Advent 1: Sermon, Mt 24:36-44, Is 2:1-5, Rom 13:11-end

The Intentional Disorientation of Advent

Last Christmas I took my kids to see the re-boot of Mary Poppins, the original was the first film I was taken to see at the cinema, so it was a trip down memory lane, telling them all about the scratchy seats and wriggling for 2 hours, but still having the best time.

Unfortunately we were running late and the only seats left were those right at the front, you know, the ones that no-one wants. And for good reason, because you’re so close to the screen that it’s really hard to take it all in, the characters loom very large just in front of your nose and it’s a disorienting experience. Anyway, we enjoyed the songs and the pick and mix, even if we felt dizzy by the end trying to adjust our eyes to take it all in.

Perhaps you’re feeling a little disoriented this morning, sitting in different places, facing a different way, facing each other, our vistas are different, we are not entirely sure what is going on.

These are pictures of entering in to the intentional disorientation of Advent. Our readings and liturgy are distinctly big picture. We are suddenly reading as much about the Jesus’s second coming as his first, which can be a jarring experience alongside the busy prep and bustle towards our upcoming Christmas celebrations.

Well good! Let us welcome the disorientation as an invitation to see differently, to look to one side of the screen if you like and see vistas far past, the birth of an illegitimate, refugee baby who would turn out to be very God visiting our planet, to the other side of the screen, where we are promised that the risen Jesus will return once more, with all that means for the righting of wrongs, the remaking of all that’s broken, the beating of swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks and where justice and judgement will roll forth like a river.

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

And as we struggle to hold in our gaze these vistas of past and future, these two sides of that large screen, the now and the not yet of the kingdom, we are invited too to ground ourselves in being fully present to the here and now. To acknowledge there is much darkness, to be honest that there is still much that is challenging in our lives and world, and yet to look for the light.

Talking of darkness, my husband John was right by London Bridge on Friday, and his building was put into lockdown, the first I heard about it was a text from John at 2.10 telling me he was ok. And yet there are also glimmers of light – the passers by who intervened and prevented Friday’s tragedy from being worse.

There is much darkness when we consider the climate crisis, our earth groaning in pain at our exploitation, and yet there are also glimmers of light, myriad redemptive and healing acts, from the school strikers on Friday on college green, to wilding workshops held here.

Perhaps your darkness is more personal, illness that lingers, loved ones struggling or work is unrelenting and unrewarding, Advent invites us to be honest about these things, and yet to faithfully look for the light – the kindness of a stranger, a listening ear, or that nurse, the medication that is making a difference, to affirm that there is light and to hope and wait for more light to come.

We are called to be watchful for signs of light in the darkness, signs of God with us, his kingdom coming in the everyday and the ordinary of our lives, for glimmers of glory. Promises that there is more glory, more of the kingdom yet to come, when all loose ends will be gathered in.

Advent asks us to expand our vision.

Elephant in the room – our problems with eschatology

Today’s passage from The Gospel of Matthew about the day and hour of the return of the Son of Man being unknown has been interpreted in many different ways. Entirely unhelpfully and erroneously I would suggest, by people like the Left Behind series of books and films, suggesting that planes will fall out of the sky at ‘the rapture’ when one is taken and another not.

If we look at the wider context of all of Matthew 24 it is clear that the first listeners of this Gospel would have understood these words as referring to Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

To the life of Israel, the destruction of the temple would have been as cataclysmic as what they had heard about the flood in Noah’s time. Such will be the upheaval as the imperial Roman machine sweeps through the Judean countryside en route to Jerusalem, that some in the field will be crushed by them, i.e. taken and the other left.  Jesus’s vindication was the destruction of the temple, God had come near in the ‘coming of the Son of man.’

Other readings see in the passage a warning to Christians to be ready for their own death, death being another of the important themes of Advent. Keep watch, be ready, be people of the light.

We hold these readings in tension, we know the first meaning has been fulfilled, but there is a surplus of meaning in the text, it still points forward, as does Romans towards a final fulfilment, promising the night is nearly over and the day is almost here.

Advent asks us to think about what that really means, the future, that slightly blurry side of the screen, asks to be bought into focus for a while. We know that first generation of believers thought this fullness of time would come within their lifetimes, and successive generations have thought the same thing.  Quoting our recent Dean of Bristol Cathedral: ‘As the moment keeps getting deferred, we being to wonder if this end time fulfilment is not perhaps some kind of myth, a story told with purpose, but not perhaps a precise description of this moment and the moment after. Starting the Christian year like this, we can make a very uncertain beginning.’

And yet, it is important to grapple with the eschatological elephant in the room. Michael Perham, a former Bishop of Gloucester, puts it well, he says:

‘‘Like many Christians, I live with a dilemma, I cannot entirely make sense of the end-of-time language of the New Testament…Yet I am deeply unhappy with attempts to reinterpret such language out of existence.’

Advent asks us to spend some time thinking about this end-of-time language, about Christ second aswell as his first coming. To think about what it might mean for God to fulfil the prayer we keep praying, for his kingdom to come conclusively, in fullness.

Christ has died,
Christ is risen,
Christ will come again.

Where the questions and horizons are this big, where we sit infront of a screen too big for us to see it all, I find that story, particularly of the mythic kind like The Chronicles of Narnia or the Lord of the Rings can be a great help.

I am endeavouring to re-read some of the Chronicles every Advent to help me engage with these big horizons in a different way. Talk of Aslan, his wildness, his kindness, his unpredictability, his sacrifice help refresh my vision, I remember again, and I need reminding frequently for spiritual memory is short, that this is what God in Christ is like too. I am told the big truths through different eyes. As Proust wrote: The only real voyage consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.

We often need our vision renewing, reminding us of the sweep of the redemptive story we are part of, recalibrating our ability to see light in the darkness. Advent is an invitation towards having new eyes.

Hope, turning and watching

So as we sit too close to the screen in Advent, looking forward to the past of the incarnation, looking forward to the future future when ‘all shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’ We are exhorted to watch, to wait, to be ready for and to make manifest glimmers of God’s kingdom.

As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote most beautifully:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

Advent teaches us be watchful, waiting, honest and expectant: ‘that there may already be glory in our midst, but in the plan of God there is more glory still to come.’     Amen.

Pippa White