Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13: 11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
Today is the first Sunday of Advent – the time when we begin with a real sense of expectation to look forward to Christmas – even although we know that there is much to be done that isn’t even started. There are cards to be bought and posted, food to cook, meals to plan, presents to be bought trees to be decorated. I still need to write our Christmas letter!
Advent is a time when our days are shaped by this sense of “looking forward” in the knowledge that something good is going to happen.
And yet – we have this paradox – the joyful expectant looking forward – and yet the liturgical colour for Advent is purple – the colour of repentance.
How can that be?
You would think that the miracle of God breaking into our human history in Jesus Christ is something to make us joyful rather than something to put us in a repentant frame of mind?
Yet our readings set down for today affirm for us that repentance is precisely what we are to be on about.
We happen to be in the fortunate position of knowing in advance what happens at Christmas and perhaps that is the heart of the problem.
This Christmas story has become much too familiar.
It’s a story that decorates Christmas cards, a story that we hear piped into stores from November or even earlier with some wonderful carols like I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…
… and also a story that all too often gets packed away with the ornaments of the Christmas tree when Christmas is over.
Maybe that’s what we are being called to repent from – we have been drawn in to commercial Xmas, and maybe we have a sense of over-familiarity. Just paying lip service to the God who entered this world and risked living and dying as a human being so that we might experience divine love and life in us – seems just a bit inadequate.
We need to see Christmas as a part of a larger picture to understand that God did it so that we could live fulfilled lives – lives with healing at their centre – with the peace of Christ in our hearts – so that no matter what goes on around us or to us, that inner centre of peace holds us together.
When we realise what God has done for us and we still turn our backs, ignoring the gifts, the promises, the power – that is when we are called to repentance – called to acknowledge all that holds us back from inviting Jesus Christ to be born anew in our lives this Christmas
The early Christians had a heightened expectation that Christ would come again, soon. It is this belief that is at the heart of our Gospel passage for today.
We are to live our days fully and patiently in the awareness of the immediate possible coming of Christ. We are not to make special preparation, we are to live prepared, to be prepared. “Watch” says Jesus “You do not know on what day your Lord will come.”
The Advent of God is always a surprise, and any encounter with Jesus holds within it the unexpected. He does not wait for a polite introduction but bursts unbidden into our ordinary routine.
Watch, be ready – because you do not know the hour or the day when or even where this is going to happen.
Let’s think for a moment about what makes up our ordinary routine. Gardening, housework, shopping, meeting friends and neighbours, sitting at your desk, playing with the kids or grandkids. Take a moment to imagine Christ bursting in to that experience. Maybe he already has.
Watch and be prepared, because what was ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary. It doesn’t change the fact that there is still the endless round of routine tasks to be done – but they are done in the knowledge that there is another dimension to life – the knowledge that we are each known and loved by God – that each of us is a person of worth in God’s eyes.
And when we know that about ourselves it opens our eyes to see other people as similarly accepted and loved by God.
It really calls into question all the times when our lack of love towards, or acceptance of others, are decisive factors in the way we relate to people. That is why the colour for Advent is purple – the colour of repentance. The loving action of God calls us to account for all our unloving actions.
It is a truism Jesus Christ comes at Christmas.
But not just at Christmas – in fact, today, and not just today but tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that.
Can we make that part of our lived experience?
Each day we invite Jesus into our lives our lives are changed with the love and grace he brings.
And we live our lives each day with that reality. Not just for ourselves with joy and hopefulness and peace and love, but living a life that matters – bringing healing and restoration to broken lives, bruised relationships, battered communities, working for healing for a planet that groans under the weight of our gouging of its resources, of our neglect in not acting to mitigate climate change, and of our willful ignoring of how we use our land and rivers.
When we truly get that, we are closer to understanding what incarnation is. You might recall the Bette Midler song – From a distance, God is watching us. Well God is not a distant observer but in Jesus and active participant in the world, so we too cease to be observers and critics to become, with Christ incarnate in the world.
We use these weeks before Christmas to prepare for all the traditional material and physical activities of Christmas – the meals, gifts, the trees, the cards, the letters. But today’s lessons warn us: woe betide those who ignore the spiritual dimension of Christmas.
We did not read Paul’s letter to the Romans today. But in that passage (Romans 13:11-14) Paul urged the Romans to wake up, to throw off the deeds of darkness. He was urging them not simply to stop doing things displeasing to God, but to do good and loving acts intentionally.
Today’s readings all say in one way or another – “It is far on in the night, the day is near”. Those words do not reflect despair but a rallying cry for a change of heart and an outpouring of love.
It’s clear that judgment is implicit in today’s readings, but there is also a strong accent on hope, on the coming transformation of the world. Isaiah, Matthew and Paul speak clearly of one who is to come and bring a new reign. So, how are we to prepare for this event?
We are to wait with hearts full of hope and lives intentionally marked by faith active in love.
Our next hymn is about our waiting for Christ, Emmanuel – God with us – and the third verse goes like this:
He is breaking down the barriers, he is casting up the way,
he is calling for his angels to build up the gates of day:
but his angels here are human, not the shining hosts above;
for the drumbeats of his army are the heart-beats of our love.
Hymn 276 – There’s a light upon the mountain.
Written by Bill Lang
Bill Lang is secretary of the church council and convenor of the communications group. He has been a regular preacher at TUC since he and Jenny joined the congregation in 1975. He is a presbytery representative, and a member of the Karralika outreach team and the Child Care Advisory Group.More from Bill Lang