Introduction and Call to Worship
As we move into Advent, let us take time in our worship today to think and pray about what it means to prepare to meet our Saviour, the greatest gift of God to the world.
First Reading Isaiah 2:1-5
A vision of all the nations streaming to the Lord’s house, and of peace reigning.
Second Reading Romans 13:11-end
This is the moment to wake from sleep, for salvation is nearer to us now than ever. So, let us live well, in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Gospel Matthew 24:36-44
Matthew looks back to the time of Noah, when the terrible flood took people with little warning. So, it will be when the Son of Man returns.
HOMILY “About that day and hour no one knows.” (Matthew 24:36)
Given my laryngitis is only just abating, I heard this tale of caution and thought I should share it with you. What happens if you eat Christmas decorations? You get tinsel-itis. For weeks Staines has been dressed in lights and tinsel, boldly proclaiming (in September) ‘Merry Christmas’, festooned across the High Street. Perhaps this December, with a general election in full swing and the Brexit crisis still unresolved, we could all do with a bit of a party or a shot in the arm; a splash of tinsel may just lighten the mood. For many, Christmas festivities begin today, if they haven’t done so already.
Here at St Mary’s we begin four weeks of preparation that lead up to Christmas. Our decorations for this Advent season have a purple air – the colour of repentance, healing, requiem and preparation. The crib scene under the high altar has no figures yet – they have a journey to make around the church before Christmas Eve comes. For Christians, these four weeks of Advent are a time to prepare spiritually for the birth of our Saviour, King and Lord but also to look forward to his second coming: for our lights and many carol services point forward to what is to come – light which overcomes darkness and the promised Parousia of Jesus to judge the quick and the dead! Indeed, today’s three Bible texts remind us that Advent is a season of penitence and preparation, and they offer an insight into the second coming of Christ. Perhaps surprisingly, of the three, the Gospel passage is the most alarming. Jesus’ stark warning is made more immediate because of his vivid depiction of people going about their ordinary, day-to-day lives: eating, drinking, marrying, working in the field, all oblivious to the catastrophic events that are about to befall them. Both Jesus in the Gospels and Saint Paul in his Epistles speak of our need to be awake to God’s activity in the world. Each of them in his own way takes forward a long tradition, which goes back to the earliest Bible texts.
Ancient Israel believed that the world was going somewhere and thank goodness for that. Now it may sound obvious to us, as we believe God is the creator of all things, but this was a time when many people worshipped all sorts of gods, some of nature, who came and went with the seasons in a world that went round in circles. In contrast, the Scriptures from people of faith speak of purpose, because God has made it so. The biblical story relates countless lives in relationship with the one, true God. The world’s seasons come and go, just as Autumn is now behind us and Advent will pass so quickly; but no one summer is ever the same as the last. God has a purpose for the world, and that purpose gets worked out in human history, in God’s time. So, we have the flood, and then Abraham and his family, Moses and the miraculous escape from Egypt, and the settlement in Canaan. We have the prophets preaching about what God wants his people to do to bring his purposes closer to fulfilment. There is failure and despair, but there is also hope and expectation – of new godly rulers, of the appearance of God himself. The Isaiah text mentions the judgement of God but also brings us a beautiful vision of peace; an end to war and the people walking in the light of the Lord. Similarly, in his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds his readers that “salvation is nearer to us now… the night is far gone, the day is near”. Although the second coming will without doubt be traumatic, for those who are prepared it will ultimately lead to joy, peace and light which is beyond our capacity to imagine.
In the preaching of Jesus, we find this message intensified. What God is doing is not now something vague, far away in the future. This is a moment in history. God is always active, engaged in the world he has made and something new is breaking forth! People of faith need to be alert, looking for the signs of change and transformation. Paul, too, encourages Christians to wake up to what God has done and is doing in Christ, and to live as those who may meet the risen Christ face to face at any moment, when he shall come again.
So, our challenge this Advent 2019 is our call to penitence and preparation. We must face our Lord’s words with prayerful resolve and take the opportunity to deepen our faith life, exploring what penitence and preparation really mean for us today. That might possibly take a bit of soul-searching, will certainly mean a lot of prayer, and could involve making a few changes. I hopefully don’t need to point out the obvious: powerful forces, not least of nature, are reshaping how we will live in the future. There seems little clarity on how a better society might emerge, and who might be able to flourish within it. The outlook seems uncertain, and yes, the general election, the Brexit impasse and troubles around the world all form part of that mix of uncertainty. Maybe, though, as we begin this Advent season, we should try to discern within these changes the possibility for hope, the light of Christ breaking through.
Could it be that what we are living through is deep systemic change, a necessary if unsettling step in a journey towards a society and even a world which looks very different –more just, more human and more equal? If we as Christians are an Advent people, looking to where Christ and his message of love is breaking through as his light is shining in the darkness, then there is real hope. As a community of faith, we must lead people towards salvation; that is our baptismal promise, our hope, our destiny as disciples today.
So how else can we commit, among the Christmas cards, the tree, the stockings, turkey and tinsel, to preparing ourselves spiritually? Well, the very best way to start is in penitence. We start by recognising our own failings and proclaim afresh our desire to live in the light of Christ. That pledge, first putting right the past and then looking to the future, requires our commitment to regular faithful worship and a bit of time each day for private prayer and bible study – perhaps using the readings sheet which is now emailed as well as given out on a Sunday, so we can all take time to reflect upon the day when Christ will come again. When he does come, will he find Thorpe ready, proclaiming his kingdom? Amen.
Today’s readings remind us why Advent is a season of penitence and preparation. That’s something we often overlook as we prepare for Christmas festivities.
Penitence is the first step towards preparation, but true penitence is forward-looking.