Sermon – Advent Sunday 2017
Alert, awake, alight…
Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am newly alerted this season. By which I mean that, thanks to the progress of technology and my own choices, since August I have been receiving an audible alert on my mobile phone every time there is a goal in a West Ham game. So this alert continually makes my life worse. Though West Ham fans can be very funny when we are up against it. I remember being at the Boleyn ground for a dire evening game against West Brom some years ago, and the blokes behind me spent the whole of the second half lamenting the fact that they had tickets to follow West Ham on the following Saturday, away at Blackburn.
We also hear communal laments this morning from our Old Testament readings. Both Isaiah and the Psalmist cry to the Lord for deliverance, but they combine this with a recognition of their past sins and the promise to amend their lives.
So it is for us with the opportunity of Advent. In Christ, God does not offer an easy affirmation of our current way of life, but an invitation to be transformed. There is a tension here: God’s grace is offered freely but, in T.S.Eliot’s words, the response costs us ‘not less than everything.’ St Paul reminds the church in Corinth that the fact that grace is free does not mean it is cheap – it does not give the Christians there licence to sleep in their sins. But in case that sounds too much to be taking on, remember that our response, like the longest of journeys, need only be one step at a time.
In our section of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for two tribulations. We have heard today his prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and it is widely thought that Mark’s gospel was written in the aftermath of this event. Then in the following chapter, the destruction of Jesus’ own body is twice prefigured, with his anointing for burial by an unnamed woman, and in his celebration of the Last Supper with his disciples.
Jesus urges his disciples, in the face of both tribulations, to stay awake. He lists the four Roman ‘watches’ of the night, as he warns them that the Son of Man may return “in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn” (Mark 13:35). These four “watches” correspond with key moments in Jesus’s Passion. The vigilance that Jesus commands as we wait for his return stands in contrast to the behaviour of his first disciples, who fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane as he contemplated his Passion.
To read such a passage at the start of Advent reminds us – however much the adverts we see spin it differently – that the Christmas story is no consoling fantasy. Apparently £6 billion is spent on persuading us what to buy at Christmas. How many millions of starving people in the Yemen and elsewhere could that feed?
So the Christ-child is not a consoling fantasy, but rather is thrust into the tumult and violence of human history.
This week’s gospel reveals the true nature of our hope. The Advent season does not invite us to evade the realities of this world’s pain and tribulation: it offers a deeper and more substantial consolation. We are to remain alert and steadfast, confident that Christ is present in whatever convulsions we may face – whether in our homes and workplaces, on in the dark and dangerous state of international affairs. He is revealed, both as the one who bears these sufferings with us, and as the one who inaugurates a new creation in which pain and tears shall be no more.
Our only ground for confidence can be the faithfulness of God who has called us to participate in Christ, as we do together here in our worship, in our witness and in our service of others.
The heart of Advent is both the gift of grace and the call to wakefulness. The initiative in redemption is God’s, not ours. Our first task as Christians is to watch and wait, but that attentiveness itself needs energy and commitment.
About 40 of us shared plenty of energy and commitment to the future life and work of our church as we took our first steps last Saturday to renewing our Mission Action Plan. I hope that you may have had the chance to look at the presentations and notes which Caroline sent around on our weekly circulation on Friday. Do please take the opportunity to talk with or contact our Church Council members, and please pray for them as we consider our next steps when we meet on Tuesday. What is God calling us to, individually and together?
At the other end of Advent, we will hear from St John’s prologue here at Midnight Mass – that mysterious prose-poem wherein the beginning and the end of all things is made richly available, both in and out of time, for all of us here in the middle.
Perhaps we can get there by candlelight. Perhaps candlelight is itself the best way to make this journey, back from the Babel of all our seasonal crush and pressure, back to Bethlehem and the silent stars.
For there is always mystery and beauty in the lighting of a candle: the quickened little wick suddenly resplendent in light that must be received from another.
Coleridge, at his lowest ebb, bedridden after a long illness, in 1801, comparing himself to the “Cold Snuff on the circular Rim of a Brass Candle Stick”, could still recall how he, like the candle, “was once clothed and mitred with flame”, and even the memory of that light began to rekindle him.
Can we light whatever candles we can in this special season rather than simply cursing the darkness, as we anticipate the coming – and the final coming – of the Great Light? And can we allow ourselves to be rekindled by the light of others?
What is Jesus saying to us this Advent? Remember that the church year comes around like a circle, but it is actually a spiral; though we have been at Advent before, we have never been at this Advent before. What do we need to be more awake to? To do more of or less of? Is there something Jesus wants you to wake up to, something he wants you to be attentive to, around or within you?
Not through an electronic sporting alert to offer us occasional, false hope, and regular gloom to make our lives worse! But through a sure hope, and a lived out, everyday faithfulness to Christ, in the words of our post-communion prayer:
O Lord our God, make us watchful and keep us faithful as we await the coming of your Son our Lord;
that, when he shall appear, he may not find us sleeping in sin but active in his service and joyful in his praise.
James Percival, Team Rector