Advent 1 reflection
Knowing that today is the first Sunday in Advent, maybe you weren’t expecting to hear the kind of words that were read from Matthew’s gospel just now. They seem far removed from Christmas with its message of peace on earth and so on. They feel quite threatening with warnings about the end times. So, at this moment we are not being allowed to try and create some sort of Christmassy happy-land. We are being made to face up to things we usually want to put aside. People often look around at all the natural and man-made disasters in the world and think that these are the end times where we are now. But what we are told is that no-one knows what time this will be, not even the Son. Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus saying that this particular God-time will be completely unexpected; that, as in the time of Noah, people will be just going about their everyday business, eating and drinking, marrying, maybe even doing their Christmas shopping. When we hear those dire words and have images in our minds of two men in a field, or two women grinding their corn, with one of each pair being taken and the other left, it is quite terrifying and seems entirely random and unjust. It is what used to be called “the rapture”. While some may want to take these images literally, it is also true that the people who heard this, right from the start would have appreciated this as being symbolic of what Matthew’s Jesus is saying, which is about not just taking it for granted that everything will always be the same. The illustration of the burglar breaking in at night is obviously one that has been around for millennia, though now many people have burglar alarms keeping watch for them. This reading is all about what may happen when Jesus comes again, for the second time. Here, as in churches all around the world, we are just preparing to celebrate again the first time. In fact we are living in the “in between time”, which has been stretching out now for some 2,000 years. So here we are, in 2016, still hearing Matthew’s account of Jesus’ warnings, and it is the first Sunday in Advent. What are we to make of it?
In fact, it is not so far removed from our preparations for Christmas. It may have nothing to do, apparently, with planning food, buying presents, sending cards, writing letters, dealing with crowded shopping centres. But it is a message about being ready. Ready for what? I can almost hear children playing a game of hide and seek and the seeker calling out “I’m coming, ready or not”. Matthew is saying that Jesus will be coming, whether we are ready or not. It is not that suddenly the baby will be back in the manger. Rather, that we will know, remember, that God is with us. That is a key message in Matthew’s gospel. We will hear more of it later. Today’s words come from Jesus’ last talk with his disciples. He is nearing the end of his journey. The last words of Matthew’s gospel are “I am with you always, to the end of the age” Turning towards Christmas again, in Matthew Chapter 1, the angel comes to Joseph to tell him that Mary will have a son and that he will be called Immanuel, which means “God with us”.
We are in the in between time, when we can lose sight of that message that God is with us, because there are so many distractions. How do we find God to be with us these days? How do we to hold onto that message when we can see, from the comfort of our lounge rooms, images that bring that symbolism of one being taken and one left becoming reality in villages in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and too many other places as well? How is God with us, or them, and with countless others who struggle for so many reasons?
During Advent I want to focus on the phrase “Vulnerability and Hope”. The more I think about it the more I think these go together. They do that when we hold onto the depth of meaning within those words “God-with-us”. God may feel very far away when people are held in terror by bombs, missiles, and gunfire. God may feel very far away when words of hatred and racism fly around. God may feel far away when women are abused, and men also; when children are abandoned; when powerlessness and shame are unsuccessfully drowned out by alcohol or drugs. God may feel far away when people are lonely, feel misunderstood or useless. One could go on naming so many other things about the human condition.
Matthew frames all this talk of disaster and endings within the understanding of God-with-us. And how did God come to be with us but by choosing complete vulnerability and by accepting human life in all its struggles, from the pain of birth onwards. Jesus is indicating that it is very easy to lose sight of God’s presence and to become afraid when we are not consciously realising that God is there, whether at the ending of things or throughout the in between time. But we have to be open to see God and not just to be seeing fear, disaster and anger. This week we are focussing on hope. I wonder, if we were to ask people we come across at the supermarket or pass by on the street what they most hope for. I guess some might say “winning the Lottery” or the Australian cricket team winning, but I suspect that more would talk about there being peace in the world – an end to religious extremism and terrorism, or a cure for cancer, or to live without fear. In some way Christmas seems to offer everyone a glimpse of this kind of hope because it is about love, however debased or secular the celebration may have become.
Hope that is real may start off very small. Such is the way God seeded hope at the incarnation, in a tiny, vulnerable, completely unexpected way. We sometimes talk about seeding hope. If you are a gardener at all, this symbol of a seed is powerful. It is one of the miracles of life that we can plant a tiny seed, and in due course, the seed produces roots and sprouts upwards towards the light. It goes on growing, producing whatever its species has coded within it. Isn’t it amazing! And we take all these things for granted so often. But it reminds us that when so much seems heavy and dark around us, we can take the tiny seeds of hope we have and they will grow, especially when we have a nurturing community of faith around us where we plant and cultivate hope together, knowing that this hope is God-given. For us in the church, we are encouraged in hope as we remember to look for God-with-us in the unexpected places, anywhere and everywhere, because in such ways, we find the God who will not be separated from any part of the creation, especially humankind. We can nurture hope, as we wait for God and are prepared to welcome God wherever and whenever that coming may be in our own lives and in this world. Hope is a powerful and contagious thing. It is a blessing of faith.
I’m sure you will all be able to recall times when you have been surprised by some unexpected example of something that gave you hope. The fact that Christmas is about the birth of a baby in itself is a symbol of hope. In what better way could God have done this, than to offer us hope in something that has to be tended and cared for? Children themselves are innately hopeful. When my daughter Rona was about 6 we spent Christmas at Iona Abbey as we often did. Believe me it was a dark and very cold place to be in the depths of winter. One evening, after the service in the Abbey, I found her in a dark corner of the cloisters. I asked her what she was doing. She had collected some candle ends and was putting them in obscure places, behind pillars, in little unobserved spaces. She asked me to help her light them because she thought that these places should have some light as well.
Maybe we can all do our own little bit of seeding hope and bringing light this Advent as we remember that God is with us, whatever is happening around us.