Reflections on Advent

I preached this morning on what I understand the point of Advent to be. In the hope it might be useful for others, here’s my sermon:

 

Waiting for Advent

1 Thessalonians 3:9 – 13, Luke 21:25 – 36

 

When I was growing up, Advent was always a very frustrating time. I’ve never been a particularly patient person – on many occasions I’ve found myself praying ‘Lord, give me patience, and make it quick!’ – and I found counting down the days till Christmas and waiting for a new batch of toys to play with difficult to say the least. Why wouldn’t December just hurry up? I remember the sense of anticipation being exhausting – four weeks is a long time when you’re seven! Added to the mix, we never knew exactly which relatives would decide to descend upon us, whether mum would get through cooking the Christmas dinner without a nervous breakdown this year, and if we’d be made to eat the dreaded Brussels sprouts again. In other words, Advent was a time of waiting for something, without really knowing what it would look like.

Fast-forwarding twenty years or so, I’m no longer so overwhelmed with enthusiasm for ‘the big day’, despite always looking forward to the John Lewis advert and M&S Christmas cake. However, I’m convinced that thinking of Advent as a time of waiting without quite knowing what things will look like in the end is a helpful way for Christians to approach this time of year. We await the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s anointed Son andIsrael’s Messiah, into the world once again, and hopefully in the midst of the busyness find some time to ask ourselves some deep questions. Have I really let God into my life as fully as possible, or are there bits of myself I keep back? What would it look like if my relationship with God were that little bit deeper and fuller? Letting our defences down enough for that to happen isn’t easy, and the results can be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. After all, as others have put it, God loves us just as we are, but too much to leave us where we are, which means change. However, it’s change that stems from God’s longing for us to have life in all its fullness. Advent is thus a time of waiting, of encounter, and of transformation.

Our two readings this morning are stories of waiting, both in the face of tremendous pressures. Let’s start with the Gospel reading, which plunges us straight in at deep end of Luke’s Gospel and has Jesus warning the disciples of the turbulent events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man. It’s part of a passage that speaks about the destruction of temple inJerusalem, Christians being forced out of synagogues and wars and famines coming, events that had taken or were taking place by the time Luke wrote his Gospel, sometime around 90 AD. When Jesus talked about strange things happening in the sun, moon and stars, and roaring seas and raging tides throwing countries into despair, he was using apocalyptic language, which generally refers to ‘end times’. It would’ve been understood by people at the time to mean there would be friction among the nations, yielding great instability.

It was against that backdrop that Jesus talked about the Son of Man coming on a cloud with great power and glory. Here, he was drawing on the prophecy in Daniel chapter seven, in whichIsraelwould be vindicated and set free from oppression. The Son of Man was one of Jesus’ favourite titles for himself. It came to be associated with the Messiah, but the Aramaic means ‘weak man’ or ‘humble man’. In the context of our passage, the Son of Man acts as a judge over the nations, reflecting Jesus’ sense of what it meant to be the Messiah. He saw himself not as the military leader that many expected, but instead as bringing God’s judgment on anIsraelthat’d failed to be the people of God, had marginalised the vulnerable and turned their noses up at outsiders. He was calling them back to faithful living – that was his mission.

The passage ends with a warning to keep watch and wait for the Son of Man to come. God’s transforming judgment would come, and Jesus would be vindicated, but it’d happen in the midst of the chaosIsraelhas brought on itself. The disciples were being prepared – keep your eyes open and stay alert. Following the cross and resurrection, there would be a period of waiting, and when they saw the warning signs, they weren’t to stay inJerusalemout of loyalty, but to leave quickly. This was waiting with an urgent purpose, not knowing exactly how things would play out, except that they would be challenging to say the least. However, as promised in Daniel and highlighted by Jesus’ concern for the disciples, God would be with his people in the midst of their troubles.

Now, while it’s true that most of us are unlikely to find ourselves caught up in such turbulent circumstances as those Jesus described, waiting on God can be a very tough business. It’s not for nothing that patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit. However, that’s the challenge that Jesus lays down for us, to keep faith through the ups and downs of life, and to watch for his coming into our lives once more, being ready to receive him when he does. It seems that the community that Paul had founded in Thessalonica had been open to this encounter. In our second reading, Paul seemingly can’t wait to visit the Thessalonians again, so inspired is he by their faith in the midst of adversity. His prayer is that the love among the congregation will be strengthened and deepened, and that they will be made perfect and holy in the sight of God. They are to show the fruit that waiting on God can yield.

So, what are to make of all this, on this first Sunday of Advent? Well, I think the readings offer us three key points worthy of note. Firstly, in both cases, God asks this question of his followers: when the chips are down, are you going to remain faithful to God? Easier said than done, I appreciate, but that’s the challenge. When the disciples were being warned of the dangers to come, they were effectively being asked: will you stick with Jesus and faithfully wait for the Son of Man? Secondly, for the Thessalonians, the hope was that they would grow in love for one another despite the pressures upon them. Will we manage the same? Thirdly, through all the ups and downs of life, God is with us and is faithful to us, even though that means being vulnerable, and ultimately enduring the cross. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means that God’s love isn’t an abstract idea found in textbooks, but a concrete reality. As the clip said, God has a face and a voice. God showed up.

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference for local preachers held inWarrington. During one of the services, we were told about one of the regular congregation we were joining having passed away a while back, in circumstances that the minister didn’t specify but which were obviously distressing. She described driving passed the person’s house one day and seeing police officers outside. When she went to investigate, she found her friend lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Before the body was taken away, she knelt down in the blood, anointed her friend with water and prayed for her. One of the police officers, obviously moved by this, asked her in not such polite terms why she’d done that. Her reply was beautifully simple and profound: “Because that’s God does. Every day he stoops to meet us, not worrying about getting mixed up in our mess, and loves us as we are”.

Advent is a time of waiting on God, waiting for the ultimate divine act of stooping to meet us as we are: becoming human, sharing our life, our hopes and fears, our death. It’s that vulnerable and costly love that lies at the heart of God and the heart of the Gospel, and as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. So, whatever life throws at us, the challenge is there, as it was for the disciples, to stick with God. But so is the promise that no matter what, and no matter how hard we find the waiting, God will stick with us.