Sunday, 27 November 2016

First Sunday of Advent

Advent 1 Matthew 24.36-44, Romans 13.11-14

Did you hear about the young boy who ran up to the preacher after the sermon and thrust a five pound note in his hand? ‘What’s this for’ said the man, ‘well I thought you needed it more than me as my dad says that your one of the poorest preachers we’ve ever had in this church’!

So here we are at the beginning of another Advent and what does it mean to us? Perhaps you think this means Christmas is near now and you’ve done nothing to prepare? If so then that’s kind of the point of it but not in the sense of getting the tree lights out and the food in, more that it’s time to think about what the birth of Christ means for us and where each one of us personally fit into the story.

Do we hear the words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel as talking about events for the end of the world, about what we are found doing at that point in time? Our view on this will depend upon our relationship with and understanding of God.

It’s clear to me that we should avoid a lazy literal interpretation of what form the second coming of Christ will take or when it might happen, but that’s not the same as recognising that what we will experience in the future will be different from what we understand now. God through Christ calls us to enter into a loving relationship with him now. Perhaps like the best marriages you don’t always know where the journey will take you but you set out in faith based upon trust and love.

Advent is all about God joining humanity in the ordinariness of life and in this season we are reminded that we should guard against becoming comfortable with life being routine and predictable because one thing is certain, it is not going to stay that way. My reaction to today’s gospel passage is not to focus on God wreaking havoc as he dispenses justice but so much more on his love and sacrifice for us and how we can respond to that.

This year has been one where worldly events have offered reminders that life is not predictable with the referendum here and the US elections confounding all experts and pollsters. In fact if you had put a one pound bet on an EU exit vote, Trump as President and Leicester City to win the league you would have netted in excess of £4.5m! It shows how unexpected the events were in the fact that not a single person did.

We suspect that great change lies ahead for the world, change that will be hard to predict. As Christians our stability is found in our unchanging God.

I find some people’s understanding of God difficult to relate to if they think he would pick us off when we are least suspecting and at our weakest, perhaps slumped on the settee with a glass of wine in hand after a hectic week to tell us bad luck it looks like you got your timing wrong. If this were his way then surely he’d be more likely to call on a Sunday morning and at least give us a chance to be at prayer.

Matthew tells us of Jesus warning that a great crisis was to come to Jerusalem, it’s likely he wrote his gospel in the time period before Jesus words were realised around 70 AD when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the second Temple. Some people explain the prediction that ‘one will be taken and one will be left’ as an apocalyptic setting with God swooping down to take away the righteous person and leaving the person found in sin, but when you consider it in the context of a savage Roman military machine finally breaking the Jews and conquering Jerusalem after years of attrition it’s likely that those taken away would have faced a life of slavery with those left behind either dead or considered worthless to the Romans.

I’m convinced that God knows us better than we know ourselves, he has no need to call unannounced as if we know him he’s with us all the time, we don’t need to worry whether our hair is tidy or whether the house is a tip as he’s seen it all before. He’s far more interested in how we relate to him, each other and the planet we live on.

I was at the opening of some boutiques, delis and wine bars in old railway arches around Deptford Station this week, part of the London & Greenwich Railway, London’s first railway line. One man there was telling me how he could never have imagined this when he was a boy with steam and foul smells coming from the arches as people kept their nags in them after a day collecting old iron and lumber around the streets of south London.

It is true that we often cannot predict the changes that lie ahead but we can plan for a future with God by the way we live our lives now. In his letter to the Romans we heard Paul warn about missing out on all that God offers, perhaps through laziness, indifference to his message or a misplaced reliance upon our own ability to determine matters, this may be the ‘slumber’ he tells us we need to wake from.

At advent we find ourselves with a focus on both the past and the future, as a church we affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again in power. As individuals we can take this opportunity to consider our spiritual journey so far and consider where change is needed.

In the season of Advent we are reminded that we don’t have to just sit back and accept the world as something that happens around us and to us but God wants us to take part, use our influence for the better, get involved.

In a secular sense we could count the days to Christmas by opening little calendar windows and lighting candles over advent (all of which I’m in favour of), but once the warm glow of Christmas fades we could also sink into depression over the dark cold months that follow.

For us the point of advent can be that we live with the expectation and anticipation that ends in Christmas, as the story unfolds we realise that we are sewn into its very fabric. As we understand God a little more becomes apparent that it neither began nor ends there but is even greater than we imagined. I found the words of Nick Baine, Bishop of Leeds helpful when he said ‘… Advent, in asking us to question our fixed expectations, also invites us to look differently at who and how God is. We often seem to be obsessed with maintaining our purity – not being contaminated by the nasty or dodgy stuff of 'the world'. Yet, we are being opened up to the fact that at Christmas God opted into the world of joy and muck, and did not exempt himself from all that means. In other words, God decided that, rather than worrying about being contaminated by the bad stuff, he would contaminate the world with good stuff: generosity, grace, love, mercy, justice, hope.

That sounds like a good challenge to set ourselves this Advent, to contaminate the world with good stuff, to refuse to accept the status quo where we know God wants better.

If we are looking for examples I was very moved this week by the courage of the footballers who came forward to tell how they were abused as youngsters. It was clearly an extremely painful process for them to go public about their horrific experiences but their motivation was to seek justice for others, to raise awareness and increase protection for those currently at risk.

There’s no shortage of opportunities to play our part in creating glimpses of God’s Kingdom on earth and our efforts to do so will change us as people. For many it may not be as dramatic as the horrific wrongs unfolding in the football world but we face prejudices, injustices and selfishness every day which we can challenge and sometimes we have more influence than we realise.

Advent people aren’t worn down and defeated by the wrongs in our world, we are people who are sustained and energised by the sure and certain knowledge that we have a future with God, which unlike everything else in our world is fixed and unchanging.

Kevin Bright
 27 November 2016

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