sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
So here we are again, at the beginning of Advent and the start of a new church year. And we find ourselves confronted this morning with a gospel reading which reflects the apocalyptic tone of our readings over the last four weeks. These days, the liturgical year ends with what some call the Kingdom season, during which we are drawn to think about the end of time, the last judgement, and eternity. But what do we find in our readings, on this first Sunday of the new liturgical year? The end of time, the last judgement, and eternity. In this passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus speaks about the huge uncertainty, the deep disorder that will precede the end of the world:
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And it is in the midst of that uncertainty that the Second Coming of Christ is to be expected: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” And so Christ urges: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Anyone who is following the news at present might well feel that what Christ is describing here is a pretty accurate portrayal of the level of political and environmental uncertainty that we are currently experiencing. And while I think there is something in that (we certainly find ourselves living in interesting times), my sense as a historian is that down the centuries there have been very many sets of circumstances that seemed to fulfil this apocalyptic prophecy. Many people must have felt like during both the so-called world wars of the last century that events around them were fulfilling this prophecy. Many of the people of Yugoslavia must have felt they were witnessing the apocalypse as their country disintegrated into war and violence nearly thirty years ago. The sixteenth century, the century of the Reformation, was experienced by many as a time in which there was “distress amongst nations” accompanied by “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” and the Reformers expected the end of the world to come very soon, which was one reason they felt it imperative to reform the church. The Thirty Years War engendered similar reactions. And of course the first disciples believed, as today’s gospel emphasises, that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” And yet: the world has not (yet) ended, and the prophecies of the Second Coming have not (yet) been fulfilled.
Is this prophecy empty, then? The American Methodist theologian, artist and poet Jan Richardson thinks not. She sees it as a Jesus’s way of reminding his listeners – which is all of us – that they, that we, need to be attentive to the world to recognise in it the signs of his coming presence:
[Jesus] is not offering these apocalyptic images in order to scare the pants off people but rather to assure his listeners that the healing of the world is at hand, and that they need to stay awake, stay alert, and learn to read the signs of what is ahead. He is calling them not to crumble or quail when intimations of the end come but instead to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus urges his hearers—and us—toward practices that help them stay grounded and centered in their daily lives so that they won’t be caught unawares in the days to come.
There is something here about recognising and admitting that when we are most lost, when the world around us is most chaotic, then we may be most receptive for Christ. That is when we may be most aware of the need for Christ. Douglas Galbraith, when he was Convenor of ACTS, reflected on this passage: “Advent seems to call us to face the worst, forbidding us to gloss over the misery that knowingly and unknowingly people perpetrate upon each other. To acknowledge the problem, perhaps, is to reach with greater urgency for the promise.” Perhaps we might even say, to acknowledge the problem is to be even more vividly aware of God’s promise. James F. Kay, Professor of Homiletics at Princeton, thinks so:
the message of Advent is that we can never take our own projections more seriously than God’s promises. When we least expect it and when there is no evidence for it, God’s power comes into this godless world in ways the world itself could never predict or foresee.
I remember beginning a sermon on this passage by offering an account of seemed to me then my somewhat chaotic life, and affirming that according to this passage then, Jesus must be very near – even though (or precisely because) I was feeling lost and overwhelmed and profoundly uncertain. It was telling me, I think now, and it tells us, never to give up hope.
Advent can confront us with the reality of the world, whilst affirming that we should not give up hope precisely because Advent points us to the coming of Christ. Advent counts us down – or up – to Christmas and the incarnation. But at the same time Advent reminds us that the incarnation is not the final redemption. As James Kay observes, “The birth of Jesus does not bring redemption to Jerusalem; the teaching of Jesus does not bring redemption to Israel; even the death of Jesus on the cross does not bring redemption to the world.” When we recognise that, we realise that Advent points us beyond the incarnation too; it counts us down – or up – to the fulfilment of the world. For Douglas Galbraith:
Advent does not end with the Incarnation and the coming of Christ when in a ‘wonderful exchange’ God lodged in the material world to make it ready for redemption; nor does it end with the returning Christ at Easter to rescue and transform wounded humanity; nor with his coming as Spirit at Pentecost to accompany and renew us in our earthly pilgrimage. It is only with the coming of Christ at the end of time that Advent is complete.
That is, as we enter into this period of Advent, this time of awaiting the birth of Christ, we are also entering into a time of awaiting the last days. Incarnation and apocalypse are closely related: that is why Jesus Christ is “the alpha and the omega, … the one who is and was and is to come,” as Revelation put it in the last week’s reading for Christ the King Sunday.
Advent reminds us, therefore, that we live in an oddly, in-between time. Jan Richardson writes in a poem about Advent:
It is one of the mysteries
of the road,
how the blessing
you have traveled toward,
as if it had been with you
all this time.
Advent is a time of Christ’s being already present and yet to come. A time that is full of promise, pregnant with hope. And because of that, as Douglas Galbraith affirms, “Advent offers far more than a dose of realism; it is part also of the solution.” It is part of the solution because Advent reminds us that God engages with that reality. And that makes Advent a time that calls us to live in, and to live out, that hope. It is not just Advent that is part of the solution, but we ourselves.
For Douglas Galbraith, this realisation is part of what it means “to live as people ‘alert at all times’, not knowing when ‘that day’ will arrive.” He describes the challenges of the Advent calling:
It is one thing to accept the desirability of loving one’s neighbour but quite another to do this consistently, and indeed to recognise the many small and large opportunities to do so. Such an alertness implies a readiness, openness and sensitivity to those amongst whom we live. This is not a call to rigorous discipline at all times so much as seeking to ‘live with expectation’. It is as if into the ordinariness of the everyday we were to ‘fold’, like a good cook adding ingredients that make all the difference, this feeling of Advent anticipation. We look towards the final Coming, but the light is not in the distance but seen reflected in our own faces.
Bernadette Farrell has explored that Advent calling and the hope it brings in a hymn that we might have sung this morning, “Christ be our light”:
Longing for light, we wait in darkness,
Longing for truth, we turn to you.
Make us your own, your holy people,
Light for the world to see.
Longing for peace, our world is troubled.
Longing for hope, many despair.
Your word alone has power to save us.
Make us your living voice.
Longing for food, many are hungry.
Longing for water, still many thirst.
Make us your bread, broken for others,
Shared until all are fed.
Longing for shelter, many are homeless.
Longing for warmth, many are cold.
Make us your building, sheltering others,
Walls made of living stone.
To be Christ’s light; to be Christ’s voice; to provide food and shelter. These are central to the Advent calling, to the Advent hope. And it is good to remind ourselves of them as we embark on the busy business of the run-up to Christmas; it is important to remind ourselves of them in these days when the news seems more irrational and uncertain by the day. In these times, we need to be open the kind of reassuring hope which Jan Richardson sees as infusing the Advent journey:
It is difficult to see it from here,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
And so let us pray: God, in times of fear and foreboding, help us to know that you are very near, and in all that we are and in all that we do, help us to proclaim the hope of your redeeming love to the world. Amen.
 Douglas Galbraith, “2nd December: 1st Sunday in Advent,” The Expository Times 124 (2012), 74-82, at 74.
 James F. Kay, “Redemption draws near,” The Christian Century 114/32 (12.11.1997), 1033.
 Galbraith, “2nd December,” 74.
 Galbraith, “2nd December,” 74.
 Galbraith, “2nd December,” 75.