The Divine Discontent of Advent:
A sermon preached by Graham Low on Advent Sunday 1.12.19 at St Mary’s.
We have come to a pivotal point in the church calendar, marked visually by the wreath of candles, and by the sombre purple colour of our vestments. And in the three year cycle of gospel readings on Sundays, today we begin to read and reflect on passages from the gospel according to Matthew. So a word or two about it.
Though we are unsure about who wrote this gospel, it is generally agreed that its author had access to Mark’s gospel. What are some of its most striking features? Firstly, there is frequent emphasis on Jesus fulfilling the Law, as well as on the Jewish scriptures about the history of the Jewish people. Secondly, Matthew and his church are clearly involved in debate, at times bitter, with their Jewish neighbours. It is the most Jewish of the gospels. Thirdly, we see here an increasingly deep portrait of Jesus, often highlit by contrasts between him and those around him in the scene. And lastly, it is a practical gospel, with deep insights into how we, followers of Jesus, should live. What amounts to the new law of Jesus is in some ways more demanding than the old law, for it emphasises not only appropriate action but corresponding thought and attitude.
Today Matthew makes it clear that the time of Jesus’ advent, his comingagain, his arrival, is only known to God. When we go by train we know that we only need to arrive on the platform a minute or two before departure. By contrast, Matthew reminds us that rather than turning up at the last minute, we are to be continually alert and ready for Christ’s arrival.
Throughout the gospels we find meanings that are counter-cultural: we live in a world which is extraordinarily structured to last minute action over what we eat or buy or do. We expect immediate results. If there is any delay, impatience quickly dominates us. The sheer brevity of the title of the website lastminute.com says it all.
So how can we remain patiently alert and expectant when after over 2,000 years Jesus has still not returned? Jesus’ promise of returning to claim his kingdom remains credible because in the meantime, in which we live, he has already arrived in less ultimate ways: in his word, in his sacraments, in his daily provision for our wellbeing and needs, in the love of us for one another, and he goes on coming.
In other words, there are signs of Jesus’ kingdom all around us, but, asMatthew and the other gospel writers indicate, its final arrival will come about after deep and prayerful thought and maturity of attitude as well as through action. Our current turbulent political situation stems from the lack of a vision of the kind of community and nation we aspire to be. Furthermore, it is clear that the trajectory of the world is increasingly dominated by consumerism pointing towards an environmental apocalypse. Advent is sometimes called the time of divine discontent. We share that discontent today. We are to wake up to this darkness, so that light will show us new ways of living with muchless travel, meat consumption, heat loss from buildings and so on. We shall need to adapt to living in much closer-knit communities of caring and sharing, than in today’s growing pattern of isolated individualism. This can be a wonderful opportunity for the church to take a lead in shaping radically new ways of community life, for the common good.
Matthew gives us many clues about the kind of community God calls us to form: it is marked by faith, hope and love, the themes of our Wednesday evening worship in Advent. So, may we have the grace to wake up now, today, and not tomorrow, and begin to live in the light of God’s advent of discontent. Amen.