Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent 1: Are We There Yet?

Advent 1 Are We There Yet?
(Isaiah 2.1-5, Matthew 24.36-44). 

Have you ever been on one of those very long journeys with a very young child?  Clare and I once took Emily on a three day journey to Romania, via Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary.  She was about five at the time, and we drove for around 14 hours each day.  So I’ll leave you to imagine how often she used the immortal words “Are we there yet?”!

There is something about human beings that we see most especially reflected in the young – although I think that is because they are less accomplished than us at hiding it.  I am referring of course to our impatience.  None of us like waiting, for anything.  We want what we want, now! 

I am as guilty as anyone.  Here I am, reading this sermon from my new Tablet, which I bought last week.  My family tell me that I am the hardest person to buy presents for, because I have a tendency to just go and get what I want, as soon as I want it!  So it will be socks again for me this Christmas!

The Season of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s New Year, and it is designed specifically to be a time of waiting.  That is a deliberate ploy on the part of the church Fathers. They set out, like Jesus, to do something which would contradict and challenge the normal way that society does things.  In theologian-speak, we talk about this as being ‘counter-cultural’ – that is, a way of doing something that is counter (or opposite) to the culture around us.  

So, the New Year for the rest of society starts with a bang and fireworks…with a sense that we’ve ‘arrived’ at something important (as though the turn of the Calendar was something to be celebrated).  But the Church, deliberately, starts its new year with two important words…’Coming’ (which is what ‘Advent’ means)…and ‘Wait’.

In Advent, we celebrate the coming into this world of Jesus, Son of God – our Rescuer, our Teacher.  We look forward to the Christ Mass, when his first coming in poverty is our focus.  But in Advent, we look ahead with hope to his Second Coming, with justice and mercy in his hands.  Christians can’t help looking forward, because we see the way the world is now.

Last week I spoke about the one billion people in our world who live on a dollar a day.  Do you remember how I told you it would take over a year to drive past that many people at 60 miles an hour?  And we look around at the world in which the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.  We look at a world in which people regularly open fire on each other.  We shake our heads at the greed which caused punch-ups and injuries on so called ‘Black Friday’ in ASDA super-stores.  We see these things, and we say to ourselves, “this is not how it is supposed to be!”.  And we yearn for the transformation of the world that God promises us through his Son.   We yearn for it, we hope for it.  And naturally, we don’t want to wait for it! 

This sense of hope that God will one day put all things right is rooted in a long, long tradition.   The Hebrew Bible – which Christians sometimes call the Old Testament – is full of longing for the day when God will transform society into something fair and just.  The prophet Isaiah, for example, looked around him at wars between the kingdoms all around Israel.  He despaired of what he saw, but looked forward prophetically to a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation”, and when they will “beat their swords into ploughshares, and the spears into pruning hooks”. 

When will this happen?  Well according to Isaiah, peace will break out when all the peoples of the world say ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways’.  In other words, Isaiah prophecies that the reign of God will begin when the peoples of the world finally accept that human ways of doing things don’t work.  Peace will reign when the peoples of the world turn away from their sin, and ask God to teach them his ways.

But, human beings are too stubborn.  We don’t want to wait for God’s teachings about love, justice and mercy to bring about the change in society that we want.  So we take up arms against those with whom we disagree, and we attempt to bring about justice and peace with the barrel of a gun. There was a pithy saying doing the rounds this week on Facebook – ‘Why do we kill people who kill other people to show that killing is wrong?’

People often ask me how God could stand by and watch people killing, and torturing each other, or oppressing each other, or making their brother and sister live on less than a dollar a day.  I tell them this: God is not standing by.  Thousands of years ago he gave us a simple list of 10 rules by which to live – we call them the 10 Commandments.  They included some pretty simple stuff – don’t murder, and don’t go lusting after things you can’t have. 

But did we listen? 

So he sent us a whole series of prophets, like Isaiah, who kept on reminding us that peace and justice will only reign when people listen to the teachings of God. 

But did we listen?

So he sent us not just a prophet, but his own son – a man who was so much like God that people who knew him said ‘this man is God’.  And he repeated the message of thousands of years before.  Summarising the Law of God, he said, ‘Love God, and Love your Neighbour as Yourself’.

But did we listen?

God has done anything but stand by while the world ‘goes to hell in a hand-cart’.  Having sent his Son, he established the Church – and organisation of people who would carry on calling the people of the world to repentance….calling their neighbours and friends to live by God’s laws…and continuing to prayer with their hearts and their hands those profound words, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

And that, finally, is what Jesus calls us to carry on doing…until the time that God’s reign is completely and definitively established.  In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that we cannot know when that day will come.  Only God knows when the Kingdom will be finally and fully established.  But , he gives us a sacred task to carry out until that day finally comes.  We are those who, in the words of the Gospel, are to ‘keep awake’.  We are to be constantly ready – like a house-owner who waits for the thief in the night.  We are to be alert…alert to every sign of the Kingdom.

Because, while we wait for the completion of the  Justice and Mercy of God, there is a very real sense in which God is already among us, already coming – in fact already here

Back in October, I took around £2,500 to Ghana, to bring the simple gift of water to a priest and his family…thanks in no small measure to the donations that many of you made.  Justice and mercy were enacted that day.  In a very real sense, Jesus came to Father Angelo and his family. 

And every time a family is raised up out of poverty, Jesus comes. 

Every time a war-monger lays down his weapons, Jesus comes. 

Every time a lonely person finds a friend in our community cafĂ©, Jesus comes. 

Every time a poverty stricken family is fed by the Portsmouth Foodbank, Jesus comes.

And so, we are entitled to ask, like every small child, ‘Are we there yet?’.  The answer, as every car-driving parent knows is ‘nearly’.    We are nearly there!  Signs of the kingdom are all around us.  Our task, like an alert house-owner, is to keep awake.  See the signs of the kingdom with open eyes, and join in with the activity of God, wherever it is found.