On this Sunday, more than nearly any other Sunday in the Christian year, the Church finds itself almost completely out of sync with the rest of the country. Rarely is the distinction that Jesus, and other Biblical writers, made between his followers and “the World” more readily apparent.
Outside our doors, ‘Christmas’ is already in full swing – indeed we have arguably been celebrating it since mid-October. The decorations in our streets are already up, the Christmas adverts have been released and at least one person I know has already received their first card! “Christmas is upon us!” cries the world. But amidst all this clamour and panic buying, Christians, and the Church, cry out faintly, “No, Advent is upon us!”. Advent: the season of preparation, of waiting and of longing. The season, like Lent, where we prepare ourselves for what is to come, by returning to the scriptures, to prayer and to works of kindness and mercy.
But the disjunction between the World and Christ’s followers in these first weeks of Advent is even worse than that. Because Advent is not simply about preparing for Christmas. That is something the World would sympathise with and understand greatly. Christian or not, in this season nearly everyone is busy preparing for Christmas in one way or another or at the very least being made to feel very guilty, if they are not! Most of us are now thinking about writing cards, buying wrapping paper, trying to choose presents; perhaps we’re desperately trying to negotiate with different sets of in-laws or family members about the exact schedule for Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The need to think consciously about ‘preparing for the big day’ is something that millions of people in our country understand completely. And even many of our Christian traditions encourage that kind of reaction: the Advent wreath, the Advent candles, our Advent calendars. I described all these things to a school assembly one year and asked them what they thought ‘Advent’ meant based on those familiar items. One boy very intelligently replied, ‘Countdown,’ which I think was a very sensible response to what we seem to be doing in Advent: just counting down the days to Christmas.
Yet our readings in these opening weeks of Advent have nothing whatsoever to do Christmas, with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. (And that can cause massive headaches when you have school groups or others visiting your church in the first days of December, desperately wanting to sing Christmas carols!) Instead, the readings very clearly remind us that what the church is waiting for is not really the first coming, that of Jesus in Judea, but the second coming, the second advent, when Christ we are told will return again as King and Lord of all. The readings are not the overly familiar ones of mangers, kings, shepherds and angels, but direct us to the hardest parts of our gospels – the bits that we would often rather ignore. Passages like the one we heard read from Matthew today, from the section that we often call the ‘Apocalypse’, which has much more in common with the books of Daniel and Revelation than with the more familiar parables of Jesus. Here Christ reveals (the literal meaning of ‘apocalypto’) a glimpse of the future – both the near future and the dim and distant one, we believe. It is a future that not even he, the Son of God, understands fully (Matt. 24:36). These are readings full of mystery and unfathomable truths. They speak of life and death, good and evil, judgement and revelation. As I said before, they seem to come from a different planet to a world seemingly intent solely on buying cards with snowy Robins on or pairs of socks for granddad. Rarely does the Church seem more out of touch, it could be argued, than on Advent Sunday.
I firmly believe, though, that these readings and the true meaning of Advent do speak directly into our everyday experience and lives. That they do have a relevance for every man, woman and child in our nation and world today. Because they speak to the very heart of meaning and existence. They speak of darkness and light – and I fear we have become only too aware of the power of darkness during this last year. They speak of the terrible consequences of human choice. And crucially they speak of that most unforgiving of taskmasters that seems to rule us, Christian or non-Christian alike: Time. In a season that seems obsessed with calendars, and countdowns, and last posting days, our readings give us a salutary reminder about the true meaning of the “day and hour” (Matt. 24:36), of the night being far gone and the light drawing nearer and nearer (Rom. 13:12).
In a way that we may not wish to be reminded of, our readings today highlight the fact that we do not control time. However much we may seek to tame its “ever-rolling stream” with personal organisers, calendars and Christmas schedules and to-do lists, Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, and Paul, in his letter to the first Christians in Rome, make clear that we cannot control time. That God alone knows the days and the hours. God alone, who stands outside of time itself, knows when the day shall come and the night draw to a close. We may mark on our calendars the day we choose to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’ birth, Christmas Day, but no one can tell us when the second advent which we now await will arrive. And Jesus’ words in Matthew should be taken as a stern rebuke to all those who seek to pretend that they do know.
The preciousness of time in this current season of Advent – when every day can seem priceless for those preparing services and cards and presents – is an apt parallel to the preciousness of all our time. It is too easy to believe that we have “all the time in the world,” to do with as we please. Or to become so engrossed with the daily round of living that we forget to raise our heads from the field, or the grinding corn (Matt. 24:40-41), or the laptop, or the television screen. To pause and take stock of the preciousness of life itself and the gifts that we have been given.
