Sermon for Advent Sunday at Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint
Sunday 29th November 2020, Isaiah 64.1-9 and Mark 13.24-end
This Sunday, we mark the beginning of the season of Advent. Four Sundays until Christmas, and traditionally a time of preparation as we anticipate the Incarnation by prayer, the reading of Scripture and fasting. A time of waiting, during which we are invited to reflect on our readiness to celebrate the birth of Jesus. At the same time, during Advent, we are also invited to look ahead to the final coming of Christ as our judge and redeemer and our readiness for that.
Over the years, as society has grown more secular, we have lost some of the immediacy of these two aspects of Advent: the waiting and the judgement. For many of us, Christmas starts no longer on Christmas Eve, but on 1st December. We seem to have lost the ability to wait, as we live in a time where everything is available at the click of a button. We also live in a society that has become weary of the language of judgement, and the idea that we are accountable has become increasingly uncomfortable; a language we try to avoid.
This is how I probably have started most Advent sermons and reflections over the past few years. But this year is different. This year, we have been confronted with a time of waiting that we have not experienced before. This year, we have come to realise that we cannot get everything we want when we want it. At the same time, we are also become more acutely aware of the consequences of our actions. So maybe we need to be challenged too by that uncomfortable language of judgement.
Let’s go back to the waiting first. For many of us, there has been a lot of waiting in the past few months: for the latest announcement of the government, for restrictions to be lifted, and for good news about a vaccine. However, when we reflect on it, it is maybe not so much those things for which we are waiting, but what we really hope for is what really matters: seeing family and friends. Giving our children or grandchildren a hug. Celebrating a birthday, a wedding, or indeed being able to celebrate and mourn loved ones together again. All these things we cannot have not now, but we have to wait. And that is hard.
The question to us is: how do we wait? It is here that our Gospel reading this morning has a lot to offer us. Jesus says to his disciples “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near”. First of all, there is encouragement in that message, particularly in these dark winter days. Summer will come, this time of darkness is there just for a season.
There is also a cautioning in Jesus’ words: we need to look out for the signs. Waiting is not something we do by doing nothing, but waiting means watching, being on guard, being alert. We need to make sure that we are ready for when the time comes – and, as we hear, we do not know when the time will be coming.
What I am sure we have all realised in these past months is that there are times that we want to give up, when the waiting becomes overwhelming. Times when we become despondent and ask ourselves: what is the point? Why would I bother?
I have certainly found it difficult to keep praying, reading and making time for God. Particularly during the first lock-down, when there was more time than I knew how to use, I still couldn’t bring myself to much more than morning prayer – and that only because it had already become as natural as brushing my teeth in the morning. With so much time, it somehow becomes easy to think ‘I can do that tomorrow’.
However, we hear this morning that we need to be ready, we need to keep alert. And yes, for our own sakes too, it is much better to do so. It gives our waiting a purpose, and that is what we need.
This aspect of our spiritual readiness can be compared to the readiness of a sportsman or woman. Thinking about all those people who have had their major events cancelled, I wonder how many of them have wondered if there is still a point in training? The answer of course is, yes, there is. Because there will come a time when the Olympics, the world championships, or our local cricket league, are back. And then it is those people who kept going, who will be ready to win. We don’t know when it will be, but we do know that it will happen. And we’d better be ready.
That brings us to the other aspect I mentioned at the start, our readiness for judgement. This is a question that we can ask ourselves as individuals, but also as a society. At the moment of course, we are acutely aware of the risk that our behaviour poses to others, but we are also becoming more and more aware of the risk that our actions have on God’s creation as a whole. As a society and as individuals, we need to consider that our future may well be a judge of our actions now.
However, the message is not entirely bleak. Yes, there is a warning that we need to take seriously, but there is also a comfort in the knowledge that it is God who made us in the first place. As Isaiah writes “We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand”. Yes, we realise that none of us is perfect: “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away”, but at the same time the prophet’s prayer is for God’s merciful judgement, as he asks the Lord “consider, we are all your people”.
So, being ready does not mean being perfect, but it means having done all that we can to be prepared. What that looks like will be different for each of us, but for all of us it means knowing that we have cared, that we have worked and that we have loved our neighbour. In the words of the prayer that we will hear after Communion, it requires us to be ‘active in his service, and joyful in his praise’.
The passage in our Gospel reading from Mark this morning is almost immediately followed by the story of a woman anointing Jesus with costly ointment. When some of the disciples challenged her, Jesus says to them “She has done what she could”. It is all that is necessary, that we do what we can. That is what it means to be ready.
So in the next few weeks, let us try to be alert and ready, let us try to find ways not only to be active in service but also to be joyful in praise – no one said that the task would be easy. But then, we can be confident that slowly, steadily, we will see the light dawning in the darkness. That light, the life of all people, the light that will shine in the darkness and will not be overcome.