Friday, November 29, 2013

Advent Sunday

Back in my student days, the first few times we ever preached a sermon
was a mighty big deal – involving days or even weeks of preparation
and anxious anticipation of the critique we inevitably got afterwards.
So the first time anybody ever asked me for a copy of my sermon was a
pretty big deal. 'Sure', I said, 'I'll email it'. Imagine my
feelings a few days later when I got an email back … 'Thanks for your
email', somebody I had never met informed me. 'I'm pretty sure you
meant to send it to somebody else, but I actually read your sermon. I
was quite interested'. Trying not to sound too full of myself I
emailed him back: 'oh, sorry for the mistake — glad you got something
out of it!' To which he replied, 'Well, mostly just that I wish I had
the time to spend thinking about stuff like this. I find it takes all
my time just trying to earn a living and be a good dad'. Well, point
taken …

We live in busy times – and right now we are just entering the busiest
time of the year – I've noticed in our fast-paced society there's a
general weariness that seems to set in around the middle of November
and lasts until Christmas and then we enter the silly season – are you
over the festive season yet? Because it's only just starting!
Anaesthetised by the nightly horrors on the evening news, we find it
hard to feel sympathy for the victims who seem to have been there on
our TV screens forever when we've got a few concerns of our own.
Snowed under with busy-ness and responsibility, we seriously try to do
the best we can for the people we love, to do the best we can at work,
to get on with our neighbours, contribute to our community. But we're
too busy to pay attention to things of the spirit. It would be good
to have the time to think about things like Jesus coming back. But
there's too much going on. We tune out of the most important stuff of
all. So, are we asleep yet?

According to the picture Matthew paints for us, Jesus is telling us we
are indeed asleep – and it's time to wake up. The season of Advent
begins with the big picture, with Jesus' promise to return and his
vague but worrying instruction to stay alert, and only then does it
begin to converge and zero in on the concrete historical fact of the
birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Today we are confronted with the
information that this is not just ancient history, that we personally
need to get ready, because Jesus is coming back and if we're not ready
we'll be left behind. This might be alarming news, if it weren't for
the fact that we've heard it every year on the first Sunday of Advent,
for as long as we can remember. [T-shirt joke]. So if it's not
actually that urgent for us, if today's message has become
over-familiar and isn't actually jolting us awake - what does it mean
for us?

A few years ago I remember reading an article in the Messenger by the
Dean of Perth, who of course doesn't mind stirring up a bit of
controversy. The Dean hazarded the opinion that literal belief in the
second coming of Jesus is a bit superfluous really, it's the first
coming that matters, the fact that in Jesus of Nazareth we see God
becoming human, God bridging the unbridgeable gap between the finite
and the infinite; that Jesus models for us what God is like and what
God's priorities are; that Jesus models the way of self-giving love
that shows us what God's character is like; and then finally that
Jesus shows us that in God's scheme of things life is stronger than
death, because God has created us for love and for eternity. Dr
Shepherd argued we really don't need the doctrine of a second coming,
we just need to pay closer attention to the first one, to the reality
that, in Jesus, God has become present in human history in a new way
which changes everything, forever. Dr Shepherd argues that the
doctrine of the second coming got tacked on along the way because
Christians fell into the same trap the Jewish people fell into when
they were expecting the messiah the first time around – which is the
trap of triumphalism - 'this time, God, we want to see you throw your
weight around a bit, no more getting pushed aside onto the cross, this
time take out a few of the bad guys'. Of course, the Dean's opinion
piece provoked a bit of theological fisticuffs, which, I don't know
about you, but I used to rather enjoy a bit of impassioned argument in
the pages of the Messenger. We don't get so much these days, alas.

I like his point, but I'd rather argue the exact opposite, I'd rather
take issue with people who want to restrict Jesus to just two visits.
Why just two, I'd want to ask? You see, not only am I happy to go
along with Matthew in assuring you that Christ indeed is coming back
like a thief in the night – surreptitiously, in other words, on the
sly, when you least expect it – in disguise - and not only would I
also want to suggest that the whole of creation is heading towards a
culmination or some sort of joining together of all the threads and
all the pain and joy of existence that all get joined together in
Christ – some sort of climax of history and creation that we couldn't
possibly guess at - but I'd also want to suggest that the Christ keeps
coming to us along the way as well, that when it comes down to it
there is nowhere in the whole cosmos and no time in human history when
Christ is absent - because what we see in the person of Jesus Christ
is the commitment of God to being present in creation, Christ is God's
commitment to sharing with us this whole joyous and confusing mixture
of love and busyness and heartache that we call human existence. The
main question isn't where and when Christ is coming back, the question
is how often we notice when he does. Or how often we're too

The earliest generation of Christians certainly expected Jesus to come
back bodily, from the sky, and in St Paul's first letter to the
Thessalonians which is the very earliest writing in the whole of the
New Testament we see that he apparently held this belief quite
literally. Matthew is writing a bit later, so he's concerned to wind
back the speculation a bit. You don't know the day or the time, he
insists. Unfortunately that hasn't stopped silly speculation to this
day about people being raptured out of their cars in the middle of the
freeway, or planes dropping out of the sky because their pilots have
been whisked off. To talk about just the second coming of Christ is I
think to short-change the gospel; and to try to second-guess the
details says more about us and our need for certainty, than it does
about God.

What Matthew is on about with his talk about the day of the Lord, and
the coming again of the Son of Man, what he's trying to say is that
the end or the fulfilment of all things belongs to God just like the
beginning of all things belongs to God, and the here and now belongs
to God. Not knowing what the future holds for us personally, or for
the church, accepting that we can't have that knowledge means we have
to be vulnerable, and that we have to trust God's good purposes for
us. What Matthew is getting at is that the only thing we need to know
about the future is that the future is God - that the God who created
the world we live in, and the God who brings the work of creation to
perfection by coming to live among us, is also the God who comes to
meet us out of the future.

But that's not all. You see, when Matthew talks about the 'day of the
Lord' he is using an expression that goes back to the prophets. It's
an expression that carries a whole history of meaning, to do with the
hope of deliverance, of vindication for God's people, the hope that in
the future God will restore God's people – but also the other side of
the coin which is accountability – like the prophet Isaiah who warns
us not to look to the day of the Lord for hope unless we are also
prepared to look at ourselves and acknowledge our own failings and our
own injustices. Judgement is a big theme for Matthew – he says if the
future belongs to God, then justice and judgement also belong to God,
it is God's judgement that is both the ground for hope and the ground
of peace. The two working together in the field both seem to be alive
– but the one who is taken is the one who is truly awake, the one who
notices that the day of the Lord has already come, the one who
recognises the face of Christ in the many faces the world wears – this
one is taken into eternal life. This is symbolic language, an
extended metaphor. It is a dramatic way of waking us up to the
importance of being aware of the world we live in and the
God-connectedness of everything - it is a way of telling us that if
we're truly awake to what is happening in the world we live in we will
encounter Christ in the middle of the busyness and the responsibility
of our lives, and that when we do we will be taken – we will be
transformed. We get to choose – is that what we want? Or is
Christmas on its way and we're just too busy?