A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (27/11/22): Advent, back to front and inside out

Matthew 24:36-44

Advent is the season of looking forward and getting ready. Both in a small and brief sense, but also in the largest and most long-lasting sense. Mostly we think of Advent as the about four weeks before Christmas. That time of year when we allow ourselves to look forward to the celebration. It is also the period when we make most if not all of the preparations for that festival. But this looking forward and this getting ready is perhaps just a tiny model, a sort of acted parable, of the larger looking forward and getting ready. Because Advent is also the season of looking forward to and getting ready for the return of Christ and the final and complete establishment of the kingdom of God. There is a sense in which the whole of Christianity, the sum of all discipleship is focused on that end, that day, what Jesus calls the coming of the Son of Man.

Christmas is easy to look forward to. And it is, relatively, easy to get ready for. We know when it is. It happens on the same day every year. And because we’ve done it all before, we’ve had a bit of practice, we know what needs to be done . Even if that sometimes seems to need frustratingly large amount of effort for a single day that seems to pass as soon as it has come. Looking forward to and getting ready for the coming of the Son of Man is much more challenging. It is so much more difficult that mostly we push it to the back of our minds, and only think of it once a year. That is, generally we only consider the coming of the Son of Man at the beginning of advent, on this Sunday. We certainly don’t make it the driving factor, the motivation, behind all our activity as followers of Jesus. And the Christians who do, are the ones we might regard as somewhat strange, perhaps resting at the oddest fringe of the church. Yet this hope, this looking forward, and this getting ready was behind much of the energy of the first Christians and the rapid growth of the Church. So perhaps we have lost something in not placing “Advent” at the heart of who we are and what we do.

The trouble is that when we do think about this, with respect to what Jesus actually says here, we get this looking forward and getting ready almost entirely wrong. Those Christians who do have this outlook very often spend a lot of time considering “when this might be?” As we already noticed getting ready for Christmas is relatively easy because we know when we need to be ready for. For the smaller Advent we have a fixed and visible deadline. Those Christians who do have the coming of the Son of Man in mind often spend much of their effort in reading the signs of the times. They do so in order to detect when the Son of Man is returning, and so make the preparations easier to make because there is a definite deadline. The curious thing about that is, that is precisely what Jesus tells his followers not to do. He says:
But about that day and hour no ones.
Jesus does give a long list of the sorts of things that happen; wars and natural disasters and the persecution of God’s people. But his list essentially means that history will continue as it always has. His list is “business as usual” in the sweep of world history. There is nothing in what he says about the timing of his return that makes it possible to decide when it is about to happen. Jesus says you can’t know when that day will come. You can’t because it is part of the sovereignty of God to decide. So the angels, and even Jesus himself, don’t know. So you should not waste your time trying to figure that out!

Jesus illustrates the difference this should make to our preparations for his return my making us think about the possibility of being burgled. He says:
If the owner of the house had known in what hour of the night the thief was coming he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into.
Jesus really wants us to recognise the absurdity of the kind of preparations that would allow us to jump out on a thief just at the moment when he tried to break into the house. He wants us to recognise that a different quality of being ready is required. To the question: when will Son of man return? When must we be ready? His answer is, “any time. . . all the time. . . now!” Christian living, in Jesus’ metaphor, is like being awake. It is not something that can be accomplished for a specific moment, like getting ready for Christmas. It is something that must be lived into all the time, being a Christian, being ready and awake in the way Jesus intends it, is meant to be out constant state of being. It should be who and what we are already, all of the time

Perhaps more startlingly, we rather misunderstand his illustration. We actually get his picture of what that day will be like back to front and inside out. Jesus says that on the day of his return:
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.
Most often when we read that, we picture that righteous will be taken away into some other blessed place, and everyone else will be left behind with the mess they have been responsible for making. This kind of thinking has a bearing on the kind of preparation, the kind of being ready you might make. It tends to focus on being the right kind of person in ourselves. So that when the time comes we will be chosen rather than left behind. That kind of picture tends to lead to an emphasis on what we might call personal piety, or personal holiness. It produces an emphasis on self and our relationship with Jesus as a personal saviour. It also might lead to a lack of emphasis on care for the world around us, since if we hoping to be taken out of the world we really don’t need to concern ourselves with it. Perhaps in that we could recognise a certain sort of faith and a certain sort of Christian that is noisily visible in world right now.
The trouble with that is that it reads too much of other pictures from the New Testament, form Revelation and Thessalonians, back into what Jesus says here. We most often get his picture of staying and being taken the wrong way round, because we overlook Jesus’ first picture: the story of Noah. In that story it is those who are close to God who remain and it is everything else that is swept away by the flood. If we notice that, it changes what his picture of pairs of people one going and one staying means. It is Jesus’ followers, God’s people who are the ones who remain it is everyone else who are being taken. If that’s the case, it changes the emphasis of our preparations. Jesus’ picture of what living a Christians and being the church is like building an Ark. He imagines his followers building the community that is going to be left as the kingdom of God when everything else is swept away. This transforms the priorities of our discipleship, of our looking forward and our getting ready. Not least it must gives us a much stronger concern for the world we’re living in. Because it is here that the kingdom of God must emerge and it is here that it will remain. The priority is building the relationships, the community, that will form the nucleus, the seed of that new world. Just as Noah and his family took with them into the Ark what was needed for the fresh start for the world which God provided in the flood, so it is for the community that Jesus’ followers build around themselves. Being awake to Jesus’ picture of the coming of the Son of Man leads us away from “personal holiness” into what might be called (by Methodists at least) “social holiness.”

Advent is the season that reminds us to look forward and to get ready. We look forward to a moment that could arise at any moment And if focuses our attention on getting ready by building the community that will become the world we long to see.

Advent, back to front and inside out by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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