NB: I preached this sermon on 2nd December 2001 and there are topical references which can be updated.
It’s exciting, the beginning of a new year. Our readings, prayers and hymns have a sense of urgency and conviction: “Wake up! Big things are about to happen”.
We start re-telling the story of our Lord’s life from his birth at Christmas to his death, resurrection and ascension.
But our first reading goes back even further than 2000 years and we see God’s chosen people hearing Isaiah’s words of hope and longing: hope and longing for the establishment of the City of Jerusalem which would be the focus and inspiration of all nations.
We too are looking for the establishment of Jerusalem but for us it will be the New Jerusalem, not a place but a state of being with all people joyfully accepting the merciful and just rule of God.
We too long for peace to be established throughout the world – to live in a world where disputes between nations are resolved by mediation and disarmament, not by terrorism and war.
How poignant that vision seems this year.
We’ve watched the peace process in Northern Ireland struggle forward step by painful step with the issue of disarmament one of the main stumbling blocks.
We watched the horrors of September 11th and still watch the consequences of that day.
And Jerusalem itself is the home of advanced military technology and the scene of bitter hatred and violence. Only last night it was the scene of suicide bombers bringing death and fear into Ben Yeheuda Street, a place where not so very long ago some of us sat and watched the world go by.
God must still be weeping over the city of Jerusalem.
We too can say whole-heartedly:
“Come, let us go to the house of the God of Jacob
that he may teach us his ways,
come let us walk in the light of the Lord”.
But our readings move forward in time because we’re preparing to celebrate Christmas – the fulfilment of the prophecies: a child is born, a son is given, the Prince of Peace whose kingdom will never end.
We celebrate the birth of Jesus because of the rest of his story: his baptism, his message of forgiveness, his ministry of teaching and healing, his betrayal and death, his resurrection and ascension and then the coming of the Holy Spirit.
But that can’t be the end. The world is not at peace – hatred, jealousy, oppression, genocide and injustice still go on – what happened to the rule of the Prince of Peace?
Here’s one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. Christ has triumphed over sin and death once and for all and that triumph can never be reversed but it’s yet to be fully realised on earth. That’s what we’re still waiting for – the final fulfilment of God’s kingdom and the return of our Lord.
Jesus and Paul call us to be awake and ready for that final day, the return of the Son of Man as King of Kings, Lord of Lords and judge of all people.
Advent is a time of two sorts of waiting and getting ready.
Firstly, we’re waiting and getting ready for Christmas. That’s definitely going to happen on a set date. Its traditions, stories and carols are familiar to us. Their familiarity is perhaps comforting in a world that this year seems much less safe and predictable. We know how to prepare for Christmas festivities and we can also prepare ourselves for whatever sad or painful memories and emotions it may evoke.
Secondly, we’re waiting and getting ready for the return of Christ. Like his birth, this is a definite event – it’s part of our Christian belief. But we’re warned that although it will come unexpectedly we still need to be ready for it.
But how do we do that? How can we maintain a daily sense of expectation and urgency after all this time. How do we live our daily lives to the full and prepare for the return of Christ?
Perhaps we can look at it this way:
There were thousands of people in America on the morning of 11th September who had no idea that that day would be their last. Many more thousands of people had no idea that that day they would lose someone they loved.
And it seems from those heartbreaking messages on answer phones that what was important to the people who suddenly realised they were about to die was to get across messages of love to those closest to them.
Out of all the tragedy and darkness of that day, and out of other tragedies we’ve witnessed, perhaps we can see a little more clearly something of how God wants us to live.
Each day we can think about our lives and our relationships: ask ourselves if this is how we would like things to be on our last day of life. There may be words unsaid that need to be spoken, words spoken that we now regret, old feelings of hurt or anger that need healing and forgiveness. Things we always wanted and meant to do to enrich our lives but haven’t yet got round to doing them.
There’s a hymn that includes the verse:
“Redeem thy mis-spent time that’s past,
Live this day as if ‘twere thy last:
Improve thy talent with due care;
For the great Day thyself prepare.”
Advent could be a time of stock-taking and deciding where our priorities lie and what we need to do to grow into being the people God meant us to be.
And until Christ does return, it’s always Advent.
Paul certainly encourages us to make a conscious effort to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light – an image which to me suggests a daily renewing of our commitment to the journey into light. And we need to make that journey because all the works of darkness come from seeds that are found in all our hearts – jealousies, hatred, prejudice and greed.
There can never be a true and lasting peace in the world unless the hearts of individuals, including mine and yours, are changed.
And that constant process of transformation is not without cost. When people or nations are in conflict it takes humility, sacrifice and determination on both sides to reach a reconciliation. We are called to show that humility and sacrifice in order to be at one with each other and our Lord, and in order to bring about the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah – the promise of the angels: “Peace on earth”.
Our journey is not alone towards a severe and unmerciful Judge. Christmas is the time of Emmanuel – God with us and alongside us on our journey. He’s on our side, he teaches us through his Word how to walk in his paths. He nourishes us with spiritual food and drink and more than anything he wants us to share in his eternal triumph over sin and death.
If we can remember and hold on to that eternal triumph it can renew our courage, strength and joy when the going gets tough.
So Advent is a tale of two happenings.
It’s about God coming as the light of the world bringing forgiveness, peace and healing to all people.
And it’s about the return of Christ – God coming into the world in power and might to bring a final judgment on all people.
It’s in the light, forgiveness, peace and healing that Jesus brings into our world at Christmas that we can be transformed and made ready to meet him face to face whenever that may be.
So, “come let us go to the house of God that he may teach us his ways. People of God, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Amen.