Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 2 December 2012: Year B, First Sunday of Advent
Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-18
Hoping with hope
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Today I’m wearing my purple stole, or preaching scarf. Purple is the colour for penitence, for in Church tradition, the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas, is a penitential season. Just like the six weeks of Lent, on the run-up to Easter, Advent is supposed to be a time in which we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas by confessing our sins, by cleaning our souls, by subjecting ourselves to self-examination. This is, of course, just the opposite of what you would expect. For in our culture, the expectation is that the build-up to Christmas will be a busy time of preparation, a mad rush of shopping, preparing food, putting up decorations, getting ready for family visits, enjoying the office party and the works night out. And we clergy are as bad as everyone else, and everyone else knows it, which is why we are so often greeted with ‘This will be your busy time of year’. For most people there is not time to stop, to prepare their souls, to confess their sins. This is a time of mostly enjoyable busyness.
So the Scripture readings on this first Sunday of Advent hit a jarring note. Jesus speaks of a time when strange things will happen in the sky, when countries will despair, and people will faint with fear. Then the Son of Man will appear, and we will face judgement, on what we learned a few weeks ago was often referred to as ‘the Day of the Lord’. So our readings today are hardly full of the joys of the season. Instead, this First Sunday of Advent always seems to remind us of the vanity of all our human strivings, with all its talk of the destruction of cities, and being prepared for the end. For Advent has a strange dual quality. Of course we are looking forward to Christmas during Advent. But as well as looking forward to the birth of the baby Jesus at Bethlehem, Advent is also a reminder to us that Christ has not just come at Bethlehem. Christ will come again.
This kind of Biblical material is what we call apocalyptic. It’s a type of literature which deals with the end-of -the-world predictions. It’s full of death and destruction, but it is never entirely without hope. It was a genre of writing and a way of thinking which was very popular still in the time of Jesus, and so it found its way into the Gospels. This is the kind of thing you might associate with the Book of Revelation; but it seems Jesus was also, at times, an apocalyptic preacher.
Yet we are often uncomfortable with such language. It is not just that apocalyptic concepts seem alien or difficult to understand- they also seem unchristian at times. A few verses earlier than the passage we read, Luke’s Gospel says of the coming fall of Jerusalem: ‘How terrible it will be in those days for women who are pregnant and for mothers with little babies!’ What kind of God is this who will allow this to happen? What happened to Christ blessing the little children? Are passages like this really Christian?
Another problem is that this is the kind of Biblical literature which is most open to abuse by cranks, madmen and strange religious cults. There are those who believe fervently that in passages such as these the Bible give a timetable to the end of the world- and worryingly, they sometimes want to hurry things along. This is a serious political problem, for many supporters of the powerful ‘Christian Right’ lobby in America hold such beliefs. On the basis of their belief they give uncritical support to the state of Israel, whilst ignoring or even justifying the suffering of the Palestinian people (who are mostly Moslem but include many Christians). Those who look for historical timetables forget that Christ once said that only God the Father knew the hour for these things to happen (Mark 13.32).
The apocalyptic parts of the Bible are perhaps the most misunderstood and dangerous parts of the Bible. So should we try to ignore them? Or is there indeed some spiritual nourishment to be had from these strange writings and sayings?
In the run up to Christmas, perhaps it is good that we should be caught up short by these rather scary Bible readings. For Christmas is not comfort and joy for everyone. For example, we like to think of Christmas as a great time getting together with family and friends. But that’s why Christmas is so hard for many of us- because we remember the family and friends who are not here to celebrate with us, those from whom we are now separated from, by death or distance or whatever reason. When the disciples admired the Temple, Jesus said to them that not a single stone of it would be left in its place. So it is in human affairs. In the nineteenth century, the British governor of India said that the British should rule India ‘as if they would be there forever’- and that did not seem such an unreasonable expectation. Within a century, India was independent and the British Empire consigned to history. So, too, in our personal lives, there is little that remains fixed. The happiness we find in material possessions, in friendship or in the love of our family- these things are fragile, and can be ended at any time. Apocalyptic shakes us out of our comfort zone. In this run-up to Christmas, Christ says to us: ‘Be careful not to let yourselves become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and with the worries of this life, or that Day may suddenly catch you like a trap’. Remember those words when you are enjoying your next Christmas party!
