Advent Sunday 1
Sermon preached by
The Reverend Peter Littleford
28th November 1999
Mark Chapter 13 verses 24 - 37.
"But in those days, following that distress, "'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'" At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens." Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert ! You do not know when that time will come. It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. "Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: 'Watch!'"
Today is Advent Sunday, the start of the Church's New Year.
This year is a special Advent Sunday because not only is the start of the Church's New Year, but, as usual, the start of the Church's preparation for Christmas, but also it is the last one before the Millennium event. I want to develop the ideas from the Gospel reading for today by telling you about an incident which happened during last week.
I had been with a group of colleagues, and we were busy telling each other funny stories. Each one of us tried to cap the stories told by the others, and eventually I thought that it was my turn. However, as I launched into the story, I became aware that I could not remember the punch line. (Those who know me well will confirm that this is one of my common failings.) Nevertheless I continued with the story hoping that the punch line would come back to me. But it didn't, and I was forced to end the story with something which I had created on the spur of the moment. The end was dull, uninspiring, certainly not amusing, and was accompanied by a silence in which people looked uncomfortably at each other. For myself, I could only say to myself, 'Floor, open up, please!'
Of course, what this incident reinforced was that a good story has not only a strong plot, but also has aspects, which surprise us, elements of the unexpected, something, which breaks the routine. If we think about the reading which we have heard from Mark's gospel during recent weeks, what we have had has been good accounts of Jesus' work amongst the people: his teaching, preaching, and healing. However, this week, there is a change: the continuity has been broken, and we hear a section concerned with what will happen at the end of time. Why has this happened? Well, it is because of today being Advent Sunday, when we remember the surprising things which God has done in and to our world. What God has done has broken the safety of the routine, the security which we have when the expected happens. But it is also the same for what we hear in church: we all enjoy the comfortable words of the New Testament. If that is the case, then the gospel for today certainly jolts us out of our routine. Instead of comfortable stories about the widow's offering, or which is the greatest commandment as found in the previous chapter, we have a passage on the end of the world, as we know it.
And why has this reading been selected for today? It is because in the Church's year we have moved into the season of Advent. The start of the Church's New Year. We have entered the season of Advent—the Season of surprises - so we had better be on our toes. What we are being reminded of is that our God is a surprising God: one who has acted in surprising and unpredictable ways since the beginning of time. Advent is a time when we can start to prepare to celebrate the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ into our own world, a couple of thousand years ago. And that was a surprising event: God becoming human by being born like a child. But our God is a god of surprises and if he surprised people in times past, then we can never be sure when he is going to surprise us and intrude into our comfortable world in a way which we have not expected.
But of course, we like an ordered and unsurprising world. After all, we are only too ready to say: 'I hope I am not intruding?' we say, when we want to talk to people even if it is obvious that we are intruding. We don't like to take people by surprise, we don't like to interrupt their settled plans and activities. However, there are moments in life when a Christian is called to intrude and to keep on intruding. Why? Well, it is because we have an intrusive God. Indeed Jesus Christ was probably the biggest intruder of all time: Jesus' birth, as John's Gospel says, the Word made flesh, was a great intrusion: the intrusion of the eternal into the temporal world the intrusion of the divine into the human world the intrusion of the spiritual into the material world. But the whole Bible, both New and Old Testaments, contain accounts of God's power to intrude into our comfortable world and change things in a dramatic way.
Well what about us? Perhaps the advice for us is in the final part of the gospel reading. Here Jesus uses the example of a master who was setting out on a journey and gave various tasks to his servants which they were to carry out while he was away. As Christians, as followers of Christ, we too have been given a very definite assignment. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the news of the Holy Spirit's surprising presence in our midst, is only good news if it is told, and told, and retold until all have heard and all have become aware of Christ's love for them. Advent is when we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus to our world, to celebrate the greatest intrusion in human history, and the greatest intrusion into our lives. Jesus through his intrusion can change our lives and make all things new. The Church, that's us, must intrude with its witness - because being a disciple must mean using what we have to offer, our skills and talents and also our faith and belief. The trouble is that so often we think that we have nothing much in the way of skills and talents. But as far as our surprising God is concerned, that does not matter. Perhaps an example will help. If we look at the stained glass window in our church, then we can see that it was made by selecting panes of glass, which were then scored and broken. This broken glass was then reassembled by the artist and the broken glass took on a new meaning which is clear to us now. The original beauty of the panes of glass were broken and became transformed into something with a purpose, something which gives us all pleasure and acts as a source of inspiration. If only we can allow our brokenness and imperfections to be used by God then we acquire a new purpose for our lives. Our lives have a comfort through their routine. If only we will let God enter into our lives, then they will be changed, we will be surprised, and the ending will beyond our wildest dreams.
Keep me O Lord, while I tarry on this earth, in a serious seeking after you, and in an affectionate walking with you, every day of my life; that when you come, I may be found not hiding my talent, nor serving the flesh, nor yet asleep with my lamp unfurnished, but waiting and longing for you. Richard Baxter 1615-1691