Sermon - Advent Sunday 2012

“We will get the wind presently,” mumbled Jukes. “Let it come then,” said Captain MacWhirr and come it does: “it was something formidable and swift, like the sudden smashing of a vial of wrath.”

This is not the Advent we look to but a typhoon in Conrad’s novel of that name. Captain MacWhirr, whom the chief mate regard as a dense, unimaginative fellow, takes his ship into the eye of the storm to weather it. At the end Jukes comments “There are things you find nothing about in books. I think he got out of it very well for such a stupid man”.

The faith delivered to us by St Andrew and all the apostles includes the sense of a time that will come: “that day”.

The words of Jesus in today’s gospel, this so-called mini-apocalypse in St Luke, are spoken at his own coming to Jerusalem, to the Temple, just before the climax of his own life, his passion and death. They are well-attested: similar words are recorded in Mark and in Matthew, where they are elaborated in the parables of the wise steward, the ten bridesmaids and of the three servants given talents - parables of one who is absent but will arrive.

We tend to overlook how remarkable this is - living with a sense of ‘that day’. The earlier Jewish sense of a restitution was remarkable enough - that their Lord would restore Zion but the further belief grew up in the centuries before Jesus of a resolution, that all we know will come under judgement, be sorted out and changed, put right, once and for all. The possibility of resolution is something to wonder at, a remarkable act of religious faith. I learnt that by reading some Japanese classical drama. On the traditional Japanese stage, the best of the plays have no such sense of alteration, of conclusion - no sense of an ending.

Jesus warns us. Walking open-eyed to his own end on the cross, he doesn’t speak to his disciples of caution, as MacWhirr did not take the cautious route around the typhoon. No. Remember it is the servant who speculates with his ten talents who receives the praise, not the servant who buried his.

This sense of a coming end affects us - it requires something of us. It does not come out-of-the-blue - we are warned, like the falling of the barometer; we live towards it. We are to keep alert always to the reality of this greater end, the end which is always coming. Otherwise, says Jesus, it comes like a thief in the night - and all our goods are gone.

Jesus says, it is like a trap! Snap! And it is too late. Looked for, however, it alters who we are, how we behave now, including this Advent season.

So, remembering that we live towards a day, an end - as this Advent season prompts us to do - we can ask: Who is it who comes? What response is asked of us who hear these words?

Who comes? Jesus’ parables do not speak of one unknown but of one who is already well-known, one who is welcome, one around whom all the activity takes place: the owner of the house, the master, the bridegroom.

Is there judgement? Then it is judgement not under an impersonal law but an uncovering of truth in a relationship. Israel - and all God’s creation - is already intimately bound to God, who is our joy.

The parables speak of absence - the master has gone away; the bridegroom has not yet arrived where the wedding feast is to be. What is this absence? It is not a void, like the god of the deists who set all in clockwork motion and then has no further part to play. The absence we experience of the God of Israel is a mode of loving - we speak of an absence which makes the heart grow fonder. It is space - grace God gives to grow in maturity in our relating - to watch and to order all around this coming. We can be sure it is a mode of relating which doesn’t preclude God being very close to us every day.

What of the one who comes? - this mysterious Son of Man in the cloud of authority? The world’s true king, whom Daniel saw in a vision? It is Luke himself who tells us that the risen Jesus was lifted up at his Ascension hidden by a cloud. “Men of Galilee,” says the angel, “this Jesus will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In the New Testament, the Prophet and the King are seen to be one.

The one who comes is the one who has patiently and lovingly spent his days uncovering truth to us, teaching us, correcting our faults, eating and walking with us, praying with us, giving himself to us and for us. “When you see these things, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”.

So here we are, now in the Advent season. What response is asked of us? It is probably not helpful to suggest a kind of Advent fast which mirrors Lent, or that banishes all expression of Christmas until December 25th arrives. Which of us can do that? Maybe it is more helpful in this season to remember that the Advent we await is our coming as well.

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” cries Isaiah. “Nations shall come to you”. “All flesh shall come to worship”. We receive an invitation - a call -  to come; to act so that the future is made different than the present.

“Come, follow me,” Jesus tells the rich young man, in a gospel we often hear at the feast days of saints who have been monks and nuns. “Where?” asks Andrew. “Come and see,” Jesus replies. “Come and see” - the same invitation is given at the empty tomb. We live not by the riches we have, as if we were that complacent farmer whose barns were overflowing but we are invited, summoned, to come elsewhere - to live by what we do not yet see, by a certain absence which is only an outward mark of the relationship of love between God’s creation and God. It is this relationship which is made new in Christ Jesus, who is both God and God’s creation.

Yes, the One who will come, the Son of Man, is the one whom we have seen and know, Jesus our Master but he has come once and that was a surprise, even to those who looked for him - the Lord of the world found a baby laid in the hay trough of cattle.

We come to him, in a response of love but our love will not prevent us also being surprised on that day. There is about each of our lives something good which remains unknowable, unfathomable, grace which touches us like the wing of a butterfly. And we come; we follow.

So here is our Advent fast: to be alert; not to look forward with self-regarding optimism but to pray, to pray for strength - to grow in holiness and in love for one another. Our communion is a foretaste of this. So listen then to the prayer with which we shall complete this Eucharist today. It says it well: -

O Lord our God, make us watchful and keep us faithful as we await the coming of your Son our Lord; that when he shall appear, he may not find us sleeping in sin but active in his service and joyful in his praise.            

Active in his service and joyful in his praise - that we can attempt with God’s help this Advent. Yet there is one more thing. Just when today we thought the liturgical year had turned, St. Paul reminds us that nothing is lost in Christ and that our redemption is always social not individual, that it is with others - and that this redemption is real - others have already come in their time and received it: the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ is with all his saints: our Lady whose life was spent in loving watchfulness and St Andrew who answered the call to come and St Francis Xavier and all those saints whom we shall remember this week, pray for us and cheer us on this Advent, active in his service and joyful in his praise.

        Oswin Gartside, Prior, CR