A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent 2009. Preached at St Mark and St Nicholas Churches.
So...26 shopping days left until Christmas...assuming, that is, that you now shop on a Sunday, like the rest of Britain! Isn't it frightening how quickly Advent has come round again?
I don't know about you, but as I get older I find that each year seems to go by more quickly than the last. After the warm days of summer, suddenly we find ourselves plunged into Halloween, Bonfire Night, and then the mad dash towards Christmas. It's that time of year when we all begin to fret. Who am I going to buy presents for? Have I bought my Christmas cards? When should I put the decorations up? Who is making the Christmas cake this year?
Frankly, for me, its all just a little tedious. The same questions come up, year after year. Shall I do something really radical this year? Shall resist the pressure to buy trinkets for family members - people who have more possessions than anyone in history has ever had? Should I give money to charity instead, in their name? Who are we going to stay with this year...or who is going to stay with us? My parents, or Clare's? Or maybe there's a way to do both?
But this annual Christmas Crisis is only a graphic example of the same kinds of questions that plague me all year. There is a rhythm to life in general, isn't there...a sort of inevitability about when certain things will happen. There's a rhythm to each day - a rhythm of getting up, going to work (or school, or the day centre, or whatever each of us does every day). We finish our day, we collapse in a chair, watch some TV, go to bed...and then do it all over again. It's pretty terrifying, when you think about it. We have created a society in which people have to go out to work for six days a week - just to afford the vast cost of a house that they use only to collapse in at night.
For some of us, there's a comfort in that kind of rhythm. It is possible to go through the rhythm of life without ever really waking up. What did I do yesterday? What about the day before? Does every day look pretty much the same? Every season? Every year?
There's a rhythm about history in general, too. The world turns. Fishermen, fish. Farmers, farm. Politicians talk. Armies fight. Teachers teach. Banker's bank. And the world continues to turn.
In the face of such rhythm, in the face of such tedium...it is hardly surprising that people hope for change. It's a theme that has impregnated human thinking for millennia. There's a film out at the moment called 2012 - based on an obscure prediction from the Mayan Indians that next year will see the end of the world. There's is not the first such prediction, as we well know.
In the year 1000, the people of Europe got themselves into a fine old tizzy, thinking that the end of the world would surely come at the dawning of a new millennium. In the 1500, the same thing happened. As the second millennium drew to a close, all sorts of crackpots started to predict the end of the world. Christian and Jewish fundamentalists started plans to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. The Jehovah's Witnesses predicted that 1914 would be the end of the world. People stood on mountain tops, or hid in caves as the millennium approach...following strange, charismatic leaders who promised them a new world, a second coming, or the end of all things.
But nothing happened. The world continued to turn. Farmers still farmed. Politicians still talked.
So what are we to make of today's Gospel reading? Time and time again rumours of the end of the world have turned out to be false...so how shall we read this text in front of us? The passage we've heard is actually part of a rather longer passage in which Jesus says "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven." (Luke 21:10-11). It sounds just like our world, doesn't it?
But then, if you asked people from any decade in the last 2000 years, they would say that it sounds like their world too.
Jesus himself warns us to be careful of all predictions of the end of the world. In verse 8 of this same chapter he says "Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and, 'The time is near.' Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come then."
So, there's a clear warning from Scripture that we should not try to predict the end of the world. But there's also a puzzling line from Jesus in this complex passage: Verse 32: "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened."
What?! There's no getting around this. Jesus is recorded, by Luke, as having said that the Son of Man will come before the generation in which he was living was still alive. "This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened". Puzzling isn't it.
Perhaps Luke was slightly over-egging the Christmas pudding! Perhaps because he was writing to a group of Christians who were under persecution and hatred for their faith. Perhaps he used a little artistic license to offer them some hope. Perhaps these are words which have less of Jesus, and more of Luke about them?
Some scholars suggest that the word 'generation' should be understood as 'race' - so that Jesus was saying that the Jewish race would not pass away before the Son of Man comes. That would give a rather longer timescale on events.
Or perhaps, Jesus really did say 'generation'. Perhaps he really meant it. If so we are invited to think what his words meant...and what they still mean. For us.
If Jesus really said what he meant, then we are forced into a rather different conclusion. We are forced to consider that the Son of Man has already come for the second time.
Let's think about what happened next in the story of Jesus.
Resurrection and Pentecost.
Jesus, having been killed, rises from the dead. After he leaves for heaven, re-inhabiting the All from which he came, he sends his Spirit to 'lead his followers into all truth'; to show them The Way, to fill them with 'power from on high'.
So perhaps Jesus, through Luke, means us to understand that the second coming of the Messiah is not one massive event - but instead, a series of much smaller events. Perhaps Jesus has come, and perhaps Jesus comes, and perhaps Jesus is coming.
For, without doubt, Jesus comes every time people refuse to give in to the pressure to do evil, and start to do good. Jesus comes every time that the hungry are fed, or every time that peace breaks out. Jesus comes every time one of us says 'no' to the tedium of human rituals and rhythms, and embraces the creativity that God put in our heart. Jesus comes every time one of us steps aside from dull routine, and does something which shines the light of God into our community.
In other words, Jesus comes every time that we offer ourselves, as Jesus off himself, for the service of others. Jesus comes when we serve others in the Parish Community Cafe. Jesus comes when we visit the housebound or the sick. Jesus comes when we do the job we've been given with all the creativity we are capable of. Jesus comes when we give, sacrificially, for the work of God. Jesus comes when we collaborate with others in the essential task of running his church...sitting on committees, cleaning and maintaining - keeping the rumour of God alive in this community. Jesus comes when we reach out to the stranger, or to the prisoner. Jesus comes when we love our families, and serve each other in our homes. Jesus comes when we embrace all that is creative and loving and life-affirming.
So then - we don't wait, cowering in some cave, or sitting on some mountain, hoping to see the Son of Man arriving on a cloud. Instead, we look for where Jesus is already come, and where he is already coming. We look for signs of his Life and Light among us, and we embrace them. We listen for his knock, and we open the doors of our heart.
If we can truly grasp what it means to serve a God who came among us, and who comes among us, and who will come among us...perhaps Advent and Christmas, and the rhythm of the year and the sometimes tedious rhythm of life can be infused with fresh meaning for us. Perhaps we can look expectantly towards the heavens of our hearts - and joyfully embrace the Lord who Comes.
Even so, Come Lord Jesus. Maranatha.