This week I was lucky enough to enjoy a pre-Advent retreat, organised by our District at High Leigh in Hoddesdon. It was very well led by the current President of Conference, Rev’d Dr Roger Walton, and I was there with a number of other ministers from Bedfordshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, who have been serving for a similar number of years to me. We ate together, prayed together and had Bible study together. But we also had time apart for ourselves. I recognise that I am very privileged in having an employer who effectively orders me to stop and think, from time to time, and reflect on my role and my life in general. All of us there commented on the fact that, though the sessions led by the President were excellent, it was that chance to stand back and take stock of who we are and where we are which we valued most. And that is not always easy because sometimes when you pause, you realise that you don’t always like everything about the person you’ve become or the place where you are. Much easier, like the folks in the “days of Noah” just to concentrate on the daily round of “eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage” (Matt. 25:38) and ignore the bigger picture.
These kinds of experience, and other more painful ones, can lead to rather facile and ridiculous sentiments – the kind that we may find in the worse sorts of self-help books or so-called inspirational posters, or memes. “Live for today!” “Live each day like it’s your last!” “Live without regrets!” That’s all very well but the Bible makes it very clear that we are not meant to know which is our last day and therefore it’s not a good idea to spend every last penny you have on a round-the-world holiday, if you’ve actually got quite a few more days left and you need to pay the gas bill before the end of the month. We cannot, and should not, lead our lives with recklessness and thoughtlessness for the consequences of our actions. As Martin Luther observed, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.”
Instead, our readings today remind us to use the time we are given wisely. To try not to fret about what is to come – although that is very hard, I know only too well – but to value the here and now, and the people and places among whom we live. We need a bit of humour perhaps today and I must say that one of my favourite comments about the Second Coming is actually from a bumper sticker I once saw which proudly proclaimed: “Jesus is coming!”. But then added: “Look busy.” And we can read both the passage in Romans and Matthew in that sort of light: an order to lead our lives as though we are continually worried that a stern parent or over-bearing teacher is about to burst through the door at any second and tell us off for not looking holy. For those who have had a bad experience of parenting growing up, especially if they have not had the kind of father figure they deserve, such images of God can be deeply unhelpful and have turned too many people away from faith.
Jesus is calling us to live our life – individually and together, as Christians – in the knowledge that one day, when we are least expecting it, all things shall be gathered up by God. So, let us value what is important and not worry about what is not. Paul in particular has wise words for all churches about the importance of laying aside petty squabbling and jealousy (Rom. 13:13) – something he saw far too much of in the first churches – and of recognising what is truly important about each other and our life together. So often at funerals, we hear the same refrains, don’t we? I wish I’d told them how much they meant to me. I wish I’d known this or that about them. I wish I’d picked up the phone or made the effort to end that stupid argument. As our television screens urge us with every trick of the advertiser’s trade to believe that life is all about belongings and possessions, the Bible asserts that the true reality is that it is human relationships and most importantly our relationship with our Creator that are actually at the heart of Advent and indeed our humanity. That is why God did not come as a brand new laptop or a Mercedes Benz, but as a human being. That is why he spent so much time, not on writing theological textbooks or setting up institutions, but on simply talking and engaging with people. That is why he gave us not an Ark or a statue by which to remember him, but a simple meal, where all may come together and share in fellowship. More than anyone else, Jesus embodied what it really means to lead a life worth living: one in which he knew only too well the frailty of human existence and the inevitability of death, but which at the same time was truly a “life in all its fullness”.
Crucially, though, our readings on this first Sunday in Advent also remind us to lead lives that are ultimately filled with hope. For most of us, sadly, the days when we longed for Christmas Day and counted down the time in Advent in “sleeps” before Father Christmas visited are long gone. But we can still catch some of that magic when we speak to the children we encounter in church and beyond – that sense of anticipation and excitement, which is almost tangible. At its purest and best, it is a sense of hope and confidence in the future, that good things are inevitably coming.
Our waiting for the second Advent, of which our readings today speak, cannot be quite like that. For we have no calendar upon which to count down nor any idea of how many sleeps it will be before Christ – not Santa Claus – comes. But we should have the same sense of ultimate hope and confidence in what is to come. A hope built not on vain superstition or fear, but on the knowledge that the one who is coming to redeem his world, is the same one who made it, the same one who made us a little lower than the angels and the same one who was born as a helpless child in a stable in Bethlehem. It is the one who healed the sick and the lame, the one who knelt at his disciples’ feet to wash them, the one who hung upon a cross of shame to show God’s love and mercy. It is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, who is coming. Our Judge is also our Shepherd, who will bring time to an end and reconcile all things to himself. It is the same Christ who shall bring light where there was darkness, life where there was death, and hope where there was none. And I firmly believe, now more than ever before, that that gift of hope is surely the greatest that Christ has given us, and which we in turn can offer to a world that seems to have lost all sense of the word.
Let us lead lives worthy of that great promise of the second Advent in our scriptures but most importantly let us pray with hope and confidence, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Amen.