And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplex- ity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near …
But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:25-18,34-36)
Happy New Year everybody!
Yes, it’s the first day of the ecclesiastical new year – the first Sunday in Advent – and as you’ll see, everything is a bit different today.
The colours are different, the hymns are different, and there’s a sense of festivity in the air … well, maybe not a sense of festivity, but there probably should be, for Advent Sunday is a significant day in the Christian calendar for it’s when we remember what is coming!
The word ‘Advent’ indeed comes from the Latin verb ‘venio’ – to come – and ‘advenio’ – to come towards. For we are coming towards something?
What is it that is coming? I’m a little wary of putting this question to the congregation as I may get the answer, ‘Santa Claus is coming … to town’. And I don’t really want to dismiss the fact that Santa Claus is coming, nor that Christmas is coming, with all its festivities and joy and commercialism. But what we celebrate at Advent is not that Christmas is coming, nor that Santa is coming but that Jesus is coming … so look busy!
I saw that on a T-shirt, selling in Darling Harbour this week. ‘Jesus is coming, so look busy’. That particular joke isn’t original to the T-shirt company of course, but it does make you think about what you would want to be found doing if Jesus suddenly appeared on the scene.
Tony Campolo used to say that when he was growing up the preachers used to scare the kids by warning them that Jesus could appear at any time, and woe betide them if he turns up and finds them at a movie theature! Tony says he grew up with a constant fear, every time he went to the movies, that Jesus would return during the feature and he’d miss the end of the movie.
I heard sermons like that too as a kid, and I was always more concerned that I’d be on the toilet or something like that. Either way, I guess the real point is to think about what we would want to be found doing if Jesus suddenly appeared, for whatever it is, it’s probably what we should be getting on with now anyway.
I’m conscious too, as I read in the Scriptures about the second coming of Jesus, that while it is‘good news’ in the best sense possible, it is good news that is surrounded by a lot of bad news. Indeed, the festivities of Advent, from an ecclesiastical point of view, do have a rather dour feel to them.
Look at our colours this morning! While the rest of the country is starting to deck itself out in the Christmas colours of green and red, we have moved to the other end of the ecclesiastical colour spectrum – donning violet, the colour of sombre reflection.
I think that’s because, while we rejoice at the thought of Jesus returning, we recognise too that this will take place in the midst of great human pain, and nowhere is that made more clear than in our Gospel reading this morning:
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:25-27)
There’s not much that is Christmassy about this picture, is there – at least in terms of the commercial version of Christmas. There’s not a lot of similarity here between the coming of Jesus and the coming of good old St Nick!
Now, I don’t want to start bashing Christmas, particularly as it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and most of the symbols we associate with Christmas do indeed find their origin in the Bible and in the story of Jesus‘ birth. Even so, I do feel that even when Christmas is a Christian celebration, our modern version really reflects more the middle-class captivity of the church than it does the original message.
“Peace on earth and goodwill to all men” – that’s the spirit of Christmas, isn’t it? Not really. “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men with whom God is pleased” is what the angels were quoted as saying – the original message being a little more ambiguous than the popular sanitized version.
The modern version of Christmas is reflected in slogans about how this special season brings out the best in people – a season of family and goodwill, seen in Tiny Tim walking into the room saying‘God bless you one and all’. The Biblical pictures of Advent show us both joy and pain as the new world is brought to birth.
This Spirit of Christmas is the sort of hearty twaddle that used to climax in the annual John Denver Christmas special that I remember from my youth, where John and his family would sit around the camp-fire with the choir humming Silent Night in the background, while John gave his little soliloquy along the lines of “Good people, if we can just hold hands with one another and live the spirit of Christmas year round and try just a little bit harder, we can bring peace on earth.”
I wonder if they’ve ever tried that sort of thing in Iraq? I suspect not, for this sort of Christmas Spirit is the spirituality of a well-healed community.
Even in my youth I wondered whether those Christmas specials were broadcast over at Long Bay gaol, where prisoners would think ‘if only we all held hands and…’
At this time of year, the Christmas broadcasters fill the airways with this sort of good-natured twaddle passing itself off as Christianity. And indeed it may warm the hearts of well-healed middle-class families across the country, but it’s not likely to make a big difference in Iraq this year. It’s not likely to make a big difference at Long Bay, and it’s not likely to make a big difference in the kid’s cancer ward at the Children’s Hospital. And, as Monica Helwig put it, “If it won’t work in a cancer ward or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, then whatever it is, it is not the gospel.”
I remember one of my dad’s favourite comedy sketches, that he used to retell often, was from one of those doctor comedies (’Doctor in the House’, I think), where two doctors were examining an elderly patient. The senior doctor asks the junior doctor where he thinks they should operate. The junior doctor puts his finger on the man’s chest and says, ‘I should make an incision around here’ ‘Keyhole surgery man, keyhole surgery!’ says his teacher. ‘We make the incision right across here’ he says, drawing a broad line right across the old man’s chest (much to the patient’s alarm).
Yet I think that’s the issue here. Jesus is no ‘keyhole surgeon’. There are some radical changes that need to take place before the Kingdom of God can be brought to birth. A lot of things are going to be torn down before they are built up, as the pain and injustices of this world run very deep.
We remember Jesus discussing His ministry at that last supper. A quiet, genteel affair it was, until Jesus started breaking bread and pouring out wine, talking about his broken body, and his blood flowing. Salvation, sacrifice, and the coming of the Kingdom, for Jesus, were never going to be cheap and easy. There would be blood and pain. And the final salvation of the cosmos will not be something that is clean and clinical, but it is tied up with war and death and human suffering.
Is that good news? I think it all depends on where you stand.
One of the great American Civil War writings, with which I am familiar, is ‘The diary of Mary Chesnut’ . Mary was a passionate Southern woman who wrote voluminously about the war, and saw first-hand the devastation caused by General Sherman in his infamous “March to the Sea” of 1865.
Chestnut wrote of that event, “Sherman marched off in solid column, leaving not so much as a blade of grass behind. A howling wilderness, a land laid waste, dust and ashes.” She left out that apparently there were slaves dancing in the streets!
It all depends on where you stand. And if you’re content to remain a sedentary member of the well-healed middle-class, then the thought of all this anguish and destruction will be very unsettling, I imagine.
If, on the other hand, you’ve thrown in your lot with the poor and dispossessed, you will probably be happy to embrace this final anguish, recognising that Christ must do whatever needs to be done in order to free the slaves, to eradicate the poison, to bring an end to all injustice, and to bring real and lasting peace.
Either way, it is as sobering thought, as Advent is meant to be a sobering time of year.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, November, 2006.