sign for Jesus. The early Christians, who were often persecuted for their faith, were fond of rubrics such as X, IHS, which is the first three letters of the Greek word for Jesus and ICTHUS the Greek word for fish, another early symbol for Christ.

So, writing Xmas is not being disrespectful or lazy, it actually puts you in the company of the Early Church martyrs.

Remembering that Jesus and the Cross are at the very centre of our Christmas celebrations, will go a long way towards getting us ready to celebrate his birth in the way we should.

The tradition of celebrating Jesus' birth on the 25th of December also needs some explanation.

We do not know the month, let alone the exact date of the birth of Jesus. In fact, the more literally you take the biblical records, the less likely a mid- winter nativity becomes.

Shepherds spending the night in the fields suggest spring rather than winter. The first historical record of Jesus' birthday being celebrated in December, comes from the early 4th century. It was then that Julius I, the Bishop of Rome, officially established this festival for the church.

One possible choice of December 25th, has been that some early church thinkers felt that Jesus' life must have exhibited perfect chronology, i.e. that he must have lived an exact number of years. Now the preferred date for his crucifixion was March 25th. This they believed must also have been the date of his conception. Add nine months and you get December 25th.

But far more likely was the fact that in the year 274 A.D. the Roman Emperor Aurelian gave official recognition to the festival of the Persian god Mithra, the Invincible Sun-God.

This festival took place on December 25th. For some time previously Roman soldiers and others had on that date also celebrated the sun recovering its vigour and had for centuries taken part in a festival honouring Saturn, the god of agriculture.

This festival which was called the Saturnalia was a time for giving presents. It was also a time of peace and goodwill and a time when people forgave their enemies.

Christmas is the classic example of the Christian church coming to terms with pagan customs and rites. As Christianity gained the ascendancy over its rivals, they superimposed a Christian festival upon a pagan mid-winter holiday. Christians chose the December date to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness.

Christmas is a reminder that God's love and forgiveness is for everyone, not just the Church goers.

Another tradition worth mentioning is the Advent Wreath.

The traditional Advent wreath is made of evergreen foliage-a reminder that in the darkness of winter there is still the promise of life. The wreath has four candles placed round a circular arrangement of evergreens or holly.

On each of the four Sundays of Advent one of the candles is lit. The fifth and larger candle (usually white) is lit on Christmas Eve, to signify the birth of Christ, the 'Light of the world'. It also serves as a reminder that ' it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.'

Purple and red are the most common colours for the four candles, purple symbolising royalty, humility and penitence, red symbolising the blood of Christ shed on the cross.

The circular wreath represents the never-ending divine love, and the infinity of God's creation which God so loves.

Many Christmas Eve services are held in the glow of candlelight. The soft soothing light of candles fits in well with the mystic appeal of Advent and Christmas .

And remember, many candles can be lit from one candle, without diminishing it.

Advent wreaths help put the emotion back into Christmas.

The final tradition I want to mention is Christmas Carols; something I will miss terribly during this lockdown period.

The tradition of carol singing round the streets is much older than Christmas itself. In the ancient pagan winter solstice festivals, 'carols' were sung to accompany the frenzied dancing in rings. The word carol means 'ring dance'.

The Christian church, having decided to hold the festival of the nativity at the same time as these pagan Roman festivals, not surprisingly hi-jacked the carol as well!!!

Poets and composers were encouraged to write Christmas music, but their efforts were for the most part formal and lacking in real joy. This concerned St Francis. He encouraged his fellow monks to write Christmas words to popular songs and to sing them in the village streets. The mediaeval carol was an attempt to introduce a more joyful note into worship.

But the strong reaction of Cromwell' s Long Parliament in the 17th century to the gaiety of Christmas and carols, resulted in a steady decline of interest in carol singing.

The singing of carols in church was not revived until the 19th century, when Dickens' novels made Christmas much more popular.

Then in 1918 a festival of nine lessons and carols was started in Kings College Cambridge, beginning with the processional hymn, 'Once in Royal David's City'. It has continued ever since, being seen regularly by millions of television viewers at Christmas.

More people can sing "Silent Night" than can recite Psalm 23, and more folk learn the nature of the gifts which were brought to the baby Jesus from the carol "We three kings", than from reading the Bible.

Carols remind us not only of the Bethlehem story, but of many of the traditions and beliefs that grew up around the story.

We remember the importance of Christmas, because we can sing the songs that teach us about it!!!!

There are certain carols that I find it hard to sing the correct words to e.g. "Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little lord Jesus lay down his wee Ted", or what about "shepherds washing their socks by night".

Advent is the time when the Church and individuals prepare for the birth of Jesus. It is a time for reflection. A time for anticipation. A time for worship. It is a time for reading again familiar words and hearing again familiar stories.

But we do all those things so that we can answer that school boy's question, "Where does God fit in to all this?"

Make sure you can answer that question honestly and sincerely this Christmas!!!!

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ,

we remember today

how so many looked forward to your coming,

but we remember also how it became harder

to go on believing as the years went by;

how hope started to splutter

and dreams began to die until,

finally, you came -

the fulfilment of prophecy,

the culmination of God's purpose,

the definitive expression of his love.

Lord of all,

the Word made flesh,

bring hope to your world today.

We remember with gladness

how you brought hope throughout your ministry,

a sense of purpose to those

for whom life seemed pointless

- the poor, sick, outcasts and broken-hearted -

light shining in their darkness,

joy breaking into their sorrow,

new beginnings in what had seemed like the end.

Lord of all,

the Word made flesh,

bring hope to your world today.

Hear now our prayer

for those caught today in the grip of despair

- those for whom the future seems bleak,

optimism seems foolish, and trust seems futile.

Reach out in love,

and may light shine into their darkness.

Lord of all,

the Word made flesh,

bring hope to your world today.

Hear our prayer for those whose goals in life have been thwarted,

whose dreams have been shattered,

who have grown weary, cynical and disillusioned.

Reach out in love,

and rekindle their faith in the future.

Lord of all,

the Word made flesh,

bring hope to your world today.

Hear our prayer for those who mourn, or who wrestle with illness,

or who watch loved ones suffer.

Reach out in love,

and grant them your strength and comfort.

Lord of all,

the Word made flesh,

bring hope to your world today.

Hear our prayer for those whose lives are blighted by injustice,

crushed by oppression, poverty, hunger,

and encourage all who work against the odds

to build a better world.

Reach out in love,

and grant the assurance of your coming kingdom.

Lord of all,

the Word made flesh,

bring hope to your world today.

Lord Jesus Christ,

we remember your promise to come again in glory,

the culmination of God's purpose,

the ultimate victory of love.

May that conviction bring new faith, new vision,

and new purpose wherever life seems hopeless.

Lord of all,

the Word made flesh,

bring hope to your world today.

In your name we pray.

Amen.

We end with "In the bleak mid-winter".

And now may grace, mercy and peace; from God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, be with you and all those whom you love; now and evermore. Amen.

Keep safe and God bless.