Sermon by Charles King, Advent Sunday, 1 December 2019
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
There are some things that preachers can say without any fear of being original in the slightest. One such thing is to join with the protest at the beginning of December – or even earlier – that the celebrations have started far too early. It’s not yet Christmas. Bah humbug! Bing Crosby and John Rutter might already be ringing out from all corners; Christmas lunches, parties, events of all sorts are being organised – but it’s not yet Christmas, and won’t be until the 25th – or possibly the 24th if you’re feeling continental. Today is only the first Sunday in Advent. So let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
This isn’t just a grumble about the secular world ignoring the Christian calendar. It’s more about how we benefit from this time of year. We want to welcome the season of Advent as a gift; we want to be able to celebrate Christmas all the better for having waited with discipline for it; the purple of the season reminds us that waiting for Jesus’ birth is a time for prayer and longing for his coming. Likewise, we’re not simply gearing up for one day of excess; rather we’re to rediscover the whole extended seasons of Advent, Christmastide right through to Epiphany – something the Church of England has been encouraging nationally with its “Follow the Star” initiative. (You’ll see we’ve done something similar, too, with our parish Christmas card this year.)
So we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves Christmas-wise. And actually, this morning, as far as our readings are concerned, I don’t think they’ll let us. There’s nothing here about Bethlehem, or people descended from David. Isaiah tells us of Jerusalem’s exaltation; Paul admonishes the Romans about being ready for the Day of the Lord; and Matthew has some apocalyptic words on the coming of the Son of Man – that expression ‘Son of Man’ being his way of talking of Jesus. Not much classical Christmas joy in these readings – so no danger of getting ahead of ourselves in that sense.
But… the readings do ask us to get ahead of ourselves in another sense. Isaiah’s prophecy concerned Judah and Jerusalem, although looked ahead to the day when all nations will be subject to God’s judgment, and people would live according to the Law that God has given. So the job for the people of Judah is to anticipate that day – to live as if it has already come. For us it does mean getting ahead of ourselves in this kind of way: “Let us walk in the light of the Lord,” as Isaiah writes. Something similar is going on in our reading from Romans. In this part of the Letter, Paul has been talking of how love is the fulfilment of the Law. Although it might metaphorically still be night, Paul is nonetheless asking his audience to live as if the day has already arrived – because to do so shows love; it shows the fulfilling of the Law. Thirdly, on this Advent Sunday, as we prepare for and look forward to the first Advent, the incarnation, we’re also reminded of that second Advent, Jesus’ return, the ‘coming again’ of the Son of Man. So in our Gospel reading from Matthew, any reference about Jesus’ return must of course get us thinking ahead, with that invitation to be ready, almost as if it, too, has already come. All these references, I’d guess, are the right sort of way to get ahead of ourselves.
But it’s a funny thing, this looking ahead to the future. It often feels at first glance – at least to me – that such descriptions in the Bible come with a healthy dose of judgment – which can cause a lot of fear and worry, because it becomes personal. So I wonder what it looks like instead to consider what life would be like under God’s rule as if we’d already got there. That’s to say the gauntlet has been thrown down to live and behave in anticipation as those living under his rule:
“Let us walk in the light of the Lord.” It’s what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer: that our Father’s will would be done right now on earth just as in heaven: living now in anticipation of the future.
And the good news is that this Christian living doesn’t need to be complex. Just as the Law of love is based on simple, practical actions – Paul describes it in the verses just before our reading today as based on some of the Ten Commandments – so wise, peaceable living is based on simple, practical actions. Because as well as that typically Paul-like flourish to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” which is engaging with his readers in an intellectual – and definitely immersive – way, Paul then goes on rather mundanely to discuss, of all things, vegetables, and what might be eaten, and the way the calendar might be organised in the church community. The point is this: simple, practical actions become a sign of what God has planned for all people, just as much as any high rhetoric. An offer of forgiveness to someone who’s injured us; a gift to help someone in need; the time to listen to someone who is lonely or unhappy. All signs of God’s reign, in the way that we pray for his will to be done.
Reminders of how we are to live can be found around us in other ways as well. It’s interesting to think back to those words of Jesus in Matthew. That prophecy of the last days had been prompted by the disciples drawing Jesus’ attention to the beauty of the Temple buildings, and Jesus predicting their destruction. The fire at Notre-Dame earlier this year in Holy Week reminded us just how fragile even the most iconic of religious architecture can be. For a temple might point to the eternal, but it isn’t in itself eternal. Yet things like beautiful architecture, art, music and liturgy don’t just appeal to the senses, through God’s Spirit, they do tell us we’re in the presence of something greater than we are. The wonderful thing is that the reign of God, of which Isaiah predicts that Jerusalem will be the sign, is not confined to moments of beauty and awe and tranquillity in one special holy place, but represented, too, in simple, practical actions that speak of the glory and peace of God in everyday living. That’s the invitation for this Advent Sunday: to live now as part of the future and eternal reign of God, to embody the kingdom of justice and love. Or, in other words, at the beginning of this season of anticipation, to get ahead of ourselves.