Kingís Acre Church, 28 November 2004
Are you Ready?
Today, as we have already established, is the first Sunday in Advent.† The start of a new Church year.† And the start of the period of preparation for Christmas.† Preparing for the coming of the King.†
In our family, we donít start Christmas until Robertís birthday on the 15th Ė I donít put up decorations, or Christmas cards before then, and I donít send my Christmas cards until then.† Mind you, I donít always put up decorations and Christmas cards anyway, since we donít normally spend Christmas in London, but we do have one of those trees with twinkling lights on it, and I usually manage to put that up, and maybe some candles, and Robert does the cards.† But the 15th is quite late by some standards Ė Peter Jones had its Christmas decorations up before the end of October, would you believe.† I went there just at the end of October to buy a new zip for Robertís skating trousers, and all the decorations were up already.† And I saw the first Christmas cards and wrapping paper in Tescoís even earlier than that.† And many, many families will be beginning to think of putting their tree up as soon as itís December.
But for the Church, Christmas is a ďdonít even go thereĒ for another four weeks.† Our liturgical colour changes to purple Ė I wore my purple boot covers to the rink this morning Ė and we donít have flowers, both signs that it is a penitential season.† Penitential doesnít really mean being sorry, I donít think, although thatís part of it.† Itís more about getting ready, preparing ourselves, getting rid of stuff that weíve allowed to accumulate between us and God Ė and between us and other people, too, of course.† Far from celebrating, we are busy preparing ourselves.
The four Sundays in Advent traditionally have different themes.† Next week we remember the Word of God in the Old Testament, and we think of the prophets who God used to tell out his word.† Then we think about John the Baptist, the Forerunner, and sing ďOn Jordanís bank the Baptistís cryĒ. †And on the last Sunday of Advent, which can be anything up to a week before Christmas, we remember how Mary said ďYesĒ to Godís request for her to be Jesusí mother, and we sing the hymn called ďGabrielís messageĒ, with the refrain ďMost highly flavoured gravy, GloriaĒ, or something like that.† But this Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, we think Christís coming in glory.
Actually, itís a very difficult thing to think about, because it hasnít happened yet!† The Bible shows us most clearly that the early church was convinced that it was something that would happen any minute now, certainly in their lifetimes.† But here we are, two thousand years later, and nothing has happened.† So most of us donít really believe it will, or if we do believe it, it isnít a belief thatís in the forefront of our minds.† It doesnít really affect the way we live.
But maybe it should.† We donít know when Jesus will return, but we do know that this earth is finite.† Or perhaps I should say that we know that humanityís tenure of this earth is finite.† We are going to run out of essential supplies like oil and aluminium and iron and stuff like that; and it wouldnít be altogether surprising if we were to blow ourselves up one day.† Climate change might make the world uninhabitable, or we might be wiped out by an asteroid impact, like the one they thought might have killed the dinosaurs.† Or something.†
And our own lives are most certainly finite Ė we donít know when we will be called to glory!† A friend of mine was saying the other day that a family at her sonís school had been killed in a car crash.† I know itís not fashionable to talk or think about death these days, but it will happen to all, and all of us will one day have to stand before Jesus.† Itís possible, but not very likely, that he will return before that happens, but even if he does, we will still have to stand before that throne!
We need to be ready.† Our readings today all reflect that.† Our Gospel reading sounds a bit disjointed, almost as though Matthew has collected odd bits of Jesusí sayings.† But it still has a clear theme Ė be ready, because you never know!
Youíve probably seen those ads the police are putting out at the moment reminding us not to invite burglars into our homes and cars by leaving windows open or doors unlocked.† I donít think Jesus could have seen that ad, but the end of the gospel reading reminded me of it: ďIf the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.Ē
Okay, so we need to be ready.† Fair enough, but how.† How do you get ready, how do you stay ready, and above all, how do you go on being ready when nothing seems to happen?
I think the answer is also in the parallel with the thief in the night.† We make it a habit, donít we, of checking that our doors and windows are locked before we go out, even on a short trip to Lidl or Tesco. †If we have our car, itís automatic to check that we havenít left anything visible, and that it is locked, before we leave it.† And we have insurance to cover us in case the worst happens anyway, no matter how careful weíve been.
Well, itís the same, I think, in our Christian lives.† We can build good habits of prayer, of reading the Bible, of fellowship and of coming to the Sacrament regularly.† These are what John Wesley called ďThe means of graceĒ, and they are the building blocks of our Christian life.† They are as essential to our Christian life as food and drink are to our physical life.† But they are also habits that one can acquire or break.† Youíre in the habit of locking your front door whenever you leave the house Ė are you in the habit of contacting God every day, too?† You make sure youíve shut your windows Ė are you sure you take the Sacrament?† And so it goes on. †
Parallels only work so far, of course, especially because itís not all down to us.† I know we sometimes talk as though it is, and, of course, we are always free to say ďNoĒ to God Ė though I do very much hope we wonít choose to do that.† But God has far more invested in the relationship than we do Ė either that, or God is so far above us that heís totally uninterested in us as individuals.† And we know thatís not true!† So it must be true that God is numbering every hair on our head, and being far more interested in maintaining a relationship with us than we are with him.† We donít have to do all the hard work.
Nevertheless, good habits are good habits, and we need to acquire them!† And with Godís help, we can.† We donít have to do it alone, because God indwells us, through the Holy Spirit, and enables us to actually want to read the Bible and pray, and worship, and take Communion, and so on.†
We donít often think about the end of times and the Last Judgement, and thatís probably as it should be.† If we thought about it too much, weíd never get on with our lives, and weíd end up being so heavenly-minded weíd be of no earthly use.† But we do need this annual reminder, because we donít want to end up living as if this life were all there is, either.† Obviously we donít absolutely know that when we die, weíll go on with Jesus somewhere else.† It might just be wishful thinking on our part.† But thatís what faith is all about!† We canít know, not really, but we can choose to believe it, and to live accordingly.† And to work together with God to become the best we can possibly be.†
And then, if, or perhaps when the unthinkable happens, then weíll be ready.† Are you ready?
Oh, one loose end Ė in my parallel with burglar-proofing our houses, I mentioned insurance.† Do we have insurance?† As Christians, yes, we do.† We have Jesusí promise in Johnís gospel:
ďFor God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.Ē
Says it all, doesnít it!