Last Sunday was Advent Sunday and the beginning of a new church year. I was preaching this week so Father Jerry got the luxury of a week off! Here’s what I said.
You know that Christmas is coming when the first selection boxes and little bags of gold chocolate coins appear in the shops. I think this year that was the week after we got back from our summer holiday – the second week of September.
You know Christmas is even nearer when the tree goes up in the shopping centre and Father Christmas comes to switch on the lights, as he did in Caterham Valley yesterday – a week later than usual I think.
You know Christmas is nearer still when the first lights go on outside people’s houses – the earliest are usually the first week in December, so watch out, any day now!
And if you don’t pick up these clues there are always the adverts on television which now seem to begin in early November. You only have to switch on your TV and there are the toys, drinks, food, novelties that you are supposed to want for Christmas.
All these signs of the times.
Our gospel today, for Advent Sunday, tells us about signs of the times:
- The sun will be darkened
- The moon will not give its light
- The stars will be falling from heaven
Just as we can see all the signs around us that Christmas is approaching, so there will be signs of the end times.
At every Eucharist we say “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.” And yet how many of us really think about the time when Christ will come again. But that is what our gospel is about today and what we focus on in Advent. Before I retired last year I worked for Welcare, the Diocesan charity which helps families in need, I was the boss, the Chief Executive. A grand title and I have to admit that I sometimes had problems seeing myself in the boss role. But I got reminded of it every so often. Welcare had ten centres around the Diocese and some 120 staff and 200 plus volunteers. I didn’t know them all personally, but I used to do at least an annual visit to meet the local team. And it was only by accident when I arrived early for one of these visits, that I realised people did a lot of preparation. I arrived about an hour early because another appointment had been cancelled and I just wanted a quiet space to go and do some work before I met the team at the pre-arranged time. But when the door opened to me, the flustered receptionist said “Oh it’s you, we’re not ready for you yet”. I laughed and queried what needed to be got ready. She was honest and said – we’re just tidying up – putting files away, tidying the toys in the crèche and our centre manager has gone out to buy cakes. They were getting ready for the boss, for me.
Getting ready! Getting ready for a visit by the boss! That is the message of Advent. Only the boss in this case is Jesus. The word advent comes from the Latin, adventus, which means “coming.” In the season of Advent, we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Christmas and for the coming of Christ at the end of time. We can get our heads round the coming of Christ at Christmas. And getting ready for the celebration of Christmas is something many of us do frantically – buying presents, sending cards, decorating the house, cooking lots of food. But that wasn’t the original idea of Advent. It was a time for reflection – it is a purple season, like Lent, when we think about our Christian discipleship and the coming celebration of Jesus’ birth and what it might mean for us if, in the words of the carol, Jesus “Casts out our sin and enters in, and is born in us today.”
So can we squeeze out a bit of time in the next three and a half weeks to recapture what Advent was meant to be and think about Jesus coming at Christmas and coming once more into our lives – what it might mean? Can we find some stillness in this busy season to think about this. If you are going to use these little book in Advent (and I still have some copies if you want one), the first thing it asks you to do on December 1st, that’s tomorrow, is to make a place in your home where you will think about Advent. It suggests putting your Advent Calendar or Candle there, or an Advent wreath if you have made one, or a crib set. And that will be your special place over the coming weeks to think about Advent and the coming of Jesus. And some days in this little book you will be asked to do something specific that requires you to just sit and think, so you go to your special place to do this. Even if you are not using this book perhaps you can create a special place at home to be quiet and still, and think about the coming of Jesus. It will at the very least be an escape place from all the mayhem of Christmas preparation in the world around us.
So that is the easy bit – getting ready for the coming of Jesus at Christmas and coming once more into our lives. But what about the other bit of getting ready for the Boss. The second coming, the end times, the final consummation – it is difficult language in the Bible, this stuff about the second coming and the end times, the final judgement. But it is there and we Christians believe that one day Jesus will return and claim the Kingdom for his own. We sing about it in Advent:
Saviour, take the power and glory, Claim the kingdom for Thine own; O come quickly!
Alleluia! Come, Lord, come!
In our reading from Mark’s gospel today there seem to be contradictions – on the one hand there will be signs – the sun darkening, the moon not shining – they sound like things we might notice! And on the other hand Jesus says “you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.”
There will be this crucial time, this event, this apocalyptic moment when Jesus will return and God will claim his Kingdom – when the world will be changed. It is our hope as Christians, so not a thing to be feared, but a hope that should inspire us to work and to declare that the glory of Christ is the hope of the world. And it is our duty, as believers to live out that hope as Jesus would have wanted us to, wide-awake to possibility – the possibility of a world so different to that in which we now live. But Jesus warns us that we need to be ready. We need to live in faith. We need to have Christ at the centre of our lives. We need to serve him day by day. We need to obey his commandments to love God and neighbour. We need to be ready. Ready for the end times, for Jesus’ return; but the same applies to our death, which may or may not be before the second coming. Be ready.
I read a nice story about John Grisham, the novelist. Some of you may have read his books – or seen the films – the Firm, the Pelican Brief and the like. His books are thrillers, usually in a legal setting for he was a lawyer. What you may not know about John Grisham is that he is an active Christian, who regularly teaches in Sunday School, and goes on mission with his church each year, usually to Brazil, where the mission team help remote communities with medical care and building – helping them to build a church or a medical centre. He is someone who despite his wealth and fame, takes his faith seriously and in doing that he tries to focus on the things that really count. Grisham attributes that attitude to something that happened while he was still a law-school student. A friend — a young man – telephoned and invited Grisham to lunch. At lunch, he told Grisham that he had cancer. He didn’t have long to live. Grisham was stunned. He asked, “What do you do when you realize that you are about to die?” His friend replied: “It’s real simple. You get things right with God, and you spend as much time with those you love as you can. Then you settle up with everybody else.” And then he added: “You know, really, you ought to live every day like you have only a few more days to live.” Grisham says he never forgot his friend’s words. “You know, really, you ought to live every day like you have only a few more days to live.” If we can live every day like that, we will get the best out of each day. If we live another ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years, each year will be better because we lived each day well. And if Jesus returns this afternoon or a bus runs over us on the way home, we will be ready.
Jesus says, “Keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Amen.