Sunday, 27 November 2011

The magnificent seriousness of Advent

Advent 1 and Baptism 2011

Today is Advent Sunday, the first Sunday of the Church’s year. Through the year we tell a great cycle of stories covering the birth of Christ, his ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, but it all starts here, with the whisper of a rumour of a suggestion that God is about to do something, if we have our eyes open to see it. As Advent goes on we’ll hear stories which point towards a new kingdom God is building. We’ll hear of two very unlikely pregnancies. Elizabeth, an elderly childless woman discovers that she will give birth to the one who will prepare the way for Jesus, John the Baptist. And Mary, of course, hears from an angel that she will be the mother of the Messiah himself. Two babies who will change the world are on the way.

That’s why this is such a good day for a baptism, because Max, like every child, is the beginning of something new as well. We have no idea what he might do, who he might be in the future, but he will change the world too. I say that with confidence, because we all change the world by our presence in it – for good or ill, or more likely a mixture of the two. Through our acts of love and creativity we enrich those around us, build up our communities, open up new possibilities. Through our wounds and our failings we obstruct growth or twist the path of others. Whatever the overall balance is, the world will be a different place because we were in it.

Max’s baptism, his Christian beginning on this Advent Sunday, reminds us that this can be a new beginning for us all. It gives us a chance to look at ourselves and the impact we are having on the world, to be aware of where we need to grow and learn if the difference we are to make will be a good one. You are never too young - that’s why we pray for Max now, long before he can make conscious decisions for himself. But you are never too old either, as John the Baptist’s parents found out. As far as we can tell they had lived lives of complete obscurity until their famous son was born. They never expected a new beginning at their age, but God had other ideas.

Whoever we are, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done or failed to do, things can change if we want them to, if we are prepared to let them. Advent is a moment when we are encouraged to wake up to the reality of ourselves. There is something magnificently serious about it; it reminds us that we matter, and that what we do matters. Its magnificent seriousness invites us to take ourselves seriously. That is a very valuable message, and in my experience people are hungry to hear it. We can easily feel as if we are drowning in a tide of triviality, in C-list celebrities and consumer “must-haves” - glossy distractions to mask our fear that there is no real point in committing yourself to anything or believing in anything, no real point in caring about anything, no real point to your life at all in fact. Advent challenges that, with its summons to pay attention, to have our eyes open to see what God is doing in the world because he wants us to be ready to join in with it.

That’s what the Gospel reading we’ve just heard was telling us.
It is easy to get side-tracked by its dramatic imagery– the stars falling from heaven, the clouds, the power and glory. But those apocalyptic events are precisely not what Jesus wants his hearers to focus on – quite the reverse, in fact. He believes that all that stuff will one day happen (that was the world view of his time, and I have no doubt that he shared it), but speculating about when or how is a complete waste of his disciples’ time and energy. It is what they are doing now that really matters. They can’t know about the future, he tells them.  “The day and the hour no one knows” not even him. Don’t be diverted by all that, says Jesus to them. Pay attention to the present instead. Make sure you are building God’s kingdom now “on earth as it is in heaven”, and then whatever happens in the future, you will be ready for it. We don’t have to share that first century apocalyptic world-view to realise that this is still good advice. The threats that face us are different – climate change, economic crisis, not to mention all the personal challenges that come our way. The future is just as uncertain for us as it was in Jesus’ time, but it is the things we do now – individually and as communities - which determine how we will cope with them.

“It’s like a man who goes on a journey,” says Jesus, “leaving his servants to get on with the work of the household in his absence.” He doesn’t expect to come back and find everyone asleep at their posts, with nothing done. “Stay awake”, says Jesus. And he doesn’t mean that their gaze should be continually fixed on the gates for the master’s return so they can spring into action when he arrives. This is not about “look busy, the boss is coming”. The point is that the work the servants have been entrusted with needs to be done whether or not the master is there – the life of the household has to go on anyway if that household is going to prosper. The servants aren’t just keeping it in stasis for the master’s return, but actively cultivating it for its own sake, as a place where all its members can thrive. It’s their household just as much as his. Their work matters, not just for his sake but for their own and for that of the whole community.

This passage comes from Mark’s Gospel. We’ll be hearing a lot more from Mark over the next twelve months. We focus on a different Gospel each year and this year is Mark’s turn. They were living through times of immense change, either just before or just after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. For decades before that there had been unrest, stretching right back to the time of Jesus. But the rebels and political agitators who longed for Jewish independence were up against the might of the occupying forces of Rome and there was only one way that was going to end, with the city and the Temple being sacked and the people dispersed around the Middle East. The crisis this led to wasn’t just physical and political, it was spiritual too. What was God doing? What was this about? Surely he would do something to help his people, but how and when, and what would it look like when he did? The people Mark was writing for desperately needed to hear the message he was giving them here.

God had already come to his people to rescue them, he was telling them, in the shape of Jesus, who had preached a radical message that all people were equally loved and equally valued by God, a message which had transformed the lives of many who heard it. What was more God was still coming to his people– even though Jesus was no longer with them. Through his Spirit at work in whoever was open to it God was building his kingdom, person by person, act by act, day by day. That kingdom was being built not by military force but by people learning to treat one another with dignity and love. The kingdom was like the unseen yeast which leavens the dough, like a tiny mustard seed which becomes a tree – it might look small and insignificant, but it has a life of its own, and it can grow into something which is beyond our power to imagine.

God’s kingdom wasn’t  just a spiritual realm you entered after death, but something that was very much in the present, to do with people’s ordinary lives, so that was where the attention of Jesus’ followers should be focused. Never mind the unknown future, says Jesus here, what are you doing now? Because it is what you are doing now that God cares about most.

It’s great to hear that message today as we baptise Max. In Baptism we are saying that Max’s life matters. He is precious and irreplaceable, not just a number, an anonymous child floating through the world, but absolutely himself, loved by God, known by God, called by God to make a difference. The reason that is true for him is because it is true for all of us – each one of us is loved, known and called too. So, as we hear that message for him, let’s make sure we hear it for ourselves as well. Let’s hear it in all its magnificent Advent seriousness and ask ourselves whether we truly believe that our lives matter. What difference do they make? How is the kingdom being built through us? Where do we need to wake up to ourselves, to the world and to God this Advent?

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