I’ve noticed over the past few years that the word ‘Advent’ seems to be out there in the media a lot more than it used to be. For a while it seemed as if it was disappearing along with many other parts of the Christian ethos that used to be part of our culture. But in recent years I’ve been hearing more about Advent calendars, and not all of it from Christian sources. Most of these secular Advent sources get the timing a bit wrong: they start on December 1st, not the fourth Sunday before Christmas. But still – the word ‘Advent’ is out there again, waiting for us to pick it up and use it to celebrate the good news of Jesus.
What exactly is Advent? In our Church Year, it’s the season between the fourth Sunday before Christmas and Christmas Day itself. The main theme of Advent is the coming of the kingdom of God, and the coming of the Messiah who will bring in his kingdom. So in Advent we spend a lot of time in the Old Testament prophets. They looked around at the sufferings of God’s people, and then they looked ahead to a time to come when God would rescue them from evil and restore them to his original dream for them.
Some of those prophecies were fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, so Advent includes the note of preparation for Christmas and the story of the birth of Jesus. But some of the prophecies have yet to be fulfilled, so in Advent we also look ahead to the day when Jesus will be revealed as Lord of heaven and earth, the day when the kingdom of God will come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. As the Nicene Creed says, ‘He will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will never end’.
And so we get out the Advent wreath, which has the four purple candles, one for each of the Sundays of Advent. I hope you will make an Advent wreath for yourselves at home and light it each day, perhaps at suppertime, and perhaps adding a brief Bible reading or prayer on the themes of Advent. It doesn’t need to be a fancy one like the one here at the church; at home, I made ours using the top of an old stool, with holes drilled in it for the candles! And once you’ve made it, there are all sorts of resources on the Internet to help us celebrate Advent each day by using the wreath. And for those of us who like music, in the church we have a special collection of traditional hymns about Advent and the coming of the kingdom of God: ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’, ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’, ‘The Advent of our King’, and so on. These are hymns that express our sense of deep longing for the Kingdom of God and the Saviour who makes it possible.
What are some of the themes of Advent? Let me suggest three, and point you to some scriptures that explore them.
The first theme is hope.Hope is vital if we’re going to make it through the dark times that everyone experiences in this broken and imperfect world.
In our gospel reading for today Jesus says “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 about what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26).
This is what biblical scholars call ‘apocalyptic’ language. ‘Apocalyptic’ literature isn’t necessarily about huge catastrophes, though it sometimes is. But one of the things it does is to use symbolic language to describe political events in the world. So historians looking back on 1989 say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was ‘an earth-shaking event’, even though we know that the earth itself was not literally shaken. What was shaken was the political system symbolized by the Berlin Wall.
In the last few years many people have experienced ‘earth-shaking’ events, so when Jesus talks about people ‘fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world’, we can certainly understand what that feels like! Not to get all political, but the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. seems to have ushered in a new era of confrontation and belligerence, with old peaceful alliances breaking down and a sense that dangerous things could happen. Extreme climate events are becoming more regular, and we have the sense that it’s going to get more and more expensive to deal with them. The economic system seems to be failing more and more people and we’re aware that the gap between rich and poor seems to be getting wider. Many people are finding it harder to find secure jobs, and many parents fear for their children’s future.
So ‘fear and foreboding’ may be exactlywhat we’re feeling, and if that’s the case, then we could certainly use a good dose of hope. We need a sense that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that somewhere there’s a plan, that someone’s in charge and is wise and strong enough to lead us out of this mess. If we have that sense then we can continue the struggle, no matter how hard it seems to be, because we know it won’t last forever. And that’s the hope we find in some of the writings of the Old Testament prophets.
Today we heard the words of Jeremiah foretelling a time when God would send a king to put things right:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’ (Jeremiah 33:14-16).
Or listen to these words from the prophet Isaiah:
In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
All the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. (Isaiah 2.2-5).
Isaiah wrote these words when the cloud of war was hanging over his people, just as it is in much of the world today, and he points us toward a time when humanity’s obsession with war will come to an end, and when the people of the world will live in safety with no one to make them afraid. But this isn’t just a romantic peacenik hippy sort of vision; it comes as a result of a general desire to turn to God’s ways and follow them as our path through life.
