God of hope, take these words and open our minds and hearts to hear your Word. Amen
The festive lights around the city are gradually being turned on, the shops filling up with signs that tell us to ‘get ready!’, usually by spending lots of money (that we may not have) or going out celebrating, and by singing the round of Christmas songs that greet us everywhere we turn (even in here last week for those who joined in the filming for the Watchnight service!).
In Isaiah we hear the call, ‘Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ where this time of walking in the light of the Lord is described as a time when ‘swords will be beaten into ploughshares, when spears will become pruning hooks, and when nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war any more’… This is surely reason to celebrate!
But wait … Today we are living with the desperate fact of war in Europe. Young Ukrainians and Russians are having to ‘learn war’. Tens – some estimates say hundreds – of thousands of people have already been killed in this war that is just one amongst many across the world.
The theme running through our lectionary readings on this first Sunday of Advent is not Jesus’ first advent – the arrival of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph.
Today’s readings are about how we are to prepare for the second Advent, the second coming, the Apocalypse or the Revelation, which is not yet completed and is to come at a time known to no one. Matthew’s gospel tells us, ‘Stay awake! Be ready! But about that day and hour no-one knows: neither the angels of heaven; nor the Son; but only the Father’.
So what might preparing and being ready for this second coming look like?
I watched a film recently, called The Wonder, in which a young girl, in a desperate attempt to make amends for her late brother’s troubled life and early death, and to guarantee for them both a place in the heavenly Kingdom at the second coming, becomes so fixated on the afterlife that she chooses a life of extreme denial likely to lead to her death. She believed that this was how she must prepare for God’s judgement.
Such extreme religiously driven life choices may be uncommon, but nevertheless behind her extreme choice lies a tendency that is to be found in some religious circles to read passages such as today’s as an instruction to us to focus on the life hereafter rather than the life here-and-now. Is this really what the Scriptures instruct us to do?
The first part of chapter twenty-four of Matthew’s Gospel describes signs of the second Advent but it moves from this imaginative vision of what is to come, to the more practical message of how to live in order to be ready for that time, even though no-one can know when it might be.
In the verses of this chapter after today’s gospel, we find very practical words about how we are to live in these waiting days. In verse forty-five we read of a servant who does no more (or less) than give food to the other servants at the correct time. This servant cares for others to ensure they are not in need, are not hungry, are not without their daily bread.
Jesus’ teaching on how to ‘be ready’ is that ‘being ready’ is about being faithful in the ordinary; that this is what demonstrates holy watchfulness… being faithful in the ordinary.
In today’s gospel we have the puzzling metaphor for the Second Advent as being like a thief who breaks in at night. A thief represents a threat – is this who God will be – a threat who breaks in when we are at our most vulnerable?
I don’t think so. This ‘thief God’ I believe is a thief only with regard to their unexpected arrival, and comes not to steal from this deepest vulnerable me, but rather to encounter this deepest vulnerable me. I think Jesus is instructing us to be true to our deepest personhood – to be true to that private person we are when asleep in our beds at night, away from the eyes and judgements of the world, away from the persona that we prepare before we leave our homes and go into the world.
I believe the Second Advent will offer life in all its fullness to each one of us; to the person that God knows, the person that God treasures, and the person that reveals who I truly am. I think that being ready, means seeking to be true to this deepest me, and that when this happens I become faithful in the ordinary, and we are reminded of this every time we join together in the Eucharist.
Soon, in our Eucharistic prayer we will hear the words of Jesus: ‘Take, eat, drink … do this in remembrance of me.’ – we are invited to the table.
Then we say together ‘we recall his blessed passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension, and we look for the coming of his Kingdom.’ – we commit ourselves to looking for the second Advent – following which we gather round the altar table and are fed in the Eucharistic feast.
And finally as we prepare to leave we are instructed to ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’, and we reply ‘In the name of Christ, Amen’. We commit ourselves to living this life of love and service in our daily lives.
To be ready is to continue to root ourselves in God, to respond to God’s invitation to be nourished, in order to live in faithfulness and love each and every day, and to continue to be hope-filled; for we are called to keep watch with hopeful hearts for the Second Advent.
And how do we keep that hope alive, in our own and others’ hearts? By offering simple acts day after day after day: caring for one another; serving food to the hungry; loving the unloved; welcoming the homeless and the refugee; offering comfort to the afflicted. And noticing the signs of God’s presence in this world today. We don’t know when it will be completed, but the second coming will come in the midst of ordinary life. Maybe it is already happening …
Today we have lit the first Advent Candle which is, the candle of hope. Its flame is already piercing the darkness. And it may be small, but may we work to keep it alight throughout this season, and always in our hearts. With that hope kindled in our hearts I return to where we began – Happy Advent!