Tag Archives: Advent

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.

Faith, doubt and Advent

I’ve been making a serious effort this Advent to address something I know is a bit of a problem – my prayer life. I find it really hard to get into the habit of setting aside regular time simply to pray, whether using a daily office or simply sitting with God, not trying to do anything.

I started out with the best of intentions – I was going to say evening prayer every day, having realised that however much I try to be, I am just not a morning person and setting my alarm earlier doesn’t work as I just doze through it. That lasted two days before life got in the way and having let it slip once, it just vanished into the ether.

Part of the problem is, I think, that if I’m going out of an evening, I’m often on a very tight schedule. I often don’t leave the office till gone 5.30pm (sometimes it’s more like after 6pm) which isn’t by choice but reflects the volume of work I have on, and it takes 30mins to walk home. I’ve then got to cook myself dinner, which if making something nice from scratch can take anything between ten minutes and an hour, eat it and do the washing up. By the time I’ve done that, got changed out of  my suit and run out of the door again, I’m often running late as it is.  Time to pray feels like wasted time in the rush to get back into town. Even that doesn’t really wash as an excuse, though, as days when I’m doing nothing other than flopping in front of the television in the evening are still devoid of a daily office, mostly due to sheer fatigue after a long day’s problem solving.

I have realised that I’ve hit several walls at once:

  • Until about four months ago, I lived in Durham with a Cathedral on my doorstep and was able to go to a daily Eucharist and Evensong. I’m so much better at going to something scheduled like that and am much better at praying with others. There is no real equivalent in Milton Keynes and I miss it.
  • I find it hard to read the Bible because my inner academic kicks in and worries about hermeneutics and context and differing interpretations and doctrine and it forms a kind of mental wall. I worry I’m ‘not doing it properly’ and there is no point if I don’t. In short, I’ve lost the art of devotional reading of the Bible.
  • A year of undergraduate-level theology and biblical studies in Durham raised far more issues than it solved. For example, I had to write an essay on how to read the first eleven chapters of Genesis and in researching that came across so many different perspectives and opinions that apart from being sure what I didn’t like and the pre-existing theological bias driving that, I just wasn’t sure how to evaluate these. On what basis could I compare the thoughts of people far more knowledgeable than me and fluent in the original languages? It left me not sure what to think anymore. I think this sort of thing is the cause of point two.
  • Last year, I lived with someone who placed a great deal of emphasis on the use of daily offices, seeking the intercession of the saints and theological reading. This wasn’t a problem in of itself but his habit of making me feel guilty for not persuing these things with same zeal was. It seemed to me that all this stuff and the full-blown conservative Roman Catholic devotional life could easily be used as an excellent way to hide from God, or at least to keep her at arm’s length, and my trying to have an altogether simpler devotional life was ‘just not good enough’ and was frequently criticised. I also found it very hard having my beliefs attacked regularly and having to defend and justify myself all the time, and I don’t think I’ve entirely ditched this person’s baggage.
  • I’m still struggling to come to terms with leaving the ordination process. This might sound an odd thing to say given that it was several months ago and I’m about to embark on the adventure of becoming a Methodist local preacher. However, I think before then I’d had lots of doubts and questions floating around my head that I didn’t dare let surface. The pain of leaving the process and feeling distanced from the church removed that barrier and released a lot of stored-up anger with God, all of which has brought into question several theological assumptions that I suppose I simply accepted without examining them.
  • Further to the previous point, I am sick to the back teeth of church politics getting in the way of real encounter with God in so much of the Church of England. I’m not just on about women bishops and homosexuality and the covenant, but all the stuff about things being done a certain way because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘that’s how Father likes it’, and liturgical trappings of vestments, acolyting etc becoming so much more important than the God to which they are supposed to point. I JUST DON’T CARE! YOU DON’T EARN BROWNIE POINTS WITH GOD FOR DRESSING UP LIKE ELVIS-MEETS-THE KKK AND WALKING IN RIGHT ANGLES!!! I should add that the forced jollity of charismatic services and the usual evangelical cliches also drive me round the bend these days. Enough of the formulae, I want God!
  • I miss having a spiritual director to hold me to account.
  • I have a massive lazy streak.
  • I find maintaining my own routines and structure difficult.

So where does that leave things?

I’m not 100% sure.

What I do know is that God has been working in my life in the last few years to bring about a lot of healing and through particular things that have happened and the people he has brought into my life, especially TractorGirl, I’m so much more like the person God made me to be and infinitely more comfortable in my own skin. I know that whatever happens, I am loved from top to bottom purely and simply because I am. It’s not about achieving things or never messing up. It’s about pure, unearned, freely-given love. What’s more, that’s true of every single person and every single part of creation. The challenge is to live in the light of those two things and to make time to enjoy God for her own sake.

There’s a great quote from a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, which I can never quite get right but goes something like this: knowing God, and being known by God, doesn’t depend upon, nor does it guarantee, being right about God. I think this needs to be my motto over the coming weeks. My last year in Durham made it difficult to hold onto this, but I now see that it’s key, because it not only leaves room for the inevitable errors we all make when thinking about God or reading the Bible, but it also leaves room for doubts and questions and being able to say ‘I don’t know’. Having room for grey areas rather than feeling pinned down to only black or white is something that has been missing for a while now in my faith. That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t matter, but is simply to admit that I don’t have things sorted all the time and like TractorGirl, recognise I need to engage openly and honestly with my doubts.

In practice, I think this will mean having to figure out a way of giving my prayer life (in whatever form) the time it needs and so engaging with scripture, but also finding time, however ad hoc (and ad hoc may well be the best thing at the moment), just to enjoy God. Not having answers is hard for me as a scientist who likes to have things well-defined (which I know is ironic giving how much of science is really groping in the dark) but also as someone who likes to be in control. It feels vulnerable.

That brings me back to Advent, which is my favourite time of the Christian year. God didn’t come into the world on clouds descending, in a blaze of glory and power and might. Instead, God in human flesh was born as a small baby, entirely dependent on his parents, themselves very ordinary and at the mercy of the political situation of their day. which made them forced pilgrims and refugees. It’s an enormously vulnerable position fraught with risk, with the risk of loving all of us so much as to give up the thing that matters most.   God in the vulnerability, the mess and the ambiguity of the world is the only God that makes sense to me in my vulnerability, mess and ambiguity. Sometimes it’s all I can hang onto.