What are you waiting for?
Sermon preached on Advent Sunday 2015
(Texts Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 21: 25-36)
I started work on this sermon with a clear vision in mind – one which was as vivid as today’s gospel account and only slightly less formidable!
It was a vision not of the Son of man, however, but of the actress Stephanie Cole and her character “Diana” from the 1990s series “Waiting for God”.
In that series Diana is a rather feisty resident of Golden Acres retirement home who, alongside her neighbour – the slightly befuddled Tom – flatly refuses to grow old gracefully. And they seem to spend every waking hour causing chaos both for their families and the home’s rather proscriptive management team.
Diana is the archetypal maiden aunt – who speaks her mind without restraint – who finds fault where others might turn a blind eye – and who, underneath a very stern exterior, has a rather childish sense of fun.
And so I had in mind both Diana, and the title of the series – “Waiting for God” – as I turned my thoughts to the beginning of Advent.
We are then entering the season of “waiting” – waiting for the coming of “God with us”.
Both our readings seem to be pointing us forwards –and with a certain sense of urgency. What’s rather odd is that Jeremiah and Luke seem to have swapped places!
Jeremiah – seems to spend most of his time moaning, alienated from his people in order to proclaim God’s judgement on them: those of us who periodically wade through the book of Jeremiah at Morning Prayer can testify that he’s hardly an uplifting read.
And yet here – from chapter 33 – there’s a lovely little snippet – full of hope and God’s reassurance that if the people wait patiently for him they will be restored: “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” A wonderful vision that is all the more compelling from the lips of Jeremiah – the prophet of doom.
But then what is Luke up to?
Luke normally gives us nice things to read – it’s Luke who gives us Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, as the birth of Jesus is announced to her – it’s Luke who gives us the detail of the Nativity – shepherds with their flocks, the stable and manger for the new-born messiah.
So, again, it’s a bit of a shock to find a rather different tone in today’s reading – it’s almost as if he’s making up Jeremiah’s light-heartedness!
Here Luke is also pointing forward to something new – but with dire warnings along the way.
At the very least, there’s a sense that – even as we await Christ’s coming again – it’s more like waiting for Diana, the maiden aunt, who may well upbraid us publicly for our sloppy appearance, or any other number of failings, rather than awaiting an old friend whose appearance will immediately fill our hearts with joy.
You’ve probably seen – on fridge magnets, or postcards and similar places – the phrase “Jesus is coming – look busy!” And I think there’s a hint of that in Luke’s reading. Both Jeremiah and Luke seem to be urging us to be on the lookout – to be alert to what is going on around us – and to know what or whom it is that we are waiting for.
Luke uses the image of the fig tree to demonstrate the way we notice the changing of the seasons and, by analogy, urges us to learn to read the signs of the times – AND the signs of God’s coming kingdom.
We are not to be terrified by events – appalling though they may be – because what lies beyond will be unimaginably better than now. But we do need to be ready.
“Be alert at all time”, says Luke, “praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
So, in this season of “waiting for God”, how DO we prepare ourselves for his arrival??
On one level it may be rather like awaiting our sternest maiden aunt – we may attend to those things in our lives that we know are most likely to draw critical comment, to minimise the embarrassment of meeting. We want to “appear” before Christ in the best light possible.
And we might also want to refresh our memories as to what it is we’re looking for: it would not go down too well with Aunt Diana if we turned up at the station to meet her off the train, only to fail to recognise her on the platform.
And Luke seems to ask how sure we are that we will recognise the Son of Man when he comes again – and whether we NOW recognise what God is up to in our midst?
So, although we may not relish the prospect, we do need to engage with the less comforting passages of scripture, as well as the “fluffy tales” of Christmas – in order to remind ourselves of Christ’s teachings – of the “kingdom values” we are meant to be living out and looking out for in our communities now – so that we can prepare ourselves for the time when we will stand before the Son of man.
We’re used to the notion of Lenten resolutions – preparing for Easter by a season of restraint or of active preparation. Could we then use Advent in a similar way to prepare ourselves more methodically?
Perhaps we might spend a few minutes each day reading from scripture – a Psalm a day, or stepping through a particular Gospel – or even Jeremiah!
We might keep a particular time of prayer during each day (over and above what we normally do) – to help sharpen our senses.
Or, if you are accustomed to lighting an advent candle each day – why not spend 5 minutes just sitting and watching it burn? And as you gaze at the flame – try to “be still in the presence of the Lord” (to borrow a phrase from the Psalms).
Whatever might work best for you, perhaps we can share a common Advent resolution to “be alert”, to look beyond ourselves – to the things that lie ahead for us – and to try to become more aware now of God’s presence – surrounding us and within us.