"You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep"
One of the intriguing themes of Advent is time Gods time, kairos.
Canadian preacher Richard Fairchild describes Advent time, the season which has begun this day, as operating in three tenses all at once past, future and present.
In Advent, we await the birth of the Christ child as the recollection of a past event, of a birth that happened over 2000 years ago. We wait to celebrate the birth of the Christ child into our lives, our families, into our church community, into the world. In 22 days we will sing Silent Night, Holy Night and in the following morning we will sing "Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the new-born King." And we will rejoice in his presence, his having come among us as a babe, a child, a man, a human like us to love us.
In Advent, we also await the future an extraordinary, holy future; we await the unveiling of the Reign of God, which Christ began, which is continually being revealed, but is yet to be fully realised.
We await a time that Isaiah, and Matthew and Paul describe as a time of judgement and a time of salvation; a time when war will be no more and peace and love will prevail and we will walk in the light of the Lord.
But before we leave the future tense, I would like to reflect on our Matthew passage with its apocalyptic imagery of angels and floods and thieves and the very unsettling image of men and women working when - "one will be taken and one will be left". This is a passage that is heavy with the final judgement.
As we will be studying the Gospel of Matthew for the next twelve months, it is helpful to appreciate how Matthew differs from the other Gospel writers, particularly Mark from whom he drew much of his writings. It is also very important for todays passage. Firstly, Matthew uses Old Testament texts as fulfilled predictions of the coming of the Messiah and his message of the Kingdom of Heaven has strong overtones of judgement as we find in todays reading. New Testament scholar Bill Loader suggests that: "The good news becomes the news that the coming judge has appeared in advance of the day to instruct us in the true meaning of Torah, so that we shall be able to stand when we give account for our works before the Son of Man. In this approach commandment and Law are central." However, although scripture and the Law are all important to Matthew, his Jesus approaches scripture with a hierarchy, a set of priorities that take precedence and are founded on compassion. A good example of this is in Chapter 23 verse 23; Jesus challenges the emphasis given by the scribes and Pharisees to tithing herbs. "You have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith". This is very different to Marks Jesus who sets aside large slabs of the Law and Old Testament scripture as exemplified by his setting aside the food laws declaring all foods clean (Mark 7:19). There is no hierarchy in this. Marks Jesus is about the Reign of God and the Law, the Torah, has no where near the weight that it does in Matthew.
Bill Loader also urges us to remember that Matthews strong themes of authority and the Law have left a legacy that has not always blessed the Church. Sometimes those reading Matthews emphasis on Jesus as judge, have failed to see that Jesus authority is one of compassion and love and that the reading is incomplete without wider reference to the pre-eminence of love in the New Testament and in Marks Gospel and Pauls letters in particular.
So having put our eschatological Gospel reading today into some context, let us go back to the future tense of Advent when we await the time of Christs return. For this is:
Yes we long for that time, and God has promised that it will come, but it will come at an unexpected hour and in the meantime, Isaiah calls us back from the future to the present with the words "Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!" That come is a word about what to do now today, as we await tomorrow.
This is the third tense of Advent.
The present tense.
The active tense.
Advent is not just about preparing for Christs coming as a baby from the past.
Advent is not just about preparing for Christs coming as Son of Man and the righteous King in the future.
Advent is also, and primarily about preparing for Christs coming in our lives RIGHT NOW!
Advent memory and advent hope come together in Advent present. Together our past experience and our future expectations about the Reign of God and about Christ, the Messiah, are realised now, not simply because of our preparation for it, but because of what Richard Fairchild calls the divine truth about Gods past and Gods present and Gods future; the truth that God has been with us, and will yet be with us, and even now is with us.
Advent is the season that awakens us to new beginnings, that urges us to be alert for the movement of the Spirit in our lives, to ask questions and make choices:
For the past three weeks I have been working as an intern chaplain at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. I will be there for another eight weeks as part of my formation for ministry. It has shocked, disturbed, challenged and excited me more than I could possibly have imagined. It will be an Advent and Christmas like nothing I have ever experienced. It is taking me right out of my customary time of Christmas preparation of carols, nativity plays, loving family, a Christmas tree decorated with lights and angels and stars. Working with the poor and the sick, the despairing and the dying in a big public hospital has taken me to a different unsanitised Bethlehem, a nativity story about a homeless refugee family, the shame of a child conceived out of wedlock, a frightened single mother, a humble stable and the sounds and smells of animals and dirt and hay.
This is the reality of Advent that we are called to be awake for, right now, today. This is what we are called to prepare for to be the face of Christ to our neighbours, to be Gods instruments in fulfilling Gods vision of a world of mercy and peace, love and justice. By believing in Gods vision, Gods dream for humankind, we appropriate Gods dream for ourselves. Then if we choose to hold onto it, if we proclaim it to ourselves and to others, in the way that we live and love and hope, then the world will begin to change as the Light of God shines forth from us and we start to see it in the faces of our brothers and sisters.
And as we see what God has promised come to pass, so will our lives have purpose and meaning.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.