Psalm 25:1-9, Jeremaiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-end, Luke 21:25-36
Advent Sunday marks the start of the Church’s liturgical year. It is also the time when we start preparing for the birth of Jesus, for Christmas.
But then we get what at first glance appears to be quite an unsettling Gospel reading talking all about signs and portents, warning us to be on our guard and to be strong for what lies ahead. All a bit confusing perhaps just when we want to forget the problems of the World for a while and focus on parties and celebrations and what is an incredibly happy event to come.
But the reading does seem to be quite apt for our age, when the World’s problems seem to be overwhelming. If St Luke were writing now, he would see all sorts of things that really are “distress among the nations” – conflicts in so many parts of the World, the continuing threat of Covid 19 and so many people on the move. I heard on the radio this week that Worldwide there are 80 million people who are displaced from their homes – through conflict, climate change, poverty and just simply a search for a better life. This number is only going to increase. Perhaps the roaring of the sea and the waves which Luke refers in his report of Jesus’ words could be interpreted as a prediction of the potentially catastrophic climate change disaster that is so much in our minds these days.
Anyway having got us rather alarmed and anxious, Jesus refers to the second coming. The reminder that, despite all our woes and troubles, God is not far from us and is there looking after us and will come to us. Having taken us to a place of gloom and warning, Jesus talks about the sprouting of the fig tree and the sign that, despite all the problems, new life awaits, new joy beckons.
Advent is a time of preparation, but it can also be a bit unsettling. It challenges any idea of a distant, transcendent God, looking down on our lives, but not necessarily immediately part of them. As we await the birth of Jesus, we are reminded of God’s nearness to us, his presence and the redemption he offers. Therefore, as the Gospel talks of the Son of Man coming on a cloud, we also start to think of the Son of Man being born in a stable and placed in a Manger. It reminds us that this little baby in the stable is the Son of God and he has lived life as a human being. You cannot understand anyone until you have walked a mile in their shoes they say. God understands this. He sent Jesus to walk in our shoes, to experience life on earth, to be one of us and one with us.
And, as we think of Christmas in less than a month, we must reflect that Mary, also very human, would already have been eight months pregnant by this stage. The visitation of the Angel to her would already have been some time ago. She and Joseph must already be aware of the miserable journey ahead of them and the non-NHS birth conditions that Mary would face. Their preparations would have started long before and been quite daunting. The lead up to the arrival of Jesus is all very human, very real and not terribly comfortable.
As a child, one of the signs of the imminent arrival of Christmas was our Advent calendar. I am going to speak to the children about Advent calendars next week. I know some adults still like an Advent calendar in their homes even when children are not present and I am all in favour of that. And I am not talking about the Power Rangers, Peppa Pig or even Gin miniature Advent calendars that seem to be to the fore these days, but religious ones. Where every day a new part of the Advent story is revealed, but anyway – more of that next week.
Advent is also a time of contrasts. “Signs of what is to come” are words of hope as much as of concern. We do live in difficult times – but there have been many difficult times in the past and many daunting challenges and there will be in the future. I think of two World Wars and other conflicts, the plague, the rudimentary health care in the past when so many people died young, the list is endless.
We should not think of this Gospel passage as doom laden, intended to drive us into darkness and fear. Jesus’s words “There will be signs” should be seen as words of hope and reassurance. Yes, bad things will happen in the World. They are inevitable and Jesus does not ask us to live in fear of the future. We need to avoid complacency, and to be alert, be ready, but also know that good things await. To illustrate this Jesus raises the analogy of the new life that we know will happen with the sprouting of the fig tree. His intention surely is to convey to us that when we see bad things, we should be reminded that we should keep firm in our faith, hold our heads high, because it is all going to turn out well for those who trust in him, who stand by and with him.
Therefore, as we journey on towards Christmas, let us all hold fast to God’s promises and ponder in our hearts the wonderful expectation of new life, new joy, new redemption that is just around the corner.
Maranatha – come Lord Jesus.