This is the first Sunday in Advent. That may come as a surprise for some who thought we were already in Christmas because of the Christmas carols surrounding us in the department stores and supermarkets. Advent has made a bit of a resurgence in Protestantism over the last 20 years because our culture has not only embraced Christmas, it has taken it over and consumerized it. I recall some years ago an Australian politician saying that if you love this country spend big at Christmas. Hmmm! I dont think I really want to buy into that ideology. (Did I just say buy in??) So many, myself included, think that this time before the celebration of Christmas should be a reflective time and not dominated by a spendthrift culture.
Now before you suggest that I am bringing a "humbug" attitude to Christmas, let me say I love the celebrations and yes even the gifts, depending on what I get Just kidding. I think that as purveyors of the Christian story we should exploit the message of Christmas, particularly when it centres on "Peace and good will toward all people and Gods favour on everyone." Nevertheless it is good to have this time of preparation so that we can enter more fully into the message of grace, hope and peace that is central to the Christmas celebration. We need to cultivate within ourselves that capacity to wait, reflect and ponder the story and the celebration that we are moving toward.
In the early Church, after Jesus presence had subsided, there was a very harsh sense of Jesus being The Christ The King The Lord and little of the humanity and personality of Jesus. Have you ever wondered how the parables and stories and the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount morphed into the Nicene Creed or the Athanasian Creed? If you have read them you may feel that they lack the blood and bone of the gospel readings . I may be in trouble for saying that . But for me I want the earthiness, the inconsistency and confusion of the original writings. I want their spontaneity and that presentness. Why? Because that is what life is like. It doesnt matter where it is, in the first, second or 21st century, the message is best when it is grounded.
It was in the 13th century that the way we began to celebrate the coming of Jesus began to change. Wikipedia suggests that:
The 13th century witnessed a major turning point in the development of a new "tender image of Jesus" within Christianity, as the Franciscans began to emphasize the humility of Jesus both at his birth and his death. The construction of the Nativity scene by Saint Francis of Assisi was instrumental in portraying a softer image of Jesus that contrasted with the powerful and radiant image at the Transfiguration, and emphasized how God had taken a humble path to his own birth..
Advent Coming and Coming Again
There are in the gospel story many themes that call each of us to live in a particular way. In the last couple of weeks I have taken a number of funerals in our church. Let me say that many people comment on the sense of the sacred and beauty when they enter this place. On one occasion I had a conversation with someone close to the person who had died. He said he lamented that he had nothing to do with church any longer and he felt that there was something missing from his life. As we talked further, he said, "Its the narrative I dont have. A story that is bigger than me and my family that I can live by and that can give me meaning in life."
I know that we in the church can be critical and feel almost a sense of failure that the story we grew up with has not always been passed on to the next generation. But remember, our culture and those within our culture are truly seeking a story to live by. Ah! But here comes the rub. It may not be so much the telling of that story with which we are so familiar. Even the passage read today has so little currency in the modern world. It is powerful in its narrative form, but the mythology, the ancient text that supports it, is lost in the 21st century.
But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. .Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
We begin this season of Advent with a peculiar sense that this coming of the one who will bring peace, hope, love and compassion into this world is still to happen: that he has not finished his job and will return. But the return is not dated nor predicted. In fact, as we perch at the beginning of the 21st century, our mythology is very different. Let me say that this day of return has little to do with a person and everything to do with the present moment:
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
Did you notice how often the words "you do not know" appear? And the emphasis on staying awake and being aware. May I wander into the controversial for a moment? I think it means stay awake and dont swallow the ideology of the day. I think it means take humility seriously and recognize that you and I dont really know the outcomes of this world or the next. And be suspicious of anyone who tells you that they do.
So we begin this Advent season with a disposition of waiting, humility and a pondering of the life we are all living. I take from this reading the need to be awake and aware to the unpredictable and to the coming of God into our lives when we least expect it.
Therefore you also must be ready, for the human one is coming at an unexpected hour.
I have quoted before Paula DArcys words, "God comes to us disguised as our life." The hidden, unexpected and unpredictable can be gifts that bring us to life. Even when they come wrapped in strange packages.
I think the only way to be awake is to live completely in the present moment. That is not an easy thing to do. But when faced with the unpredictability of life, that is the only way we can live with meaning. The present moment being aware and awake - remarkably contains the past and the future. I think that is what the gospel writer is alluding to. The fruit of life past and the seeds of life to come are found in life present.
It was the poet T.S Eliot in his poem the Wasteland, the last poem he wrote before he embraced the Christian faith, who said:
What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
This is for us the beginning of the church year, but even here on this first Sunday in Advent and our journey to the Feast of the Nativity, there are the signs of the end. So stay awake, be aware, live fully in the present moment and dont try to predict how all this will work out. That is in the mind of a loving God. Or as the author Eckhart Tolle wrote:
Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life. Time isnt precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on timepast and futurethe more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.
So let me repeat: the message of this Advent season is - stay awake, be aware, live fully in the present moment and dont try to predict how all this will work out. That is in the mind of a loving God.