SERMON FOR ADVENT SUNDAY
28 NOVEMBER 2021
Readings: Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 21: 25-36
Welcome to Advent, which, someone has said, is “a rich mix of politics, prophecy, prayer, perseverance and holiness.” Politics – yes. One of the messages of Advent is that Jesus comes to save. In the time when Jesus lived and preached, with the Jewish people under Roman occupation, that message was political.
The old prophets had been foretelling that time for centuries. We hear a typical passage of prophecy from Jeremiah today: “The days are surely coming…..when I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.” And this righteous Branch will execute justice and righteousness, and Judah and Jerusalem will live in safety. Again, it’s a political message: promising a better time than now.
But the gospel reading from St. Luke today doesn’t suggest a better time on the face of it: signs in the sun and moon; nations confused; the roaring of the sea; the powers of heaven being shaken. It’s much like a passage we heard a fortnight ago about the end time. But St. Luke changes the tone dramatically; “Now when you see these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads; because your redemption is drawing near.”
Advent is a puzzle, and it may even have been to Jesus. He says, “Truly, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” He could have thought the end-time was very near, or he might have been saying that his own coming and appearance on earth itself was a sign and a time of judgment.
A radio programme about the state of Christianity today, last Monday I think it was, told how astonishingly fast the Pentecostal church is growing all over the world. The Pentecostal minister speaking said that many people firmly believed the end-time was here; that time of which Jesus speaks. Now it’s always unwise to claim that contemporary conditions fulfil something that the Bible predicts, but you can see why people viewing the world as it is at present might think that a crisis point is being reached. We might be sceptical, as Anglicans, about such predictions, but the Second Coming, about which Anglicans don’t speak much, is very much a theme of Advent.
It seems to me, though, that Advent comes at just the right time this year. The gospel talks about people fainting ‘from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world’. Certainly there is a great deal of anxiety around, as eighteen months on into the pandemic, and we no longer feel sure about much that had once seemed certain. People are fearful, and for much of the time they don’t know whether their fears are justified. And as we know, the lockdowns have resulted in a huge rise in mental health problems amongst the population, in people of all ages. Anxiety, feeling unsettled, sensing the loss of control of things, fears for the future: these are difficult things to live with. And with so much talk about climate change recently and the very future existence of the planet, it is little wonder that so many people feel deeply ill at ease. So may we pray for all those who are in this anxious state, that they may come to know the hope of the Advent message, and to stand up and raise their heads, and come to know about the promise of God’s redemption drawing near.
Now for Christians, Advent speaks to us on three levels. We hear the old prophecies that looked forward to the Messiah’s arrival – the first Advent. We hear the warnings of what is to come if we’re not ready, and those predictions of the end-time, which we associate with Jesus’ return: that’s, if you like, the third Advent.
But we are also faced with the decision-making associated with the appearance of Jesus every day – the second Advent. We make those decisions when we decide how or if to help the needy; the homeless; how to support the weak; whether to give our backing to this charity or that movement designed to improve people’s lives, or the future of the planet. You’ll remember the ‘sheep and goats’ passage in Matthew’s gospel: the disciples ask - “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or needing clothes, or in prison, and did nothing for you?” And the reply came, “Truly I tell you, what you didn’t do for any of these least of these my brothers and sisters, you didn’t do for me.”
Many people would say they see Advent as a preparation for Christmas, but of course Jesus won’t be born as a baby on 25th December. But we prepare for the remembrance of his birth and come face-to-face with the significance of that event. And that happens every day, in all that we do and decide on and in the way that we choose to live our lives.
As we review the average day, we might well have cause both to rejoice and to regret. To rejoice in what is good about life, about God’s love for us; thankful for times of happiness and for any good deeds done. To regret our faults, and failings, sins of thought, word and deed, opportunities for good missed.
Advent reminds us of both these sides of our relationship with God. We’re promised a Saviour – that’s good news; we’re reminded that one day we shall face the Saviour. So, says Jesus in today’s gospel passage, “Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly.”
I don’t look out from my pulpit on a Sunday and see pews of people showing signs of dissipation and drunkenness; but what Jesus is saying is that we should not seek to avoid the truth of the present time, or to take refuge in life-styles that may give quick gratification but solve nothing. One writer this year says that “to dissipate is also to squander, scatter or fritter away – time, money, energy or resources – and we are all guilty of that, both in our personal and economic life. Is it not exactly such behaviour which has brought about global warming?”
In the gospel, Jesus goes on to say that we must be alert at all times, praying for the strength to escape all these things, and to stand before the Son of Man. Maybe in our context ‘all these things’ are the anxieties, the fears, the external pressures that bear on our lives. But he also lays the challenge for us to distinguish between what is of lasting worth in life, and what plays no part in living a life in readiness for the Kingdom.
So as we journey through Advent with hope, may we spend time reducing anxiety, increasing our reliance on God through prayer and watchfulness, and praying for our troubled and frightened world.
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