A Sermon from Sherborne
It is a very happy coincidence that this year Advent Sunday falls on 1st December, as throughout the world there will be children opening the first door of their Advent Calendars. Some will only find a chocolate, others will begin the story of the birth of Jesus. For my own grandchildren they will find both! For many years now the retail world has sought to exploit this season, and expectations have been raised by incessant advertising at least two months before, to ensure we spend the maximum amount as Christmas approaches, and this year is no exception. When Christmas Eve finally comes it is however gratifying that hundreds of people flock to this Abbey for the Crib Services, and the First Eucharist of Christmas, and the celebration can really begin.
By this time, the children’s expectation is at fever pitch, and for many children there may be even an attempt to stay awake for Father Christmas, but of course they don’t know what time he is coming, and inevitably they are overtaken by sleep.
Our Readings for this Advent Sunday are full of expectation. Paul in Romans (13 v.11) urges us to “wake from sleep”, and in the Gospel Reading (Matthew 24 v.42) Jesus tells us to “keep awake” for you do not know what day the Lord is coming. Earlier he speaks of wars, international conflict, famines, and earthquakes, and these words would have had particular resonance with those who first heard St Matthew’s Gospel in view of their own particular political situation. They were after all being occupied by the Romans, and recently there had been the destruction of the Temple. Did this mean that Jesus return was imminent? Was God going to save them by pronouncing Judgement on the Roman Empire, and usher in His Kingdom? Their expectation was that this would happen soon, and some were worried that it hadn’t happened already, but they could be reassured by the words of Jesus that no-one knows when it will happen. His instruction is “keep awake” whilst continuing to live our daily lives.
Now over 2000 years have passed, and we are still waiting. In view of all that is happening, even in these coming two weeks, some Christians think that Jesus’s Return must take place at least in the next 50 years, and some think that because of this imminent Return there is no point in trying to save the planet, or prevent injustice, because it is all going to end in some devastating conflagration. This however does not match with Paul’s expectation that Jesus would come again to bring salvation from oppression (Roamans13 v.11), nor Jesus’s own ministry to the sick and marginalised.
There are other Christians who doubt that Jesus Return will ever happen, arguing it is difficult to imagine how it would take place, and how people would respond in this day and age. They usually go on to point out that Christian believers can already experience the presence of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit in their daily lives, and that Jesus comes to them especially through Word and Sacrament. Yet Jesus did come physically into this world at a particular time and a particular place, and if we had been alive then we could have literally been in his physical presence, and touched a physical body. When visiting Israel today you can walk where Jesus would have walked, and cross the Sea of Galilee as he crossed it. It really did happen. It is a historical fact. At the time Judea was simply a part of a Roman province, a fraction of a huge empire, yet what happened in this obscure part of the Empire has had significance throughout the world. We worship in this magnificent building which is a testimony to our forbears’ faith, built to the glory of God, and even today is the largest building by far in this community. If God can achieve all this starting from a stable cave in Bethlehem, is a Second Coming so impossible? Perhaps our perception of God is too small.
As we begin this season of Advent, the season of “Coming”. What is our expectation for this time? Are we simply going to get caught up in the razzamatazz of a secular celebration, or will we have a growing sense of excitement about what God may have in store for us? We have already sung that great Advent hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel. It is full of powerful phrases of expectation, and there will be more as we progress through the next four weeks. Our final hymn this morning, ‘Lo He comes with clouds descending’ words by Charles Wesley, has the most uncompromising plea in the final verse: ‘O come quickly. O come quickly. Alleluia, Come, Lord, Come!’ May this longing be heartfelt, so that we are prepared to discover the Coming of God in our lives once more. This may mean a need for reflection on what has been happening in the recent past, and acknowledging ways in which we know we can improve. It might even be helpful to share any concern either with a priest or trusted Christian friend. That we may meet once more the Christ child in this 21st century by being awake to the promptings of His Holy Spirit, and ready to receive anew the Child born in a manger, our Brother, our Saviour, our King.