sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands
It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.
Here we are at the beginning of the church year. Advent is beginning. Christmas is four weeks today (for this year Christmas Day falls on a Sunday), this time of preparation and waiting is upon us. Advent is a time of waiting: of waiting expectantly, of waiting hopefully for Christ to come into the world, to return to the world, to come to us. There is a paradox here as so often with our faith: this is a time of waiting for something that is not yet and yet which already is, a time of waiting for the coming of Christ who is already with us.
When will that be? Nobody knows. That is the message of Matthew’s Gospel: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We do not know when, but we need to be prepared. Matthew again:
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. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
It is time to wake; the night is far gone, the day is near – and yet, we do not know when… And what is odd about this is the juxtaposition of the coming of the Messiah, which is something for which we hope, with the coming of the thief, for whom we presumably don’t.
That is perhaps particularly striking because we find ourselves this Advent in a time of waiting of a very different kind. A time of waiting and uncertainty: what is the future going to look like? How will a Britain without Europe and a Europe without Britain work? How will an America, and world, with Donald Trump as President of the USA look? For some these questions too represent a waiting with hope and joyful expectation; for others this is a waiting with deep anxiety bordering on (or reaching into) despair. Internationally, politically, we find ourselves in a time of waiting, uncertainty: when will this happen and what will it bring?
So the sense of the unexpected that we find in today’s gospel reading seems to resonate deeply with our world, and this extraordinary uncertainty. We are in a period in which some of the givens of how the world works, its values, its priorities seem to be shifting and changing. There has been a sense this year of the unexpected happening, of being taken by surprise. A sense perhaps of the thief coming in the night and finding a house in which half were asleep and the other half awake and welcoming. A world in which some were very ready for a way of thinking that seems to me at least to be in danger of drawing more on unrealistic hopes, perhaps driven by desperation and self-interest, than a vision of justice and peace and the intrinsic value of all people. It is hard for me at least not to feel at present that the world has gone a bit mad, and to wonder what on earth all this means, and what I should be doing.
The Benedictine poet and theologian Silja Walter once wrote:
Keeping watch is our job. Keeping watch.
Over the world as well,
which is so often foolish,
gadding around outside
and not coming home at night.
Does the world not know, Lord, that you are coming?
That you are the Lord and definitely on your way?
That image of the world as foolish and forgetful resonates deeply with me. There are overtones here of a world that has lost its way, which no longer knows how to wait on Christ, no longer even knows that it should be waiting on Christ. In this year in which it feels rather as though some old securities and normalities are being shaken, it is easy to wonder if we are not looking at a world which has seriously lost its way.
But it can be hard sometimes to discern how God is working in our world. It is intriguing that here in Matthew’s Gospel – in a passage which has parallels with Mark’s warning that the master will come at un unexpected hour, and which Luke explicitly connects to it – Jesus’s coming is likened to the coming of a thief in the night. How is the coming of the master who is to be welcomed, like the coming of the thief, the intruder who is presumably unwelcome? The unexpectedness is the link. Or is it? Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians (1:1-3):
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
Here too the mixture of the promise and the threat, all brought together in the image of giving birth, the inexorable pains that bring the hope of new life. Paul goes on, in words which resonate with our reading from Romans 13:
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
Or, in the words of today’s reading:
The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.
Threat and hope, suffering, pain and new life are all tangled up together here, and what is important is that we are children of light, that we put on the armour of light. Whatever that means.
Part of what it means, I think, is to remember that it is hard to judge what is happening when it is in the middle of taking place. Over the last few weeks, I have been reading six studies of the Reformation for a big review in the Times Literary Supplement. As I was writing the review, it struck me that this is a story we know with hindsight, rather as we know the Easter story by hindsight. We know it’s going to be all right in the end, because we know how it ends. But that cannot have been how it felt at the time. One Good Friday, who knew that Easter Sunday would come? And so too in the sixteenth century: when people began to talk about introducing the Reformation, it must have felt as though all the familiar certainties about the church, about society, about how things were arranged, all the things you had learned about how to get to heaven and assure yourself of eternal life, all those things were under threat. One of my students said in class on Tuesday: I have just realised how disruptive it must have felt, to be suddenly told that you had to receive communion, and receive the bread and the wine, and not to go to confession…
They didn’t know, those people who experienced the Reformation in the first generation, they had no idea how it was going to turn out. What had they been waiting for? I suspect that quite a lot of those people nearly five hundred years ago in the first generation of the Reformation didn’t think it was the Reformation. I wonder what people were preaching on Advent Sunday in, say 1523: did they believe that the Advent hope was being fulfilled? The answer is clearly that some did and some did not at all. What was happening must have felt like chaos and disintegration – and yet what emerged, ultimately, and after some very difficult birth pains, was a new order.
Now I don’t myself want to suggest that in Teresa May, Boris Johnson or Donald Trump we have a new Luther. In my own reading, they are far from it—although I think for some of their followers this is the hope: that something new will happen and everything will better. But a favourite biblical figure for many theologians of the sixteenth century was Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, who was a gentile and whose reign was in many ways deeply problematic. However, he gets a good press in the old Testament, despite being a tyrant, because he liberated the Jews, by setting free the people of Israel from their captivity in Babylon. Cyrus is often cited by Reformers as an example of someone who is not apparently imbued with God’s values, who finds himself, whether he wants it or not, acting on God’s behalf. An unjust king, an unjust ruler, an unjust magistrate, argue many of the Reformers, can act on God’s behalf to support, or sometimes to punish, the people of God. There is something here, then, about waiting and watching with an openness to recognising where God is working – even if that is through people and in ways which we do not understand.
This time two years ago, it was becoming clear that one of my close friends was dying of cancer. He wrote in his last Christmas letter, in words that are also eminently fitted to Advent: “And so this year perhaps we are experiencing Christmas in its real, original meaning, in which the goodness and love of God comes to people who, after long and intensive lives, are now learning what it means to live in darkness and yet receive light.” For me this is a putting on of the armour of light, a light which shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Let me close with a text by an unknown Christian to which I come back over and over again, and which speaks into times of change and challenge and uncertainty. Indeed it was used by George VI in his 1939 Christmas broadcast:
I said to the angel who stood at the gate of the new year: “Give me a light, that I may go forth into uncertainty with sure feet.” But the angel answered: “Step out into the darkness, and lay your hand in the hand of God. That is better than a light, and surer than a known way.”
And so let us put on the armour of light, lay our hand in the hand of God, and go forward expectantly in hope.
 Te Deum, November 2016, S. 110.
 Mark 13:34-36, Luke 12:38-40.