Our reading is from Mark 13: 24-37
Advent marks the beginning of the church’s new year. As Edward King was fond of commenting, we complete another cycle of God’s great story of reaching out to humanity. It is time to begin again, but under strange circumstances, maybe this time we shall notice something we had not spotted before.
Our newspapers are full of words about Christmas, can it be saved, will it happen, can families meet? In most people’s minds is it Christmas that focusses attention. In the midst of such a difficult time it is natural to look for something better, a time when we can be with people we are missing, a time for celebration after months of worry and loneliness.
But let’s not overlook Advent. It has been said that if you cut Christmas out of the bible you would lose just three chapters, and it wouldn’t change anything we know about God’s best hopes for humanity. The facts of the Incarnation are still there. But leave out Advent and you lose most of the Old Testament and much of the New. We need to take Advent seriously.
Of course Advent is challenging. Our reading today speaks of a world coming to an end. Not much of a new beginning at first glance. But if we pause to think then we know differently. The first signs of a new harvest are when the plough overturns the earth, and for the ploughman of old it was brutal back-breaking work. Yet, as I said in my annual report, when the poetry of ploughing spoke of the “painful plough” it was not the aching muscles or blistered hands that were referred to. The “painful plough” is a reference to something done with painstaking care. New beginnings matter, and they demand our focus and attention and care.
So do not neglect Advent. It matters too much.
I often begin a funeral service with the Advent collect. It summarises a lot that matters.
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
We are reminded again that this ending is a new beginning. But not just yet. There is a waiting. Contrary to what some people think Christians do not believe that when we die we go straight to heaven. The Advent collect makes that clear. We wait. We wait until that last day when Christ shall come again in glory, and then, and then only, shall we rise to the life immortal. Of course in God’s kingdom time as we currently experience it is different, but the point remains.
Society all around us is geared to having what we want when we want it. And we want it now. So Christmas decorations go up in November and by Boxing Day it’s all over. The reality is different, and slower, and more lasting.
At the heart of our being with God there is waiting. God will act, God will come amongst us, the message of the angels will be heard. But not just yet. Now it is time to wait and watch and listen. Now it is time to prepare for that which is long expected.
Every new beginning is made possible by that which has gone before. We need not fear the known passing away. This has been a hard year, we have lost so much, yet in the endings we have discovered new beginnings. If we do not learn to watch and wait we will miss opportunities. The Advent collect speaks of this mortal life, it acknowledges things which must pass away, looking to a different reality beyond. Now is the time not to rush back to the old ‘normal’. Use this time wisely, keep awake, be alert.
I want to add a few words about what will happen after 2nd December. The new tier system will be tough but I am pleased to see it gives us an idea through to the end of March. In all the tiers places of worship will remain open. Our services recommence on Sunday 6th December. Our websites have details of Advent and Christmas services. Numbers may be limited of course so for popular services it might be wise to come early. This may be the first Christmas we truly understand what it felt like to be told, “There’s no room at the inn.”
Blessed are you, Sovereign Lord, God of our ancestors:
to you be praise and glory for ever!
You called the patriarchs to live by the light of faith
and to journey in the hope of your promised fulfilment.
May we be obedient to your call
and be ready and watchful to receive your Christ,
a lamp to our feet and a light to our path;
for you are our light and our salvation.
Blessed be God for ever.
The first candle is lit
God of Abraham and Sarah,
and all the patriarchs of old,
you are our Father too.
Your love is revealed to us in Jesus Christ,
Son of God and Son of David.
Help us in preparing to celebrate his birth
to make our hearts ready for your Holy Spirit
to make his home among us.
We ask this through Jesus Christ,
the Light who is coming into the world.
Lord Jesus, Light of the world,
born in David's city of Bethlehem,
born like him to be a king:
Be born in our hearts at Christmas,
be king of our lives today.
The YouTube version is https://youtu.be/DqJLCTz6Sr8