St Mary the Virgin, Rye
Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thess 3:9-end, Luke 21:25-36
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, here we are.
Today has been a long time coming.
Sometimes being a Christian seems to involve a lot of waiting, and you can learn a lot about yourself from the way in which you wait.
Do we wait for something impatiently, tapping our fingers, and counting the days and weeks and months until something happens but not really moving on until it does? Or do we wait in a spirit of preparation, expectation and patience which, let’s not forget, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit?
The messy truth is that it is usually we do both but, in the time-pressured, goal-orientated society in which we live it is helpful to remember that the Christian life is not simply about reaching our destination in the quickest possible time but also about our journey, our pilgrimage and how we might change along the way.
That spirit of patient, expectant, preparatory waiting and making a pilgrimage through the landscape of time is true not simply of waiting for clergy posts to be advertised, for interviews to be held and then to be licensed, but is true for us all now as we start the season of Advent, the beginning of the new church year.
In these weeks which lay ahead we are not called to simply count down the days to Christmas rather we are called to prepare our hearts and minds to receive Jesus, God the Son, to be born into the world and into our lives.
Of course, in purely chronological terms, Jesus has already been born into the world and is already in our hearts and lives. But the beauty and the purpose of the Church year is that we re-live and re-enter into those events time and again and I pray that we don’t experience the church year as an endless repeating cycle but, rather, we should be lead on an upwards spiral of seeing, learning and experiencing new things each time we travel through the seasons and are lifted ever higher into being the people and the church that God has called and made us to be.
What about our readings for today?
Endless political intrigue and uncertainty. The old order passing away and dying not with a bang but a whimper. Refugees fleeing from war and poverty, some going into captivity and some met with outright hostility, persecution and worse. Tyrannical and unpredictable leaders who thrive on being worshipped and feared in equal measure.
Jeremiah lived through tough times. What did you think I was talking about?
Now, I won’t lie to you. Jeremiah could sometimes be a bit grumpy. In fact he seems to have been imprisoned before the destruction of Jerusalem for prophesying what was to happen. They probably called it Project Fear. But in today’s reading Jeremiah is not offering fear but something else. Something which probably seemed even more unbelievable and counter-cultural than fear. In today’s reading Jeremiah tells the people of Israel, and he tells us, that no matter how bad the situation seems, within God’s economy we live not in a spirit of fear but with hope.
From desolation and hopelessness, he tells us, there will spring up a new branch of David – a righteous branch who will restore the land and in those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.
Naturally we have that reading today because Christians identify Jesus as the prophesied new branch of David and, as we start this season of Advent, we are looking forward with hope to the coming of Jesus.
But there’s more.
In the 650 years between Jeremiah’s prophecy and the birth of Jesus the Babylonian empire fell, Jerusalem and the Temple were rebuilt, and the fortune of Israel seemed restored. Except, of course, that they weren’t. The empire of Babylon had been replaced by the empire of Rome, Jesus was born not into victory but out of wedlock and in a stable and his family soon had to flee from another tyrannical ruler, Herod the Great. To cap it all, not many years after Jesus completed his earthly ministry the city of Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed once again and the Jewish people, including the early followers of Jesus, either killed or scattered.
The empire of Rome seemed all powerful and this new branch of righteousness seemed easily broken and hope for the people of God seemed easily extinguished.
But hope is not so easily defeated.
At Christmas we shall celebrate God being born amongst us as a baby and that is a beautiful and wonderful occasion and, for some people that can be a gateway into a deeper faith but for many people, perhaps most people in our society today, they never get further into faith than the thought of a baby laying in a manger.
Jesus as a baby.
For those that do get further than Christmas we spend much of the year thinking about the life and teachings of Jesus and many people can accept that Jesus was a good teacher but, again, never get any further into faith than that.
Jesus as a good man.
At Easter we remember the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and many people think that these represent the completion of the Christian story. Some will say that everything was completed by Jesus crucified and some that everything was completed by Jesus resurrected.
Jesus on the Cross and Jesus Alive and Risen.
But that is still not what the bible says, not what our creed says and not what my faith has taught me. There is more. After the resurrection we had the Ascension of Jesus to sit at the right hand of God the Father and the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost to create the church and to be and to share the body of Christ here on earth.
But even the Spirit-filled Church is not the end of the story. Our faith teaches us very clearly that Jesus will come again as King of Kings and judge of all. Last week the church celebrated this in the Festival of Christ the King.
Although we are now starting a new Church year and although our thoughts are turning towards the birth of Jesus as a baby it should be clear from our gospel reading that Advent is not simply about looking forward to remembering the birth of Jesus it is also, perhaps more profoundly, about looking forward to the return of Jesus as King and Judge. So, the real end of the story is being pre-figured for us right from the start.
“Then they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.’
and a few verses later:
“Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place and to stand before the Son of Man.”
This season of Advent is intended not as an impatient wait for Christmas Day but as a season of preparation, and I don’t mean buying the presents and putting on the sprouts, but as preparation to be God’s people and to stand before the Son of Man at the time of judgement.
Like Jeremiah, and like Jesus, we live in times of uncertainty, political intrigue, the rising and falling of empires and, yes, even caravans of refugees fleeing wars, persecution and poverty and perhaps even a new breed of tyrannical rulers who thrive on adulation and fear.
But, as the world seems to get darker and more dangerous, and as Christianity comes under increasing attack not least from the empire of secularism, I believe that God continues to hold out to us that same branch of hope, in the person of Jesus. We are shown time and time again that when life seems at its most hopeless, when the empires of this world seem most powerful and the walls of our certainty seem most torn down, that what seems weakest and most vulnerable in this world, even a tiny refugee baby, may be God’s way of giving us hope in a new kingdom built on love.
Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus. Come as new born baby at the Nativity. Come as our teacher and guide. Come as our resurrected and ascended Lord. Come to us through the Holy Spirit. Come to us in bread and wine. Come and prepare us this Advent to meet with you as King and judge of all.