Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a time of repentance and celebration as we anticipate the return of Christ. The Latin word ‘adventus’ means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’; and as we look to the four Sundays of Advent and then Christmas, we explore a number of ideas including: prophetic living as we look for the second coming of Jesus and offering hope to the world; the insistent call for repentance, the good news and the gift of the Holy Spirit; and we talk of love, faith and peace.
We heard Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians (Romans 13:9-14) reminding us to ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ and to be Christ’s presence in the world.
The reading today in Matthew (24:36-44) is complicated. It is part of a longer series of teachings by Jesus who is trying to help his disciples face into his imminent death and physical absence and the implications of living without him present in the flesh.
As I listen to Jesus, I am reminded of our Warden”s story about her grandson, who has been ringing her up and saying to her:
‘Grandma are you coming home now for my birthday? I want to see you now!’
For her nearly five-year old grandson, there is no real understanding of distance or time, no future or past, just present days and hours and grandma’s absence.
Our very human desire to know what the future will bring sits alongside our childlike understanding of time, the present nature of God within our own circumstances and our anticipation of the world to come, now.
I also don’t think this is a story of a riddle we are meant to work out to determine the day, the hour, the place of the second coming, or judge in advance the people who are in or out. It is not about brutal punishment or judgement. It is about prophetic hope and faith and learning to live different lives.
We are invited to understand God’s coming reign of the time-based, physical world is already part of God’s eternity, God’s heaven, ‘God’s kingdom come’.
We prepare for God’s reign as being already present through our anticipation, expectations and actions. God’s reign comes from the future in which all things, all beings, all creatures are reconciled to God.
This means all persons and all creation are already being drawn into God’s coming future of reconciliation, judgement and healing. Rather than being with God after the final judgement, our whole life is in God now, today, here as we are together.
All of us will be with God in the final moment, but our whole history, our past and our future is as the reconciled, restored, healed and completed.
The identity of every person, every human being and finite creature has its origin, present and future in God.
We live now in God’s creation, we experience God’s reign now and coming, we are present here and in the future. We know this because Jesus as the son of man, truly human has lived our life. He shared our human frailty and experienced our, and his own, brokenness. We do not need to be anxious about what is to come, because our future is in God. We can be as certain of this as about anything else in our lives.
We can also be certain our lives as Christians require us to be vigilant and present in the world. This story is also not about frightening people into following Christ, but about the reality of life. We are distracted by day to day matters, we don’t focus and pay attention. We think tomorrow will be time enough to deal with the important matters of life.
A wise friend once said to me I needed to live each day as if it was my last. That being the case, what would I need to do today that I cannot put off. Recent discussions about death with a friend and about the immediacy of a life shortened by illness does have the effect of focussing our minds on what is important.
I know its very hard to be in a state of constant alertness. It is exhausting and when we become accustomed to the level of vigilance, we relax with the new norm. But I notice absence; when a loved one is no longer with us, everywhere reminds us of this person’s presence. The space at the table, the silence in the night, the loneliness in one’s heart, the reminders by strangers on the street who look alike…so too with Jesus’ absence.
If we are watchful, we can see Jesus’ absence everywhere: the vicious spiral of war, violence and death in far-away places, in our communities and in our own homes, the agony of the bereaved, the beggar on the street, the arrogant smirk of the dictator, the eyes of a starving child and abandonment of orphans and the unloved on the streets. The shared horror of people losing homes to natural disasters or to war, the outward rush of sympathy and offers of help, then the rejection of those who knock on our door asking to be let in.
These are, what I would call ‘anti-sacraments’, signifying emptiness and a void; a place where God is not invited to be present. They signify absence. Our rejection enables love to be lost and unknown.
As Christians we are trained to see the presence of Christ, in bread and wine, and in each other. We are taught to discern Christ in our Eucharist and to learn to discern Christ everywhere in the world.
God entrusts us with responsibilities for the world. We are accountable to God for how we have lived in the world, cared for it and for others.
Watchfulness is a practice, not an occasional habit, it is an ongoing discipline, preparing and learning, sharing and teaching, being ready, and not leaving it to the 11th hour. We must not be like the bridesmaids waiting for the groom and caught short.
Like my grandson who wants it to be Christmas tomorrow and the agony of waiting another four unimaginably long weeks seems beyond all that is reasonable and understandable, our urgent desire to know the date and time of God’s coming is the same. Isaiah invites us:
Come, let us go up ….to the house of God, that God may teach us God’s ways and we may walk in God’s paths….Come let us walk in the light of the Lord! (Isaiah 2:3,5)
In our lives, with faith we watch and work hopefully in the present, trusting God’s reign has already begun. We wait expectantly for the Son to return, knowing at that moment, we will be called into the blessing of God.
Finally, the excitement and joy, the hope fulfilled in what we do know is breathtaking. Let us keep awake, because although we do not know exactly when Jesus is coming, we do know what Jesus told us:
Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
The Lord be with you