A sermon preached by Graham Low on Advent Sunday 2.12.18
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light. These wonderful words usher in both thenew year in the life of the church, and also the season of Advent, meaning coming.
The origins of the season are unclear: it was the last season of the liturgical year to be established, possibly in 5th or 6th century Gaul. It has always contained some elements of a call to penitence, and has always included at least the four Sundays before Christmas. There is some evidence that it may have been the church’s response to the pagan winter fast. And more recently it has included a degree of joyful anticipation of Christmas. Churches, like ours, which follow the liturgical year, have readings on the first two Sundays which tend to be about the eternal reign of Christ and his second coming, and the last two tend to anticipate Christmas more directly. It is also worth remembering that from today the gospel readings on Sundays during the next year will mainly be taken from Luke.
Luke’s gospel begins with a prologue, a key to what will come. It does not go into details such as his great emphasis on care for others of all kinds, or the themes of salvation or testing. Instead it is about what Luke understands as knowing the truth of what you have heard. This sets the scene for the whole of the rest of the gospel: the good news of the revelation of Jesus, the bringer of salvation, the bringer of light in place of darkness.
And so let us look at today’s passage from Luke. It includes a warning that the day may “catch you unexpectedly, like a trap”. This might easily be read as an appropriate warning for us at the beginning of December about the annual frenzy of preparations for Christmas. The next three weeks or so may include excitement and anxiety in equal measure.
Beyond the understandable calls to alertness in this passage, there is a more problematic thread. The church traditionally links the first coming of Jesus at his birth with his second coming at the Parousia, or at the end of time as we know it. While this connection is acknowledged it is not clearly understood. We may ask: how can we make a connection between the birth of a baby to a young woman and “the signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars”, “the roaring of the sea and the waves” or the “powers of the heaven will be shaken”? How will this advent, “come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth”? These questions about Christ’s second coming have challenged people from New Testament times. Some find these questions hard to face and quietly put them to one side. Others believe that they can predict when and how the second coming will be. Yet others have read these texts in the context of biblical scholarship, as well as in the context of the world around them, with some challenge. Those of you with any theological training will almost certainly have had to write an essay or more about the second coming.
Many of us have difficulty with apocalyptic language: some simply cannot cope and ignore it. On the surface today’s words here are clear: catastrophe among human beings will follow uproar in the heavens and upon earth. So much fear will abound that people will even feint. And the Son of man will appear on a cloud. Now if we look carefully we shall see that these phrases actually form a kind of collage of well-known expressions in the Old Testament. In larger than life language we see that some fundamentally earth-shaking divine action is anticipated in the world at some uncertain time in the future.
The early verses of today’s passage speak of inevitable divine intervention in the way things are in our world. The later verses are about our appropriate response as human beings to this divine intervention. Thus we are told that these signs of the future are likened to the leaves on a fig tree. When we see them the summer is near. In the same way Luke tells us that Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is close at hand. An assurance of the faithfulness of Jesus’ promise is given. And we are invited to respond with trust.
The final verses are an appeal to avoid wariness. We should not be diverted by the cares and concerns of ordinary life from forgetting that the day will come, and that no one will escape it. Thus we are called always to be alert, watching, waiting and being vigilant, standing up and raising our heads, anticipating redemption. The kingdom is near. But how near? A view that many find helpful is that signs or elements of the kingdom are already around us now, but not fully established because of darkness brought about by human wrongdoing. Our celebration of the Eucharist this morning is one of the signs of the breaking in of the kingdom now. And so we pray for the grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now and in the future, however long that may be.
Today’s call to us to watch and wait is a direct challenge to the instant fix way of so much of our culture. So many things can interfere with trying to watch and wait. Even if we are not overcome by dissipation and drunkenness, we are all beset by worries: family, financial, environmental, political. Matters both trivial and important cloud the vision of the coming kingdom, so that even if it is just round the corner, it is still out of sight. To look only at what is close at hand runs the risk of missing the larger picture.
This passage seems particularly appropriate given the situation of paralysis in which our nation finds itself. Families and communities are divided, political parties are divided between each other as well as within themselves. No majorities for any specific way forward are apparent. And it seems that we are part of shifting tectonic plates both more widely in Europe and elsewhere. There is darkness. We cannot see ahead. Predictability and normality seem to have disappeared.
In Advent we are reminded that the pregnancy of a young woman is no longer an ordinary matter, but has cosmic implications. The birth of that baby has and will overturn all the powers of the earth. Though nothing will be the same, that baby will invite us to leave the darkness behind, and to walk in the light and in the hope of glory. And so we pray again: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came in great humility, that on the last day when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal. Amen.