Advent Sunday 2017
Sunday 3 December
Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a young child, about 10, 15 or 40 years ago, I was an avid reader of comics. I loved books too, I should hasten to add, but I also read lots of comics like Beano (as Henry does now) or superhero or war comics.
At the back of those comics there were always adverts for things that every boy needs, like x-ray specs or magic sets or practical joke kits. Once in a while I managed to persuade my mum to let me buy one – we would buy a postal order, remember those, cut out the tiny coupon and send it off. And then the waiting would begin. The advert always said “allow at least 28 days for delivery”, but things would often take longer.
But, although I was young and that was a long time to wait, I don’t remember it being a bored kind of waiting. Instead it was a hugely excited, expectant kind of waiting. If the post came when I was at school then I couldn’t get home fast enough to see whether my treasure had arrived, if I was at home when the letter box went then no one would get to the front door faster than me. Although most days were destined to be a disappointment that didn’t dim the excitement of the next day. And one day, although the day and the hour were unknown, my treasure would arrive and joy would be unconfined, made sweeter no doubt by the waiting.
As an aside, and I probably shouldn’t tell you this but once I bought a joke kit from one of those adverts which included some tiny bangers. I’m not sure if it came from America or whether health and safety was just much less stringent then. Anyway, in those days my dad smoked cigars that came wrapped in cellophane. I thought it was a great idea to make a small hole in the cellophane with a needle and poke a number of these tiny bangers into the end of one of his cigars. I thought no more about it until one day my dad came home from work and said that he had had a lunchtime meeting and, during that meeting had lit a cigar. Imagine his surprise, and that of all his companions, when after a few moments of contended puffing his cigar exploded. Fortunately he thought it was funny and actually gave up smoking not long after, so it was a happy ending all round. I could also tell you about some bigger bangers bought back from France and some fresh cow pats, but that may be for another day.
Sorry – back to the point – how much less good at waiting for things have we, or I, become? If you order things on Amazon before a certain time of day then you can have next day delivery. For some people even next day is too long and I’ve heard that Amazon are planning to have airship warehouses floating over some cities and will be able to make deliveries within the hour by drone. And if you read books on Kindle then why wait an hour – download one instantly.
During the week I took my car to Tonbridge to have it’s MOT and I had to leave it with them and so got the bus back to Hadlow. The bus only took 10 minutes to come but did I wait with joyful anticipation for my bus to come, did I heck as like.
If I have to wait for Henry to come out of class or if my computer drops it’s internet connection for a moment then, yes, I get impatient – I have stuff to do, places to be, I can’t be waiting!
In our have-everything-right-away society we seem to have lost all sense that there can be any value in waiting. Waiting rooms are not places of joy but places of dreary resignation that our life has become so disorganised that we actually have to wait for something.
Waiting is dead time, boring time, wasted time, frustrating time.
I bet right now there is someone amongst you who is thinking – I know where he is going with this, I wish he would get to the point.
The point is this, brothers and sisters: there are some times in the Christian year when lots of things happen, Pentecost and Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday and all sorts of other occasions, and they can be great periods of activity. And there are other parts in the Christian year when we are expressly told, yes, to wait.
Advent, of course, is one of those seasons, which means that our period of waiting starts today.
But what, exactly, are we waiting for?
On the most basic level we are simply counting down the days to Christmas Day. I can tell you with some confidence that this won’t take 28 days to arrive, but will be with us three weeks tomorrow. Yes, I know…
But Advent is not just about counting down the days to Christmas in the here and now, as it works on at least two other levels.
The first of those is about entering into the story of the birth of Jesus some 2017 years ago. The waiting of an expectant mother to give birth but also the waiting of an expectant creation for the Messiah to be born.
Our first reading from Isaiah spoke about the impatience of Israel to see God return to earth again, as he did at the time of the exodus.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
The writer laments that God seems to have hidden himself from them, and so they have drifted from his ways and, the more they transgress the further away from God they are. So the writer cries out to God to show himself once again in ways that the world cannot miss.
As Christians we believe that God did show himself to the world again, to bring the people back from their transgressions and to lead them back into a right relationship with him, but that he did not do so quite in the way that Isaiah was hoping for, at least not yet. At the nativity of Jesus, God came back to earth but he did not do so in a way that shook mountains, rather he snuck in as a baby. Not in power but in weakness and vulnerability.
So, as we look forwards to Christmas day in 2017, we are also looking back and remembering that first nativity.
But there is also another level on which we are commended to wait, and that is not to celebrate the birth of Jesus but to await his return. Last week we celebrated Christ the King which is the culmination of the Christian story and the Christian year but even though the seasons have changed our gospel reading from Mark speaks not of the nativity of Jesus the baby but of the return of Christ the King, and the imagery is not dissimilar to Isaiah:
“…the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
Some sects and gurus have specialised in predicting the date of Christ’s return but the gospel is clear that this is futile – there is no online tracking or express delivery service available:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the father.”
And then we are told expressly:
“Beware, keep alert for you do not know when the time will come…Therefore, keep awake for you do not know at what time the master of the house will come…And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
The time we spend waiting for Jesus is not dead time, boring time, wasted time, frustrating time.
Waiting for Jesus is not like waiting for a bus or for a schoolboy who is creeping like a snail. This waiting is not a drowsy, resigned sort of waiting. It is an alert waiting, an eager waiting, a rushing home from school or running to the letter box sort of waiting.
When we wait for Jesus we are actively preparing ourselves for God to break back into the world both as a baby and when he comes again in glory. We are readying ourselves to greet and to meet the creator of the cosmos both in a crib and in the clouds.
Over the next three weeks we are all going to be making various preparations for Christmas Day and we shall doubtless all become a little frantic whilst we do so. But somewhere beneath that rushing around I would commend you, and me, to prepare a still small place in our hearts where we watch and wait with eager, expectant, anticipation both for the birth of a baby in Bethlehem and for the return of our Lord and King at the re-creation of all things.
To me those things seem worth waiting for.