A Sermon preached by Revd David Barton
at St Mary’s Iffley on Advent Sunday 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-end,Matthew 24:36-44
Advent Sunday. The start of the church’s year, so a kind of New Year’s Day for the Christian calendar. It doesn’t get the fuss New Years usually get, though nowadays we have Advent Candles and Advent Calendars. But the truth is they are a bit of a distraction, because they’re more to do with Christmas than Advent. Advent, of course leads up to Christmas. But it is a Festival with a meaning and purpose of its own, and not just a count down to Christmas.
Perhaps a little comparison helps here. When I worked in central London, in Soho, the great event of the year was always Chinese New Year in February, centred round China Town. Lanterns hung everywhere. Restaurants and shops hung out poles with lettuce and red packets of money tied to the end. Dancing Lions used to come along – a couple of fit King Fu students in an elaborate lion costume – dancing to drums and clashing symbols. They would chew up the lettuce and take the money, and then spit out the torn envelopes. That was good! Along with and generosity and happiness, it was all about bringing good luck and prosperity over the coming year. Our children loved it because part of the deal was to be generous to children. They were given cakes and fruit, and, because some of the shop owners were parents of children I taught, our children were sometimes given red packets of money too. It became, as you might imagine, an event to be looked forward to!
Now the point about Chinese New Year, is that it’s based on the Buddhist calendar, and it’s cyclical. It goes in a twelve year cycle, endlessly repeating. Life is seen as circular, and because of that it’s always offering a new chance to do better than last time round. And in a sort of a way, that is what our Western, secular New Year is – though without any definition, I suppose. New Year, new chance. New resolutions. Fresh start.
But a Christian understanding of the year is quite different. We see the world as coming from God, and finally being gathered up by God. The bible is written round that: God creating the world in Genesis, through to the final gathering up in the book of Revelation. So as a result our understanding of time is linear: time always moving forward into God’s future. So a New Year is therefore a kind of countdown to the end – hence Paul says in that passage to the Romans: salvation is nearer to us now than it was before. When God will draw all things to a close, we don’t know. But be in no doubt: the end is God’s, and we move towards it.
But…if you think I am sounding like the people on your doorstep who tell you that the end of the world is nigh, then let me point out a difference. The fact is we have already seen the face of God in Jesus. In him we saw love, compassion and forgiveness. We have seen the cross, and in it we have heard the song of God’s love. In God there is nothing that is not Christlike. And because God does not change, that love is what we will see when God gathers all things up at the end.
But of course, love like that is profoundly challenging. Inevitably it shows up my weakness, my failure, my unworthiness. So all those themes once linked to Advent still apply: Death Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Judgment because of my failures, which I have to move beyond – die to them if need be. And of course, a step into God’s forgiveness is heaven, just as a step away from it is hell.
So you could say that Advent is about both bad and good news. Bad news because if we are going to live, we are going to have to die to so, so much. But good news, because the other side of that we will truly find Life.
But there is also something else here, in the readings we had.. The early church was sure the end of the world was imminent. Paul worked hard at waking people up to it. Notice that passage from Romans: no dozing off, get on with polishing your armour, make sure your morals are right – stern hints about not doing the kinds of things that happen in the darkness. This is Paul in full Rabbinic mode!
But notice Jesus. He too urges us to be watchful for the end. But his advice is more homely. He gives us a series of little vignettes. Noah frantically hammering away at his ark. No one else notices anything. But Noah was right. And those other little pictures. People innocently getting on with their lives – and suddenly! Well suddenly what? The end of the world? Well possibly. It’s a proper Advent reading. But as always in Jesus’ hands, the language of the end is used to wake us up to the presence of God in the here and now. That regular injunction of Jesus again: Keep awake therefore. Whatever we might think about the end, it’s the present moment Jesus wants us to keep an eye on.
So I’d like to end by saying something about seeing, looking – using our eyes. In the fourth century, a great Christian teacher, Gregory of Nyssa, suggested that there were three ways of looking at things. We can look in a diabolical way, we can look in a human way, or we can look in an angelic way.
To look in a diabolical way, is to look entirely with our own interests at heart. That is the point about devils. They see everything entirely from their own standpoint, they feed their own egos, constantly. They have no imaginative grasp of something or someone other than themselves. (That is why we have a hope that evil in the end will not last, but be consumed by itself.)
Angels on the other hand live in the presence of God, and so they see everything charged with God’s creativity. They have the imagination to see who each of us might be, and who we might become. So Gabriel goes to Mary, a young girl, who lives in an out of the way village no one has ever heard of, with no education, no vote, and Gabriel sees God’s future for all of mankind resting in her. That’s how angels always see: everything pregnant with possibility.
You and I are poised between the diabolical and the angelic way of seeing things. All too often we look at the world in relation to ourselves. We exploit it, squeeze it dry to the point of danger, and then we go on thinking that we have somehow cleverly defended ourselves against all misfortune. And we throw our hands in the air when it does not work.
But we have the capacity to look with the eyes of angels: to see everything and everyone packed full of God-given potential; to see a future for humanity, even when, as now, so much appears to threaten us. The difference between the two ways of seeing, lies in our readiness to die to our habitual ways of responding. To be ready to let go of all the ideas and things we surround ourselves with to keep ourselves safe. In short to risk stepping into God’s future, utterly unexpected and uncertain as it might be.
And that’s the final thing to say about Advent. What we learn from Jesus is that God’s great ending – the kingdom of love and peace – is always being shaped by God in here and now, in the present moment. Like Isaiah’s vision in the first reading – God is continually drawing all of us into his kingdom of love and compassion and forgiveness.
So Advent, you could say, tells us to sharpen our angelic eye and join the procession of those who have seen the great things God does and are stepping forward into his kingdom.