King’s Acre Church, 1 December 2002
So, Advent. It’s almost an anomaly nowadays, isn’t it? Out in the world, people are starting to celebrate Christmas already – the shops have had their decorations up since the beginning of last month, and the round of office parties, works celebrations, school festivities will be starting any day now. And the endless tapes of carols and Christmas songs that are played in the shops, I should think they’d drive the shop assistants mad!
But here in Church, Christmas hasn’t started yet, and won’t for another four weeks. We are celebrating Advent, and it seems to be another penitential time, like Lent. The colours are purple, and we have no flowers. Although we do have the Advent wreath, of course, to soften things a bit.
But Advent is really a season of hope. We look forward to “the last day when Christ shall come again” to establish the Kingdom on earth. We also look back to those who’ve been part of God’s story, including John the Baptist and Jesus’ Mother, Mary.
Today, though, our readings are about the coming King. Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, tells how the prophet, and perhaps the people for whom he was speaking, longed and longed to see God in action.
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!”
Scholars think that this part of Isaiah was written very late, after the people of Judah had returned from exile. They would have remembered the stories of the wonderful things God had done in the olden days, in the days of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Jacob, of Moses, and of David the King – and then, they would have looked round and said “But hey, why isn’t any of this happening today?”
They reckoned the answer must be because they were so sinful.
“You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No-one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.”
It does sound very much as though the prophet were longing for God, but somehow couldn’t find him, in the mists of human sinfulness and this world’s total abandonment of God. You know, there’s nothing new – we complain that people don’t want to seek God today, and our churches stand empty, but there was the prophet saying that thousands of years ago!
And, of course, as it turned out, God hadn’t abandoned his people at all! Jesus came to this earth, lived among us, and died for us, and Isaiah’s people now knew the remedy for their sin.
But Jesus himself tells us, in our second reading, that his coming to live in Palestine as a human being isn’t the end of the story, either. Somehow, someday, he will come back again. He obviously doesn’t know all that much about it while he is on earth, and rather discourages us from speculation as to when or how. But he draws pictures for us:
“The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”
You know, it is a really scary thought that right now we stand on the brink of war, and we do have the capability to destroy this world completely many times over with nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War.
What’s more today, as at no other time in history, communications are such that if Jesus were to come back, we’d know about it almost as soon as it happened – look how quickly news of the atrocities last September spread around the world. And it would be something totally unmistakable.
But lots of generations before ours have thought that Jesus might come back any minute now, and Christians throughout history have lived their lives expecting him to come home. We have remembered Jesus’ warnings about being prepared for him to come, but He hasn’t come. And we get to the stage where we, too, cry with Isaiah:
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!”
Like Isaiah, we long and long to see God come and intervene in this world, and wish that He would hurry up.
And that’s perfectly natural, of course. Some folk have even got to the stage of believing it won’t happen, and have given up on God completely. But Jesus said it will happen, and one has to assume He knew what he was talking about.
But that doesn’t mean that we can blame God – if You had come back before now, this wouldn’t have happened. Every generation has been able to say that to God, and it’s not made a blind bit of difference. So maybe there’s something else.
You see, in one way, Jesus has come back. Do you remember what happened on the Day of Pentecost, in that upper room? God’s Holy Spirit descended on those gathered there, looking like tongues of fire, and with a noise like a rushing mighty wind, and the disciples were empowered to talk about Jesus. And we know from history, and from our own experience, that God the Holy Spirit still comes to us, still fills us, still empowers us.
One of the purposes of these so-called penitential seasons is to give us space to examine ourselves and see if we have drifted away from God, to come back and to ask to be filled anew with the Holy Spirit. Then we are empowered to live our lives not only as Jesus would wish, but with His help to do so. God himself is within us, enabling us from the inside. Jesus doesn’t just provide us with an example to follow, but actually enables us to do it.
Let’s see if I can think of an example – yes, I know. As you know, Robert and I love ice-dancing, but we aren’t very good at it. We stumble and kick and are dependent on other people to tell us what we are doing wrong, and how to correct it. And we can watch lots of videos, both of us doing it wrong, and of elite skaters doing it right. Plus we are lucky enough to train with the current crop of British champions, so we can watch them, too. But if only some elite ice dancers – Torvill & Dean, for instance – could somehow get inside us and do it using our bodies, then we would not only know what to do, but be enabled to do it. And maybe we would stop coming last in every competition we enter…..
And that’s what God does – by indwelling us with his Holy Spirit, he not only shows us what to do, but enables us to do it.
All of us will face the end of the world one day. It might be the global end of the world, that Jesus talks about, or it might just be the end of our personal world. We expect, here in the West, to live out our life span to the end, and many of us, I am sure, will do just that. But we can’t rely on that. You never know when terrorists will attack – or even muggers. A dear friend of ours is still recovering from being beaten and left for dead in the streets of Paris. We can’t see round corners; we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. But whether it is tomorrow, or twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years from now, one day we will die, and then, at last, we will meet Jesus face to face. And we need to be ready. We need to know that we have lived as God wants us to live – and when we’ve screwed up, as we always do and always will, we’ve come back to God and asked forgiveness, and asked God to renew us and refill us with his Holy Spirit.
We can only live one day at a time, but each day should, I hope, be bringing us nearer to the coming of the King. Amen.