Psalm 80: 1-8,18-20, Isaiah 64: 1-9, 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9, Mark 13: 24-37
Today is Advent Sunday, the beginning of the Church year; a time when we prepare ourselves for Christmas, and also a time when we prepare ourselves in our prayers, liturgies and reflections for what is traditionally termed the Second Coming of Christ as our Saviour and Judge at the Last Day. Advent, like Lent, is a penitential season, when we also reflect on our own shortcoming and failures of love, and the solemn tone of this penitential season is reflected in the liturgical colour of purple, which replaces the red of the Kingdom season just past.
Unfortunately for many years now there has been such a premature commercial build up to Christmas, that the meaning of Advent can all too easily be lost amidst the hustle and bustle of getting ready for Christmas. As Christians, it is important in these coming few weeks that we allow ourselves time and attention for some moments of quiet reflection, and to ponder those great themes of Advent, such as waiting and hope. Waiting is a theme that is not very popular in our culture. We live in a somewhat instant culture, when we expect instant answers to emails, and answers to our questions immediately by googling the internet for information. But when we think about it, waiting is something that is built into the natural rhythm of life. We have to wait for each season to pass to the next. Parents wait for the birth of their child. School children have to wait for their exam results. We all have to wait for certain important events to happen in life. What matters, is how we wait. Do we champ at the bit and get irritated, or do we wait with patience and expectation? I wonder how it was for Mary and Joseph as they waited for the birth of Jesus. I imagine they were quietly expectant and hopeful.
The word “Advent” literally means “coming” and refers obviously to the coming of Jesus. But it is not just about coming in the past, about when Jesus came to be born in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. It is also about coming in the present tense – those daily comings into our lives of God in Christ in countless small as well as significant ways. And of course, Advent is also about coming in the future, most notably the coming of Jesus in glory that Christians believe will occur at the end times when Christ will return in glory to the earth to restore all things. This final and glorious coming of Christ is at an unknown date in the future. In the meantime, we have to wait for it, with expectation in our hearts.
Many early Christians thought and expected that Jesus’ return to the earth in judgment and glory would be soon, even immanent. Over 2,000 years later, we have the benefit of hindsight. For over two millennia since Jesus walked this earth, the world’s struggles have continued. We live in very troubled times of our own, with natural disasters and the threat of terrorism in various places around the globe, the ongoing threat of nuclear war, and now a global pandemic. Our reading today from the gospel of Mark indicates how we need to be prepared in such times. It includes the last part of what is known as the Markan Apocalyptic Discourse. Here in chapter 13 Jesus gives a long speech to his disciples. It is the only section of continuous, direct speech of Jesus in Mark’s gospel that is of great length. It is all about foretelling Christ’s return in glory. Jesus here warns his closest disciples that at the end times there will be great suffering, and even “the powers in the heavens will be shaken” with the sun being darkened and the moon losing its light and the stars falling from their places. It is an alarming picture. Then people will see the “Son of Man” coming in power and glory in the clouds. He will come in judgement, and gather his true followers to himself.
What does Jesus ask his followers to do about this fearful prospect? He asks us to be alert:
“Therefore, keep awake……”.
We are constantly to be on the alert for the signs of Jesus coming among us. The signs of his coming among us in the past can be an encouragement to us. We can look back on important spiritual moments, such as a conversion experience or a sense of calling, and be strengthened. We can be aware of God in the present, in our daily experience. But this can be much harder when times are difficult, such as the current global pandemic. We are now coming to the end of the second national lockdown, and later this week London will be in Tier 2, with many restrictions on our lives still in place. It will be particularly hard for people in Tier 3. At such times prayer can be challenging. We sit and pray, and nothing seems to be happening. But many of the great saints, such as the sixteenth century Spanish mystics St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila wrote that this is to be expected. The early stages of the Christian life may feel exciting, even buoyant. But as we grow in the spiritual life, we may find ourselves facing a dark night. This requires patient endurance, and the strength to keep going.
St Paul in his many letters to the local churches he established was aware of the struggles and difficulties those churches faced. He sometimes wrote to rebuke them; he often wrote to encourage them. In our reading today from his first letter to the Corinthians he writes very much in an encouraging mode. He gives thanks to God for them, and he gives them cause for hope, for he says that God
“will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful…..”
God is faithful. That truth is what we need to cling to in challenging times. We cannot remind ourselves of this simple truth too often. This Advent, may we have moments of spiritual recognition, moments when we realise something of Jesus’ coming, and loving presence with us. And may we prepare ourselves for such moments by spending time in quiet reflection, with hope and expectation in our hearts, giving glory to Christ, our Saviour and merciful Judge.
Rev Sister Margaret Anne ASSP