First Sunday of Advent
Advent is a time of expectation and preparation, of expectant waiting. We live in a society that is not at all good at waiting, and neither, to be honest, am I. Our washing machine died this week, and we got another one delivered by AO as quickly as possible. My life becomes way too complicated without a washing machine. We all quite like to have things when we decide we want them – waiting seems negative, boring even. ‘Take the waiting out of wanting’ the slogan beckons, although you might pay the price with interest on your credit card at a later date.
But, in the Christian calendar, the waiting in Advent includes both a period of preparation for the coming of Christmas and the call to be ready for the final breaking-in of God’s Kingdom, as Christ comes again in glory both as judge and as king. So Advent embraces the great mystery of the coming of the Word made flesh at Christmas and the final coming or the parousia of the Son of Man in glory at the consummation of all things.
Not boring at all, but the Advent readings don’t all sound like Good News either. At least in Isaiah swords are being beaten into ploughshares. When the bitter and protracted war in Mozambique ended, a family swapped their stash of arms for sewing machines and started a family tailoring business. The sewing machines were provided by a Christian charity that persuaded hundreds of other former freedom fighters to exchange their guns for tools. A drop in the ocean, you might think, but Jesus talked about how God’s Kingdom grows from mustard seeds, the tiniest of seeds.
But the promise to the prophet Isaiah is only fulfilled in part. Unfortunately for us, whilst peace is being brokered in one part of the world, conflict begins somewhere else. Still people, even children, are slaughtered in wars around the globe. But Advent isn’t a time for bewailing the fate of the world and sitting on our hands. Jeremiah tells us that the ancient promise of a Messiah will be fulfilled and Jerusalem will dwell secure, but we need to help to make it happen – we are part of the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. We need to prepare for His coming.
The Gospel reading from St. Matthew sets the season of Advent into an eschatological framework – in other words thinking of things in terms of Christ’s second coming. Advent is God’s doing and such is its significance that the entire cosmos reverberates with the signs and circumstances of these events. That God will come to us is certain, however uncertain the when and the how.
As I’ve said, our western culture is not good at waiting, expecting quick fixes for all its needs and desires. So Advent, with its 4 long weeks of watching and waiting is deeply counter-cultural. And whilst the world around us has already started dancing to a manic Christmas party beat, December for Christians has a very different rhythm. Solemnly, steadily, it tells us that something is missing, that our world is not as it should be, that we are not as we should be. And so we turn in longing for what we lack. In the Confirmation Group we’ve talked about the meaning of life, and how we can find glimpses of that meaning and truth in our encounters with God. The journey through life that ends in death becomes a ‘holy pilgrimage’ that ends in life, life eternal. We set our sights on God’s kingdom of justice and peace, and as we journey home to God, life becomes more meaningful and joyful, and the world a better place. The meaning is in the meeting with God, and during Advent, in particular, we try to get a bit more used to the truth about ourselves, which is not always very encouraging, and the truth about God, which is always encouraging. We can do this because we trust in God’s love and compassion and mercy.
But of course, there is a problem with trying to find the space to do all of this in Advent. There’s a very telling passage in the book of Exodus. When Moses came to the Hebrew slaves to tell them the good news that God was about to set them free, Pharaoh’s reaction was to increase their work. ‘Make them work harder’ he said, ‘so they have no time to listen.’ That feels very much like the season of Advent to me, when we struggle to find time and space and quiet to listen. Yet, beneath the world’s pressures and business and commerce lies an emptiness, and in the end all of our frantic activity serves only to anaesthetise the deeper pain of being human – that is our aching need for God. ‘My soul yearns for you in the night’ the Psalmist says, ‘My spirit within me earnestly seeks you’.
It was the deeply held conviction that the return of Christ was imminent that made the Early Church so zealous to serve. The thought of their returning Lord, to whom they would each have to give an account, made them faithful in work and witness. Diligent reading of the Scriptures made them watch for the signs of His return. All history they saw as His story. They looked anxiously for the final chapter when Christ would return in great glory. They believed that God was working His purpose out, as year succeeded to year, and so He was. Life took on a serious purpose and a dynamic meaning. Christians in every generation since have continued to believe that God is working His purpose out as time ticks towards God’s appointed hour.
Dare we, then, in our own generation, push the truth of Christ’s coming to the back of our minds? Can we continue to live as if Christ was not already in His way? Christians have, for centuries thought particularly during Advent about death and judgement, about heaven and hell. We know that the One who is coming comes in love, that He comes to set us free, but that doesn’t absolve us from the need to be ready – it will be like fire on the earth as the Bible says. So let’s go against the grain here, ignore the pressure on us to be constantly doing rather than being. Let’s take time out during Advent, look at ourselves honestly through the eyes of the soul, and spend time nurturing that relationship with God which is what eternity is made of. Then we can begin to catch glimpses of God’s true glory and to desire that union with Him which is the very purpose of our creation.
‘Pour down, O heavens, from above,
And let the skies rain down righteousness.
Let the earth be fruitful and bring forth a Saviour’.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.