Advent Sunday 2014
Readings Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
May I speak this morning, in the name of God +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is an interesting week for us as a church: on the one hand we have a change of season from the red of Kingdom season to the purple of Advent and a change of focus as we switch from looking forward to the second coming of Christ to looking back and remembering the first coming of Christ at the nativity. However, the readings set for today still resonate strongly with the sound of the end time prophecies and we are still being called to watch and wait for Christ’s return.
Although the analogy is far from perfect it feels a little like expecting to pull away from a junction in first gear, only to find that you have left the car in third. In fact I once owned an old Volkswagen beetle in which it was virtually impossible to tell whether you were in first or third until you tried pulling away. Fortunately it proved to me at an early age that aspiring to own a German car was not all it was cracked up to be.
When you try pulling away in the wrong gear not only are our expectations of a fresh and speedy start confounded but we may even stall and be forced to think a little harder. And that is exactly what this week’s readings ought to do to us at the start of this new season – they bring us up short, they confound our expectations and they should make us think a little harder about what, exactly, are we looking forward to and how do we intend to get there?
Because, of course, it is all too easy and all too tempting to get all squishy and sentimental about Christmas, to make our understanding and our celebration of Christmas no more than a Victorian Christmas card writ large and then to let all that squishy sentimentality seep all over Advent as well as Christmas.
That makes me sound really miserable doesn’t it? I bet someone here is thinking – “I feel really sorry for his children”.
Well don’t feel too sorry for them because they will have a great Christmas but the point being made today is twofold:
Firstly, the season of Advent is not Christmas in exactly the same way that Lent is not Easter. Advent and Lent both share the colour purple not because they are fans of Whoopi Goldberg but because they are both about penitential preparation for the great season which lies ahead.
And the reason we are called to prepare ourselves in this way for the season ahead is my second point: the coming of God the Son into the world at the nativity should be a matter of awe and wonder, not mere sentiment. The first appearance of God into the world in the person of Jesus changed the world and should change us at least if not more than the expectation of his return.
I know that families and churches love their Christmas routines of when we open presents, what we eat and even what TV we watch – The Doctor Who Christmas special in our case – but we should be careful that we do not also allow our thinking about Jesus to become routine.
Isaiah said this morning that when God rends the heavens and comes down that the mountains would tremble before him
God coming down from heaven to earth does not, of course, just apply to the return of Jesus at the end of time. We are being reminded forcefully in this season that whilst we have been and continue to look forward to Christ’s return that God has already rent the heavens and come down to earth. And when God comes to earth nothing can stay the same – in the presence of God we cannot help but be aware of our own imperfection and sinfulness and, as Isaiah says, that even our righteous acts feel like dirty rags and we shrivel up and are swept away by our sins. Advent, like Lent, is about preparing ourselves for the presence of God by repenting of our sins and seeking to become purer and holier. When we come to look at Jesus in the crib do we see a baby or do we see God the Son? Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
But we don’t become pure in heart simply through our own efforts – again Isaiah reminds us that we are clay – we are formed of the earth – but that God is the potter and we are the work of his hands. Whatever age we are it is easy to think that we are the finished product and that God can do no more with us but, guess what, if God can melt the mountains like wax when he comes down then these clay vessels are not immune to change. In the coming weeks ahead why not take a risk and ask God to take away your brittleness and fragility, to give you freshness once again and to mould you into a vessel ready to perceive and receive him at the nativity?
In Mark’s gospel, for all its wonderful and challenging end times imagery, I was struck most forcefully by the single word :“Watch”. In the context this was a reminder to keep a careful watch out for the return of Christ but I was also reminded that it is only in the very next chapter of Mark that we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane saying to his followers:
“Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you do not fall into temptation.”
This is a busy time of year for many of us and it is all too easy to rush from shop to shop, from pre-Christmas dinner to pre-Christmas dinner and even from service to service so much that by the time we get to Christmas we are spiritually unprepared to meet the awesomeness of God and we are physically and mentally exhausted. As a clergyman I am probably as much if not more guilty of that than most.
But my challenge to you, and to me, this year is to take some time to watch and pray and prepare ourselves properly for Christ coming into the world – we look forward with eager anticipation to his return but we look back with no less anticipation to his birth and we remember that between those two amazing events we are his body here on earth and we pray that God will mould us into people worthy of that great calling.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ – during this season of advent watch and prepare yourselves for Jesus.