Sunday, 3 December 2017

Advent 1: The God who comes to us

Audio version here

Isaiah 64. 1-9, Psalm 80.1-7, 16-18, 1 Cor 1.3-9, Mark13.24-37

Advent can be a confusing idea. It falls to my lot to explain it to children and I tell them, of course, that  the word means “coming”, from the Latin “advenire”. ‘What’s coming?’ I ask them. The answer is usually ‘Santa’, or sometimes ‘Christmas’, but whatever it is, it normally has something to do with what is going to be under the tree for them. After a bit of prompting I might get something about the birth of Jesus. But I can’t blame them for wondering what that has to do with coming, because the baby Jesus has, obviously, already arrived. We’re two thousand years too late for his coming. There’s not much point trying to get ready for it now, is there? It may be good news, but it’s old news.

And yet Christians through the ages have still kept Advent as a season of expectant waiting, lighting the Advent candles, one more each week, opening the windows on the Advent calendars, one more each day. Something is coming, we proclaim. But what is it?

One answer, traditionally, is that Advent is a time when we prepare for Jesus’ second coming at the end of the age, “‘in clouds’ with great power and glory” as our Gospel reading put it. His first coming was as a baby in Bethlehem. Traditional Christian belief says that he will come again one day in majesty. St Paul called it “the day of the Lord Jesus” in our second reading today. Like the Gospel writers, Paul believed that Jesus would return in the very near future in a very literal way. On that day, the heavens would open. It would be like a king leading his victory parade only much, much better. The dead would be raised. There would be a judgement, a reckoning, but ultimately Christ would usher in a new age of peace.  

By the end of the first century, though, it hadn’t happened as those first followers had expected, and there was a crisis in Christian faith. Had something gone wrong? The early Christians thought again about what Jesus had said and done. He had said, after all, that no one knew – not even him – when this Second Coming would happen.   “Maybe we got it wrong,” they thought. “Maybe this isn’t a sprint. Maybe it’s a marathon. Maybe the second coming of Jesus is further off than we thought, or is different from what we imagined it would be.”

Many people feel rather uncomfortable with the idea of the Second Coming today. Christ coming through the clouds? Stars falling from the heavens? It all sounds like a rather overblown disaster movie. But Christianity has never entirely abandoned the idea. We’ve never given up the belief that God will, one day, create a “new heaven and a new earth” as the Book of Revelation puts it – it’s still there in the creed we say each Sunday.  However we feel about it, it’s good that it is there. It has also often sustained and strengthened people going through hard times, because its underlying message is that God’s love is stronger than hatred and oppression. Whatever the world looks like, whatever it throws at you, God is ultimately in control – the bad times won’t last forever. African American slaves sung about Jesus’ return often in their spirituals. It was precious to them because it told them that their suffering wasn’t the end of the story. There would be a better future, even they didn’t live to see it. It helped them to hold onto the truth that they were God’s precious and beloved children when they were being treated as if they weren’t even human.  And in doing that, it gave them strength not only to endure but also to challenge the powers that oppressed them. And that strength eventually helped them win their freedom.

The people who wrote our Old Testament reading and our Psalm today would have recognised their experience. The readings we heard were written in troubled times, from troubled hearts. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” cried Isaiah, as he looked at the ruins of the nation of Israel, which had been hammered into the ground by the Babylonians. The Psalmist howls at God too, wondering where he has got to. “How long will you be angered, despite the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears.” For all the despair and fury in these words, the fact that they were uttered at all is an expression of faith. You don’t shout at God and demand that he acts if you don’t think he’s there, or don’t think he cares.  That’s why it’s ok to be angry with God when we need to be. He doesn’t mind us shouting at him – he only minds when we ignore him and hide from him. These Old Testament writers expected that, sooner or later, God was going to do something decisive to help them. They just didn’t know what, or when.

For Christians, even if we struggle to understand the Second Coming literally, it expresses something that is vital to our faith. It says that we believe that God cares, that he hasn’t abandoned his creation, but wants to heal it and bless it. That’s true all year round, but our focus on the Second Comin in Advent challenges us to trust that statement of faith. Can we believe in God’s love even when there is no sign of it in our lives at the moment? Can we hold onto hope even when everything around us speaks of despair? Do we really think that God is in charge?

So Advent is about the past; we remember God coming to us in the baby of Bethlehem. And it’s about the future; trusting that God in his majesty has our lives in his hands and will deliver us from our troubles in one way or another. But Advent is also about the present, about what we do now, while we are waiting. After all, the present is the only time we can do anything about. The past is gone, the future is yet to come. The present is the only moment in which we can act. So there’s a third focus to Advent, a third sense in which God comes to us, and that is here and now, minute by minute, day by day, if we have our eyes open to see him.

Someone once said that Advent is about the God who comes to us in history, in the past, in majesty, in the future, but in mystery now, threading himself by his Spirit into our daily lives. History, mystery and majesty.

Now is the moment for mystery. That’s why Jesus reminds his followers to stay awake, to watch. “You don’t know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn”   he says. The night was traditionally divided into four watches of around three hours each at the time of Jesus, from six at night to six in the morning. Whatever time of night it is, Jesus is saying, however deep the darkness, the job of the doorkeeper is to watch out for the moment when the master shows up so he can let him in. In the same way, we’re called to be on the lookout for God, not out of fear, but in joyful anticipation, because when God shows up in our lives, in our church, in our world, when God is at work, good things start to happen. Life bursts forth from death, love overcomes hatred, hope defeats despair. We may need sharp eyes to see the small signs of his presence, but if we’re not actively looking, if we’re not awake, we may miss him completely.

What sort of things do I mean? What sort of things do we need to be on the look out for? It may be somebody coming up with small idea which could easily be squashed or ignored. We had a great evening yesterday singing carols in Seal High Street as the lights were switched on. Lots of people said how great it was as a way of bringing the village together. That initiative started as one person’s idea. We have JD O’Brien to thank for it. But others encouraged it and helped it to grow, sensing that the God who loves communities was in it. God showed up, along with the rest of the crowd, and drew people a bit closer together. It is one in a number of small initiatives that we’ve been part of in Seal over the years, which have helped us to build relationships and make links between people, bringing God’s blessing to them, perhaps easing someone’s loneliness just a bit. But to spot those opportunities we have to have our eyes open, and trust that if we act lovingly, God will show up.

Or there was the person who told me the other day that sometimes in worship she has a sense that there is more going on than is apparent on the surface. It would be easy to just put that down to a stirring bit of music, or a well-worded prayer, but in noticing it, she recognised that in that moment God was at work here, for her, but maybe for others too. “The Lord is here”, “His Spirit is with us”, we say, but do we believe it?

Pastoral conversations often leave me with the feeling that I’ve been standing on holy ground too, that something special has happened, that God has shown up with new insights and something has shifted.  

God can come to us in many ways, if only we have the eyes to see them.

Advent means coming –God comes to us, in the past, the present, and the future, in history, in mystery and in majesty. God comes in history in the child of Bethlehem. He comes in majesty at the end of time, whatever we understand by that. But between those two comings, he comes in mystery, popping up in our lives in the people we meet, the situations we deal with, the worship we offer. Our task is to wake up and notice him, to begin every day in expectation that we we’ll see him at work and to end every day recognising where that has happened and giving thanks for it. If we do that, then every day can be Advent, a day when God comes to us, showing up in our lives to bless and to heal us, and through us to bless and heal others too.


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