But in the Bible, wherever there is judgement, there is always also hope. The prophet Jeremiah deserved his reputation for doom, for he predicted that the way the people were going, their nation would be destroyed. And, in fact, it happened: six centuries before Christ, Jerusalem was taken by the Babylonians and its inhabitants taken off into exile. Yet even at this terrible time, the prophet had words of hope for the people: their nation would be restored: ‘[God] will choose as king a righteous descendant of David. That king will do what is right and just throughout the land. The people of Judah and of Jerusalem will be rescued and will live in safety’. (Jeremiah 33.15-16).
People needed hope when Jerusalem fell in the sixth century BC. Jeremiah assured them that there was hope, even in the worst of circumstances. Jesus said that the Jerusalem of his day also faced destruction- which indeed did happen 40 years or so later. Yet despite this chilling prediction, he also offered hope. Terrible things might happen, but one day the Son of Man will appear: ‘When these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is near.’ And however much the world might be shaken, God’s promises through Christ are unshakeable: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’. Meantime, the task for Christ’s followers is not to speculate about what is happening, or to panic like everyone else: ‘Be on watch and pray always that you will have the strength to go safely through all those things that will happen and to stand before the Son of Man.’
We shouldn’t allow the crazies to get away with hijacking the apocalyptic bits of Christianity. Such people bring fear and puzzlement. But Christianity is about nothing if it is not about hope. It is not that we are simply to wait for God to do it all. No- Christ’s kingdom is already on its way, and we are called to be part of that. So, when war does break out, Christians are often found among those aiding the wounded, burying the dead, and feeding the refugees. And when natural disaster strikes, Christian agencies are often to the fore to bring practical aid. Or when bereavement or disappointment happens, Christians can offer care and love, but also hope. When our economics system totters, Christians should be pointing the way to a fuller, better way of living. Whenever things seem hopeless, Christians are called to be people who bring hope to the situation.
It’s a terrible thing not to have any hope. Jesus diagnoses what happens when people live without hope. There are two things we often do. Listen again to what he says about not being caught out by the Day of the Lord: ‘Be careful not to let yourselves become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and with the worries of this life’. He’s saying we become occupied in two main ways. Firstly, ‘too much feasting and drinking’. We live in an age when feasting and drinking are big business. They are linked with an even larger industry, what might be described as leisure and entertainment. There is a huge market in trying to amuse people- restaurants, clubs, pubs, concerts, television, sport, film, theatre, books, shopping for fashion and gadget, music. None of these things are evil on their own. But the sheer scale of all it all- all that effort put into entertaining and amusing us nowadays is unparalleled in human history. Could it be that we need all these things in our culture because we are scared to stop and think for ourselves, scared to pause and come to terms with the fact that we are, in fact, without any hope?
The other preoccupation which Jesus identified is being preoccupied with ‘the worries of this life’. And who can deny that worry is also a major preoccupation of our society? So many of us suffer from anxiety, neurosis, worry; and much of that seems to be caused by our driven lifestyles. A lot of people just seem to be unable to cope with modern life. For example, there is so much obsession by how we look. Young people especially seem to be finding it harder and harder to cope with TV, advertising, magazines and shops which tell them that they’re judged by how they look- your clothing, your hairstyle, even your body shape. No wonder anxiety and even suicide are problems for young people.
We have, in Jesus’ words ‘become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and with the worries of this life’, because, I think, that so many of us today have, truly, no real hope. The secular way of looking at the world tells us that there is no purpose in life, so we may as well just live for ourselves. The Church’s mission, then, is to take hope to our world.
A couple of weeks ago we had a lot of people into the Old High for the Christmas Lights switch-on. My hope is that some of them might have been given some hope as we reminded them that the Christmas lights and the shopping and the parties are not all that there is to Christmas. We also spoke to them of a baby in a manger, of wise men following a star, seeking a king, and finding a baby in a manger. A strange story, alien perhaps to many people, but there is something strangely hopeful about it. Especially if we reflect that the child has been born again many times since that night in Bethlehem, and will indeed come again to finally bring peace and justice, love and joy, for all creation.
It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth,
to touch their harps of gold:
‘Peace on the earth, good will to you,
From Heaven’s all gracious King!’
The world in solemn stillness lay,
to hear the angels sing.
For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophet bards foretold,
when with the ever circling years,
still dawns the age of gold,
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendours fling,
and the whole world send back the song
which now the angels sing.
CH4 303 verses 1,5
I love this Advent season, for it points us to the future, and reminds us that hope is at the heart of the Gospel message. So go into Advent with hope in your heart, and let us find ways to share that hope with those around us.
Ascription of Praise
Glory to God in highest heaven,
and on earth peace to all in whom God delights!
Luke 2.14 (alt)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo