Monday, 21 December 2015

Be alert at all times: starting Advent

Sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral at the Cathedral Eucharist, 
Advent Sunday, 29th November 2015.
(1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36)

‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that you will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man’ (Luke 21.36)

In nomine Patris…

Advent: the beginning of the Church Year, a time of preparation and expectation, of the recalibration of our Christian hope and the renewal of God’s promise.

Today is a beginning, for it marks a fresh re-telling of the story of salvation in Jesus Christ, who in the power of the Holy Spirit, leads us to the Father.

Advent resets our bearings so that we can be receptive to God’s dramatic and decisive intervention in human history in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, born of the Virgin Mary.

Familiar and beloved stories will unfold and be told in the coming weeks.

The call of today’s Gospel is that we are awake and alert to what is to come.

And in Advent we remember that what is on its way is not simply Christmas, but the ‘life of the world to come’, as the Creed calls it.

In this coming Church Year St Luke’s gospel becomes the guiding way that the mystery of Jesus Christ is presented to us. Many priorities unfold in Luke as we will see over this coming year.

The emphasis of today’s gospel reading is a repeated, but often overlooked, Lucan leitmotif which is, be prepared, be alert, be awake for the coming of the Son of Man.

Today’s gospel passage is hard to read and to hear. It sounds weird and whacky with its references to ‘signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars’, ‘nations confused by the roaring of the waves’ (Luke 21.25) and ‘”the Son of Man coming in a cloud”’ (Luke 21.27).

The language and genre of the passage and those phrases that we heard is called ‘apocalyptic’. This isn’t to be understood as what Hollywood means by apocalyptic: although the apocalyptic genre throughout scripture, for example the Book of Daniel, parts of the Gospels and Revelation has a certain cinematic quality to it.

Properly speaking ‘apocalyptic’ is about unveiling that which is hidden. It is about lifting the veil on things that are beyond our vision. In apocalyptic, as in Advent, we move through doors of altered perception as deep things are unveiled.

The only time we experience this outside drug induced experiences is when we sleep. In sleep we enter a world where we are still ourselves, and yet not ourselves; a world that is at the same time familiar, and yet profoundly strange.

So the apocalyptic imagination is vivid, fantastical, almost exaggerated. Sleep tells us about a changed perception of our bodies and experience.

Sleep is a deep and recurrent theme throughout Advent. A brief scan of traditional Advent hymns turns that up: ‘Wake, O wake, with tidings thrilling’, and readings such as, ‘now it is time to awake out of sleep’ (Romans 13.11).

The nearest we get to seeing these sorts of images is in our inner world of dreams. And indeed sometimes the Bible combines the world of apocalyptic and dreams (e.g. Daniel 2.1-45). Some of our dreams can seem prosaic and humdrum and appear easy to interpret: others seem to bear no relation to reality as we live it day by day but intrigue us, unsettle us or downright frighten us. Dreams are open to interpretation, but also to puzzlement and confusion.

Let’s be clear though: I am not saying that apocalyptic writing is not true. Quite the contrary it is true in ways we cannot fully grasp. I am not saying apocalyptic writing is a dreamy, ethereal and ultimately too whacky to take seriously, on the contrary it is speaking of things yet to be unveiled.

Apocalyptic writing and imagining, just like Advent, invite us to pull back the veil and peer into a world scarcely known to us: ‘the life of the world to come’.

And from there we look back at the world as we know it, here and now, but see it in new ways. That’s what we’re doing when we pray, ‘thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’.

Advent places before us four great things of the ‘life of the world to come’: death, judgement, heaven and hell.

But how can we possibly know what the ‘life of the world to come’ might hold?’ Surely it’s too far beyond our sight?

One way I have found it helpful to think about this is seeing death as a birth: as St Francis puts it: ‘it is in dying that we’re born to eternal life’.

The Christian hope is that when we die we are born into a new existence – life is changed not taken away’ (Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer for funerals) - retaining who we are, yet transformed: as St Paul puts it, our mortal bodies will be clothed with immortality (1 Corinthians 15.55). Strangely enough each of us has been through a bodily transition from what feels like one world to another: as a child in our mother’s womb we remain the same person after our birth but in a new world of the senses, familiar yet strange.

In the womb the baby can hear sounds and see shades of light and darkness. They are just hints of the world they will be born into. They don’t yet know that sounds become the voice of human communication or the glories of music; that the light and dark shades will become the brilliance of the colours of the world, the blue sky, green grass, the beauty of human eyes. The baby cannot possibly imagine or understand all that in their world in utero.

In the same way we come to know ‘the life of the world to come’ in Advent, through apocalyptic signs. These signs point us to the promises of God through the resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ.

These apocalyptic signs are like the sounds and shades of inside the womb, by giving us what seem to be ‘puzzling reflections in a mirror’ (1 Corinthians 13.12), echoes and shades ready to be fulfilled in love.

Apocalyptic and Advent point us not to an ‘afterlife’ but  to a future fulfilled life, the ‘life of the world to come’ which is perfectly infused by love, when ‘we will see face to face…and we will know fully even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13.12b).



Firm in that love, the love revealed in Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, may we be alert at all times, that God would so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may be blameless before him at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (cf 1 Thessalonians 3.13) to which we boldly say: ‘Amen. Come Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22.20)

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