This year, for the first time in many years, Kate and I have had the joy of taking a toddler out shopping in the run-up to Christmas. And mostly it really has been a joy – there’s nothing in the world quite as photogenic as a two year old with her eyes wide with fascination at all the festive shapes and colours and lights of a shopping mall in full seasonal swing. On the other hand, it’s not so nice seeing their excitement and expectations manipulated to fever pitch when Christmas is still two months away. It makes for a very long autumn!
At last, thankfully, we’ve arrived at the First Sunday of Advent. That doesn’t help to offset the sheer tackiness of the commercial build up to Christmas - indeed to our granddaughter it's mostly about opening the windows on her chocolate Advent calendar. But, let me hasten to add, her calendar has a Nativity theme - not Santa Claus, not Walt Disney, not The Simpsons, but Jesus. And the start of Advent does give us as Christians the moment to assert some kind of ownership of the season: To visibly and publicly prepare for our own Christmas, and to remind the world that Jesus is the Reason for the Season. Jesus, not Santa Claus, not Walt Disney, not Coca-Cola or John Lewis, not the winter solstice, and certainly not the corporate profit and loss account.
So, Advent has officially begun. But what does that mean for us? By the time I’d been a regular churchgoer for a few months, Christmas and Easter and Pentecost and even Lent all meant something to me. But it was years before I cottoned on to the meaning of Advent. Of course I knew it was a time of looking forward to Christmas, but it’s also a time of looking backward. In fact, if we really want to get the full flavour of Advent we have to do one of those double-takes so beloved of cartoon artists: Forward-Backward-Forward is how it goes. Confused? Let me enlarge on that.
The obvious starting point is that we’re looking forward to Christmas. And today, with or without the aid of a chocolate Advent calendar, we start the countdown: 24 days during which we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the stupendous event in which the infinite and eternal God broke into our space-time universe. And Christmas certainly needs preparation. Firstly, practical preparation. Nobody has found this an easy year financially, but most of us will do what we can to decorate our homes and churches and work places, to send greetings and possibly buy gifts, and maybe to turn up our socializing a notch or two. So a lot of physical preparation is called for. But Christmas also requires spiritual preparation. That’s a dimension that can easily get lost in the hustle and bustle, but for Christians the build-up to Christmas has always been about spiritual growth. It’s a time to repent of our past offences and commit ourselves afresh to living as though God really was about to come into our world for the first time.
So the first thing we do in Advent is to look forward to each Christmas and make preparations. But we also have to look backwards – not just to the events of that first Christmas 20 centuries ago, but to the centuries of Jewish dealings with God that led up to it. How can we grasp the life-changing, world-changing impact of Christ’s birth if we don’t reflect on what it meant to his contemporaries? And so, over the next few Sundays we’ll be looking again at the ancient teachings, especially the majestic Old Testament prophecies that foretell and explain the coming of the Messiah. One such passage is the reading from Isaiah we heard earlier (Isaiah 2:1-5). It looks forward to a time scarcely imaginable to the pre-Christian world: where God will once again be present on earth. In that day, his Law and his glory will be revealed not just to a single chosen people but to all the world, and all the world will experience a new era of peace and goodwill to all humanity under the Messiah’s banner.
Sadly though, when we look around the world we don’t see the reign of peace of goodwill. Rather, we see a world characterised by conflict, suffering and greed. And so, it’s not enough to look forward to Christmas, or back to the Nativity and the glorious promises in Scripture. We have to look forward again, not just to next Christmas or to Christmasses future, but to the time known only to the God the Father at which Christ will be sent back into the world to put it right. And fittingly, Advent has always been a time for thinking about the Second Coming of Christ.
Bible passages about the Second Coming are invariably difficult - full of dense symbolism, and I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to unpack them in detail. However, I can make two brief points with confidence:
Firstly, the Bible makes clear when Jesus comes again, it will be utterly unexpected – so unexpected that not even Jesus knows when it will happen. And to convey just how unexpected and shocking it will be, he uses some vivid and slightly unsettling illustrations. For example, people don’t expect their houses to be broken into. We normally lock up at night, of course, and most of us insure our possessions, because we don’t take our security for granted. But an actual burglary always comes as a surprise and a shock to the victims. And in our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 24: 36-44), Jesus says that when he comes again it will be as unexpected and shocking as a thief in the night.
And here’s another thing we can be sure of about the Second Coming: it represents a challenge to the way we live out our faith here and now. Two thousand years ago, Jesus came for the first time, inaugurated a new heavenly kingdom on earth and empowered the Church to carry on his work. We’ve had two thousand years in which to build on the foundations he laid, and in spite of some key advances the world is still a mess. Perhaps we have another two thousand years, or for all we know Christ could come again any day now. And he has promised that he will come not as a vulnerable infant but as a conquering king, to eliminate conflict and suffering from the world and establish his kingly rule forever.
When Christ comes again, whether it’s not for five thousand years or whether it’s tonight, what will he find? All our work will be seen for what it is. How much of it will prove good enough for him to build on? How much will be blown away like chaff?
And so, at Advent we look forward and backward and forward again. We reflect on our past successes and failures, both as individuals and as the church. We look forward to tasting again at Christmas something of the joy and excitement of Christ’s first coming. And we commit ourselves once again to pushing out the boundaries of his kingdom in the light of the glory that will be fully revealed only when he comes again.
As Christmas draws ever nearer, may the excitement and the joy and the peace and the challenge of the season fill our hearts, and may we commit ourselves afresh to doing Christ’s work in the challenging months ahead.