Advent Sunday 2014
On Monday of this week our Aldhelm Group were looking at the work of Isaac Newton – 17th century scientist and framer of the Laws of motion which held sway for the better part of 300 years: he it was who sat under the apple tree and was inspired to give the first explanation of the force of gravity.
What was less familiar to us, in Monday’s Aldhelm group, was Newton’s interest in Christian theology – and his keen interest in the “end times” – the second coming of Christ and the end of the universe as we know it. This, Newton considered might happen as early as the year 2060 – but not before.
The author of the material we were studying challenged us to consider why this topic is so rarely discussed today – either in church – or among Christians elsewhere. Why do we no longer see the men in sandwich boards urging us to repent because “the end is nigh”?
I commented that I think the Church is much more concerned with now with transforming life in the “here and now” or, as our own Mission statement put it, striving to “reveal God’s love in worship and action”. But that’s still only an observation – not an explanation of WHY we don’t talk much about what is clearly there in scripture and in words attributed to Christ himself. Might it be a general embarrassment that the end has not already come – when Christ seems to say it would happen within the first generation of the Church?
Is it a reaction against the kind of Victorian and 20th Century Christianity that treated faith very much as an escape from the harsh realities of the world?
With various thoughts and questions still swimming around in my head I came here to Morning Prayer on Wednesday only to hear the Reading from chapter 16 of Revelation – describing God purging the earth – and then the reflection which began – “The Wrath of God has rather fallen out of fashion as a topic of preaching in mainstream Western Christianity”.
Taking those two things together – I was left wondering whether we might just have lost some of the edge, some of the urgency that previous generations of Christians shared – and which still characterises the faith of persecuted Christians in Iraq or Syria or Sudan, for example.
Are most western Christians just too comfortable and complacent to worry about such things?
Today’s three readings all have something to add to this: [Isaiah 64: 1-9 – 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9 – Mark 13: 24-37]
The first from Isaiah mourns the absence of God – an absence seen as judgement on a wayward human race, and pleads that God will not remember our iniquity but will remember that he has made us and can re-make us.
The letter to the Corinthians assures it hearers that they have been given the “spiritual gifts while they wait for the revealing of Christ, and that He will strengthen them to the end”.
So God’s power will be revealed on the last day, but is already at work as we wait.
Then , in Mark’s gospel, there is no room for slacking – the end is described in dramatic terms and we are told twice to “keep awake” and, once, to “beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
What I think all that adds up to is an even stronger sense of “duality” in our lives that I’ve spoken of recently – the need to live, fully engaged in the realities of this world, now: the realities of our own community and society and the realities of global tensions and inequality AND to live in the light and expectation of God’s promised kingdom.
Without that future sense of the perfection that God promises will be – it’s hard to find the strength to challenge what is wrong in the present world.
Without the realisation that God is already working through us – has already given us the necessary spiritual gifts – it’s easy to look at the problems of the world and assume he is absent.
So, at the beginning of Advent we’re quite literally given a wake-up call. To look for the signs of God’s activity here and now, so that we can better understand what can too easily seem just distant promises for the future.
As we journey together through Advent, can we really try to keep alert? – alert to the realities of each other’s lives, of the needs around us and to the opportunities that arise to share OUR vision of God’ presence.
There are 3 particular ways that I think we can work at doing that.
Firstly – the oft discussed issue of how we communicate with each other. I’m often dismayed when someone tells me they didn’t know about something they’ve missed –especially when I know I’ve produced a full page spread in the Parish news, included it on several weekly sheets and spoken about it from the front here!
Please do take at least to read the weekly sheet – including those things that may not seem to affect you directly. You may have no intention of ever attending a School Governors meeting, a Mothers’ union meeting or of volunteering to help sustain the Credit union – but you ought to be aware that other church members are doing those things and need your prayers to sustain them.
And if we are really going to communicate effectively – not only do I need to know that you know what’s going on, I also need you to be telling your neighbours who don’t get a weekly sheet.
So, please, be alert to what is going on and to others who might need to know.
Secondly, the question of needs – and the pastoral care that we offer. There is so much more that we could do – for the lonely housebound, for those who spend time in hospital, for those who’ve messed up and need a wise ear and a little guidance.
Are there people within this congregation, or people that you know, who have the time and the skills to train as an LPA – who might then spend time visiting people at home or in hospital? Or who might use those skills as volunteers in our schools or community groups?
Be alert to the gifts God has given you – and those around you – and see if we can’t do more than we currently manage.
And, thirdly, for ALL of us – that overriding need to be alert to every opportunity to engage other people in the reality of God’s presence among us. And that doesn’t need to be particularly high brow, or formal.
It can simply be inviting people to come and join in – as happened so successfully yesterday at our Christmas Fayre.
It can be actively celebrating our faith with other people – as we have opportunity to do at tomorrow’s Tree lighting ceremony. Or it can be just talking about our faith – offering something valuable from our own experience – being alert to when the right moment presents itself in the natural flow of conversation.
If we can all work on those things this Advent – then we might become more aware of each other, and how we can support one another, more aware of the needs of our neighbours, and how we might address them, and more aware of the God’s promptings – and how we might share those experiences.
The season of Advent is sometimes likened to the experience of Israelites that Moses led through the Red Sea into the wilderness – they know God has delivered them from captivity but now they’re not sure where to find him – they know that their freedom is won, but they have still not seen the promised land.
Like them, we know we already have much to be thankful for – but that if we press on there is a far greater prize to be won.
And so I’m going to end with an Advent prayer – that uses that same symbolism.
We thank you God for the wilderness – for our place.
As we wait for the land of promise,
Teach us new ways of living,
Lead us to where we hear your word most clearly,
Renew us and clear out the wastelands of our lives,
Prepare us for life in the awareness of Christ’s coming
When the desert will sing
And the wilderness will blossom as the rose.