Readings: Jeremiah 33.14-16, Luke 21.25-36, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13
Today as you have heard is the first Sunday of Advent, and this is the first of a series of sermons following the common lectionary readings for the day. This means that all over the world, Christian churches are hearing and pondering the same Bible passages at some time today. Which is kind of exciting.
The three readings we have heard today are about someone special coming. Jeremiah calls him the Branch of David. Luke calls him the Son of Man. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, knows his name, and gives him a title: our Lord Jesus, who has come to us already, and yet is still to come.
What do you do when someone special is coming to visit? In the mid-sixties, my parents were due to receive a visit from the novelist E M Forster. They were friends with a Coventry couple whom he used to come and stay with for a while every year, and they asked this couple to bring him to our house. My mother always made a lot of effort when she was expecting visitors, but this time she excelled herself, making what she regarded as a ‘real English tea: white bread, cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, as well as lots of other delicacies. She didn’t think he’d like her normal continental fare which was more likely to be rye bread with salami.
As it happened, he never got inside our house; our friends brought him to the door but he was well into his nineties by then and wasn’t feeling well enough to visit. So he shook all our hands through the car window, signed a couple of books and was driven away again. Still, I like to think a bit of literary greatness might have rubbed off on me.
Advent is all about being prepared. But for most of us, it’s preparing for Christmas, with all the food, the parties and the presents, that takes priority. Ironically , at this feast of Jesus’ coming to us, we might end up thinking less about what it means to welcome Jesus than we do in the rest of the year. We even think Christmas is really for children, and to get too excited about it is not a very grown up thing to do.
But traditionally, Advent was a season of fasting, like Lent: it was meant to prepare us spiritually for celebrating God breaking into our lives in Jesus. It was definitely a season for adults: people who soberly weigh up their own fitness to meet the King of creation. Yes, Christmas is an occasion of joy, just as having E M Forster visit was going to be an occasion of joy for my family; but getting ready to celebrate the Incarnation was and is a serious business.
So what do our readings tell us about being prepared? Let’s begin with the Gospel reading from Luke. This is one of a number of so-called apocalyptic passages in Jesus’ teaching, which appear in different forms in all the Gospels. ‘Apocalypse’ simply means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’, and in these passages Jesus is revealing to his closest disciples what he can about the destiny of the world and the part he plays in it.
Now apocalypse teaching is very popular among some Christians today, especially in the United States. There are those, as there always have been, who make it their business to work out an exact timetable of what will happen in the end times when Jesus returns. They write endless sermons and even novels about the Tribulation and the Rapture, a doctrine which is based on a single verse of Scripture and which didn’t even feature in Christian theology till the 19th century. You can at times detect a note of glee or Schadenfreude in contemplating the awful sufferings the rest of the world will go through while we Christians are supposedly snatched away into heaven. Some even seem to know when all this will happen - which even Jesus said he didn’t know.
Jesus’ teaching about ‘the Day of the Lord’, which we also call the Day of Judgment, certainly contains predictions of frightening, world shattering events: floods and earthquakes, even disturbances in the sun, moon and stars which we regard as constants in our lives. In this he is speaking in the tradition of the earlier prophets who warned that the Day of the Lord would not be solely a day of blessing, but also a day of judgement and destruction of evil.
How can we be prepared for such a day? Maybe by stockpiling tinned food and guns in mountain hideaways, as some have done? I don’t think this is quite what Jesus means by ‘Be on your guard’. Our enemies, as Paul says elsewhere, are not flesh and blood, but spiritual powers of wickedness. Jesus tells us that to stand firm in the time of trial, we need to be travelling light. We need to make sure that the focus of our life is not on our anxieties, our responsibilities, but also not on making things as comfortable as possible for ourselves and having fun. The focus of our life should be on following him, and because it’s a challenging journey, we need to minimise the baggage we are carrying. We need to be alert, watching out for signs of God’s kingdom in the world and lending our support to them. The late Jim Punton once described this as what Jesus did: he had his antennae out, looking for what God was doing in the world and joining in.
Most of all, we need to be praying for Jesus to come into our world, which is actually his Father’s world, and to set its many wrong things right. And that means not only praying for ourselves to follow Jesus more closely, but praying for others to recognise him and follow him. Paul sets an example in this to the Thessalonians, praying for them that God will ‘strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints’,
But there’s the rub. I find this a distinctly frightening prayer. I can’t even manage to prepare the perfect Christmas, so how am I supposed to prepare myself for Jesus’ coming and be blameless as I stand before him? Well I can’t. And that’s where the reading from Jeremiah comes in.
Jeremiah prophesies that a descendant of David will ‘execute justice and righteousness in the land’ -’the land’ meaning the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, even though at this point the northern kingdom of Israel barely existed any more. We know from other prophecies that in the Jewish religion this promise of a righteous kingdom is not meant to apply just to the historic land we now call Israel/Palestine, but to the whole world. But note one thing: creating this peacable kingdom is not our work, though we are invited to join with God in the work of creating it. It is the coming king, not the people of God, who is to bring about a world free of oppression. In fact Jeremiah goes further, saying ‘The Lord is our righteousness’.
There is no way that we can present ourselves blameless at the coming of Christ. It’s God’s job to transform us into kingdom people, and God has sent Jesus to lead the way and by his Spirit to strengthen and equip us for kingdom life. How we are changed into people who can receive our special guest, is through the mystery of the cross. Paul puts it this way to the Corinthians in his second letter to them: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’. I don’t pretend to understand fully how this divine exchange works, but I once wrote a poem which stated it in terms of God exchanging clothes with us, so God wears our tatty, stained, worn out rags, and we get to wear Jesus’ beautiful robe. Maybe that image will work for some of you.
So, to change the metaphor, we are not to worry about how we get the house of our spirit ready for the visit of God. God sends us a housekeeper - the spirit of Christ - to clear out all the rubbish and lay out a fabulous feast.
Just one more thing I want to say: we are talking in terms of Jesus being in some sense our guest in the world. But actually it’s in some sense the other way round: the guest turns out to be the host. I recently expressed this on my Facebook status like this: ‘I have never invited Jesus into my life. He invited me into his.’ Not for a moment should we think how good we are for graciously inviting Jesus to be in our life. It’s really the opposite: Jesus invites us to take part in his new, overflowing life. So let’s pray during Advent that we may be able to follow his call into a new world. That’s worth waiting for.