The early church believed this scripture had been partially fulfilled with the coming of Jesus, as he sent out of his church to spread the gospel to the whole world: the ‘word of the Lord’ had ‘gone forth from Jerusalem’ to the ends of the earth. Of course the fulfilment was not yet complete; today we still look to the future for its completion. But because it’s a promise of God we can look ahead into God’s future with certainty and work for peace and justice now, knowing our labours aren’t in vain, because God will complete them when the Day of the Lord comes.
So during the Advent season we draw encouragement from this hope. We can find those Old Testament prophecies and read them again; one good way to find them is by listening to a recording of the first half of Handel’s ‘Messiah’! As we read them or hear them we experience what Paul talks about in Romans: ‘For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope’ (Romans 15:4).
So hope is one of the main themes of Advent. But there’s a second theme related to it: judgement.Many people don’t like this word. It’s associated in their minds with hellfire and brimstone preachers trying to literally ‘scare the hell’ out of people. Many Christians today will say that ‘the Old Testament God is a God of judgement and the New Testament God is a God of love’.
But in fact there can be no hope for the world without judgement. If God’s not going to judge evil and remove it from his world, how can things ever be different? If God’s going to allow rapists and child molesters to continue to inflict suffering on the weak and helpless – if he’s going to allow greedy countries to continue to gobble up ten times their fair share of the natural resources of the world – if he’s going to allow murderous dictators to continue to oppress the weak and helpless – if that’s all going to continue because ‘God is a God of love’, then how can there be hope? Hope is meaningless without change, and the sort of change we need has toinclude judgement.
The New Testament writers agree with this – in fact, some of the strongest language about judgement in the whole Bible comes from Jesus! He’s the one who tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, in which those who have refused to care for the needy are excluded from God’s future kingdom. He’s the one who talks about the servant who knew his master’s will and didn’t do it, and so received a greater beating. He’s the one who tells us that if we want to enter God’s kingdom it isn’t enough just to call him ‘Lord, Lord’; we have to put his teaching into practice and do the will of his Father in heaven.
So as we meditate on the theme of judgement in Advent it’s a good idea to turn our eye onto ourselves. We examine ourselves, we see how we fall short of the way of life that Jesus has taught us, and we make the necessary changes in our lifestyle. The traditional word for this is ‘repentance’, which means a change of mind leading to a change of life. In Isaiah 40 the prophet calls it ‘preparing the way of the Lord’;
‘Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain’ (Isaiah 40:4).
I don’t know about you, but I know that in my life there are plenty of ‘rough places’ that need to be made plain, and plenty of ‘uneven ground’ that needs to be leveled. Advent is a good time to work on these things.
We’ve talked about two Advent themes, hope and judgement. A third theme, related to them both, is readiness. The New Testament makes it clear that we don’t know when the day of the Lord will come. Jesus tells us that ‘about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (Matthew 24.36), and he tells us his coming will be as unexpected as a thief breaking into a house during the night. ‘Therefore you also must be ready’, he says, ‘for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’ (v.44).
Of course Jesus isn’t stressing the damage the thief does. He’s thinking of the unexpected nature of his coming. Everyone was asleep, no one was prepared, and so the thief got away with it. Jesus warns us not to be asleep – in other words, not to get lulled into thinking the day is never going to come. Instead, we’re to be ready, and show our readiness by our eagerness to live the way Jesus taught us.
One of my favourite stories on this theme – many of you have probably heard me tell it before – is told of a state legislature in Colonial New England. The members were being thrown into a panic by a solar eclipse, because they didn’t know what it was. People were running around here and there, and several members of the legislature moved to adjourn the session because they thought the end of the world was at hand. But one of the members stood up and said this: “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move, sir, that candles be brought in”. This is the true Christian way. Whatever Jesus is asking you to do, make sure you’re doing it when he comes back.
So to sum up: in these next few weeks let’s take time to ponder the themes of Advent and let them do their work in our lives. Let’s remember the Advent message of hopeand let it bring light into the world when we find ourselves getting overwhelmed by all the bad news. Let’s remember the message of judgement: let’s examine ourselves and make the necessary changes to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives. And let’s not put it off; let’s remember the message of readiness, and make sure to live each day knowing it could be the day we see the Lord face to face. Amen.