Sermon preached at Enmore, Advent Sunday, 27th November 2016
Readings: Isaiah 2.1–5, Romans 13. 9–14, Matthew 24.36–44
One of my favourite beaches for swimming is North Bondi. Every time I go there I notice the motto of the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club which is written on their front wall: ‘Ready Aye Ready’. It’s a good motto for an organization which came into being for the purpose of saving people from drowning but it strikes me that it is a rather good summary of what Advent Sunday is all about because the theme of readiness, preparedness is prominent in all the readings. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Advent is simply the season for getting ready for Christmas and preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ. Advent then becomes the season of business; the season of Christmas shopping, sending Christmas cards, baking puddings, decorating the house, attending end of year celebrations etc. the list of things to be done seems endless. But the Advent season is about much more than getting ready for Christmas. Advent invites us to wait and hope for more than the birth of the Christ child, pivotal though that is for our faith. Advent invites the church to place the birth of Jesus in a wider cosmic context as the foretaste of the dawning of God’s new age. So this morning I want to attempt to answer two questions: the first, what are we getting ready for? And the second, what does being ready actually mean?
Part of the answer to the first question is that we are to be ready for what is often called the second coming of Christ, when as the Creed puts it, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” The early Christians expected this to be soon and lived in the almost daily expectation of Christ’s return. Two thousand years later it is difficult to recapture that sense of immediacy and nor should we. A preoccupation with the return of Christ and the manner of that return has led Christians into all sorts of unhelpful attitudes and behaviours. The long discourse in Matthew 24 a portion of which we read this morning is given by Jesus in response to the disciples’ question, ‘When will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming?’ Jesus tells them that making predictions and looking for time tables are the very things they are not to do. Their focus is to be on living in the light of his coming, not on discerning the movements of history. All that they need to know and all that we need to know is that with the coming of Christ into the world a new age has already begun. As we hear of wars and rumours of wars and see the terrible things described in this chapter we will be tempted to think that the new age is an illusion and that we will never see its fulfillment but Jesus says our task is to stay alert and be ready for the long haul. The apocalyptic images we find in Matthew 24 are not designed to make us fearful but to encourage us to be faithful.
An unhealthy preoccupation with Christ’s return in power and great glory can also blind us to the coming of Christ among us in the here and now. Through the presence of his Holy Spirit we are assured of Christ’s presence always. We can meet him every day in the unexpected events. Some of you will be familiar with Leo Tolstoy’s famous children’s story, called Papa Panov’s Special Christmas. In the story the aged shoemaker, Papa Panov, has a dream one Christmas Eve that he will be visited by Jesus the very next day. He wakes on Christmas Day with a great sense of excitement as he anticipates this special event. He prepares soup and bread and wraps up a small pair of beautiful leather shoes he once made thinking they would be a suitable present for Jesus. He has a number of visitors, the road sweeper, and the village beggars whom he feeds and shelters for a while and later in the day he sees a young mother passing by with a small baby who looks cold and under nourished. He feeds the mother and child and decides to give them the present he has set aside for Jesus as he is beginning to doubt that Jesus will show up. At the end of the day he goes to bed disappointed that Jesus hasn’t come and thinking that it was all just a dream. That night he dreams again and sees Jesus standing before him and asks, ‘Why didn’t you come?’ Jesus replies ‘I did come, for when you took in the cold and hungry and gave them food and warmth you did it to me.’
So to say that we are preparing for Christ’s glorious return to establish new heavens and a new earth is true but we are not just looking forward to some future reality. We are also preparing to celebrate Christ’s coming among us in great humility, the baby born in Bethlehem, and to acknowledge that in this coming God’s new age has already dawned. Advent reminds us afresh that in the coming of Christ, God is with us- in the past, the present and future. At the start of the Christian year the season of Advent offers us the chance to begin our life with God and his new creation anew.
So how do we prepare for the coming of Christ? The Gospel reading uses the expressions, ‘Keep awake’ and ‘be ready’. Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome to ‘wake from sleep’. Sleepers are unaware of what is going on around them, they are not engaged. We are called to wakefulness, to engage with the world and to be active in it looking for the signs of God’s kingdom. One way of being involved in our world is to follow Paul’s injunction to love our neighbour. As he explains this involves keeping the Ten Commandments, including unfashionable ones like not coveting- which our society has forgotten. It also involves those practical acts of giving food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and distressed and visiting those in prison. The Christmas Bowl appeal which runs through advent gives us the opportunity to participate in some of those things through the work of Act for Peace, the welfare arm of the National Council of Churches in Australia.
Being ready also involves being patient and steadfast in times of uncertainty. We easily become weary in well doing and become discouraged. We look at the huge problems in our world and are tempted to despair. Advent lifts our eyes and helps us to see the bigger picture. We catch the vision of God’s new age and our hope is renewed. That is one reason we come to church – Isaiah says, “Come let us go the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For Christians, Sunday worship should refresh us and encourage us for the week ahead. It should remind us that we are not alone but are part of a great company of believers and that His Spirit is indeed with us. As we worship together and share in communion together we experience the reality of his presence.
Paul also talks about laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armour of light- which is reiterated in our Advent collect. There are things which impede us in our Christian walk, baggage that should be left behind or attitudes and habits that are crippling. Paul also uses the expression ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ What does he mean by this? It means to follow Christ’s example of self giving love for others. It means to be patient with the slow and weak and to imitate his example. It means to let his light and life be seen in us. An impossible standard? Perhaps, but to encourage us, John tells us that one day we will be like him for we will see him as he is.
So this Advent let us pray that we will be ready when the Son of Man comes at an unexpected hour.