Sermon St John the Baptist, Mildenhall
Advent Sunday, 1st December 2019
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In this Gospel reading from Matthew’s Gospel set for the first Sunday of Advent, Jesus is speaking about the end of the age, also known as the second coming or the day of judgement. It is a reminder to us that during this season of Advent we are not only preparing for Christmas, for the celebration of God becoming one of us some two-thousand years ago, but we are also preparing for the end of the age, the day about which no one knows. How we can prepare for that day, and how we can do that in such a way that we do not fear, but instead anticipate with readiness and joy, the unknown of God’s judgement?
Last week, I was visiting someone in hospital. She had just received the diagnosis of a terminal illness. Although we talked about Christmas, it was clear that for her it was very uncertain what this Christmas would look like. For her, this season of Advent would be a time to prepare in a very real way for the day and hour that we will all face, but of which no one knows.
It is uncomfortable to think about death and dying, particularly when we are faced with the prospect of an untimely death and even more so at this poignant time of the year. It is therefore no surprise that we rather focus our own preparations during Advent on other things: buying Christmas presents, thinking about where to get the turkey and whether we need some more decorations.
I would be the last one to say that we should not think about these things too. Christmas is a joyful celebration. Through our preparations we are reminded of the gift of family and friends, the gift of God coming amongst us, and the gift of sharing. However, Advent also offers us the opportunity to get a little more prepared for the unknown that lies ahead of us. Because, ultimately, none of us know what Christmas may look like for us this year.
That is true for each of us individually, but this year particularly also for us as a nation. With the general election only a week-and-a-half away, we don’t know who our Prime Minister on Christmas Day will be and we don’t know what this will mean for the future of this country. Add to this the challenges that face us in the light of climate change, and we realise that our future is rather uncertain indeed.
How do we prepare ourselves in the light of the unknown, in the light of these challenges, without being overwhelmed by them? One answer is, as I have already suggested, to prepare only for the things we do know, or to try to change it into something we do know. One way to negotiate the unknown, and our fear of it, is to try ignore or control it, and only focus on those things which we do know. However, if we do this, we become like the people of whom Jesus is speaking in Matthew’s Gospel. Those who are eating and drinking, who are marrying and giving in marriage, but who are ignoring the signs of the time. When the time of the flood, the time of judgement came, they were unprepared, with disastrous consequences.
To some extent this applies to us too. Our preparation for the unknown is an exercise in learning right judgement and an exercise in learning to trust: the two go hand-in-hand, and they will make us see how to turn our fear and apprehension into anticipation true joy. The idea of the unknown and the idea of judgement seem rather opposite to the joy of Christmas, another reason why we’d rather not think about them too much. However, this need not be the case. Both the unknown and God’s judgement can be something that we can look forward to, as long as we are able to trust.
As Christians we believe in a God who made us because He loved us; who came to live among us, because He loved us; and who died for us, because He loved us. So, when the time comes, He will also judge us, because He loves us. Love and judgment go together with God, in a similar way that they go together when we raise or teach children. That means that there is no reason to fear God’s judgement. Instead of being punished for all we have done wrong, a better way to think about it is to see it as an opportunity to see ourselves as God sees us. Yes, with all our faults and frailties, but also with all our gifts and talents. And through all of these deeply loved by the love of God.
Advent is an opportunity to pause and try to see ourselves a little more in this light too, a little more like God knows us. To see our vulnerabilities for what they are, instead of trying to hide from them; to admit to our mistakes instead of covering them up; and to celebrate our talents rather than withholding them from others and ourselves. Indeed, I suspect, one of those vulnerabilities is our apprehension and fear for the unknown, and our fear to be unprepared. We can only prepare for the unknown that lies ahead of us, by making sure and trusting that we are making the right choices now. Some people would suggest that we should live every day as if it could be our last.
So don’t wait being the person you are meant to be, but be that person now. Don’t wait to be kind, thoughtful or forgiving until tomorrow, but do it now. This also applies to whichever decisions we make as individuals and societies of how we want to live in the future: do what is right now, don’t wait until tomorrow. As we will pray later in the service, let us be active in service and joyful in praise. That is what Jesus meant when he said that we must be ready too. If we do what is right, now, we can look with trust, anticipation and joy to the future. We may need to wait a little longer, we may need to be a little more patient, but we trust that God is with us.
That is the message of Christmas for which we are preparing too: that God is with us. Indeed, he did not come ready to change the world for us, but he was born as a baby in a stable, ready to change the world with us. That is what we know, that is what we believe and that is what we prepare to celebrate: God with us, Emmanuel.