Today is the beginning of the church year. And we begin the year by thinking about the end of time as we know it; we begin to prepare for new beginnings by acknowledging that the old must give way; and that we must make ourselves ready by awakening! It is a strange spiritual truth that we prepare for beginnings by considering endings. (RCL Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; and Luke 21:25-38)
Most of us here have seen so many Advents come and go that we risk becoming a little blase, a little ho- hum, and if we have any reaction it is – how did we get to be back here again so soon? But maybe even the most organised and/or sentimental of us have been shaken by the pandemic and the state of the world and are open to feeling the tremor of change coming. I am certainly not ready for Christmas, for the birth of the baby, and I am most certainly not ready for the end of the world! I am too tired and too busy to be alert and awake.
But that in a sense is what Advent asks of us, to voluntarily enter into a state of readiness, wakefulness, of preparedness for the coming of the kingdom of God, or the reign of God in our hearts, minds and lives and in our time. Advent we have been told is about waiting but it is not a gently passive waiting. It is longing, a dissatisfaction with the world as it is, an openness to a new order – a restlessness for the ways of God. And quite frankly a little worry about organising Christmas for the family, occasional waves of distress about the state of the world, even the personal sadness of longing for those we cannot share Christmas with this year, is more comfortable than this very whole of life, whole of the world, fulfilment of the kingdom imagery that we are given this morning.
The invitation, the commandment is to be alert or the image of being awake which has the potential to alarm. But paradoxically we are told to be alert but also to be on guard so that our hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and the worries of this world. In many ways Advent is an exploration of how to be alert but not anxious, to live in this in betweeness – in between the birth of baby Jesus and the coming of the cosmic Christ, in between the world that is and the world that could be, in between our sleepy desire for a comfortable life and our deep desire for in breaking of the reign of God.
I live in a little seaside town where it seems possible, even if always just out of reach, to live the good life: to live in a green place, a place of plenty, a friendly place, a slower paced place. What not to like? Why in this place would we desire real change – maybe just a little fine adjustment here and there but surely not anything too radically different! But one only has to be here a short time before realizing that despite green trees and pastures there are hearts and minds that live under very grey and low skies and struggle to hang onto life itself. That despite living in what sometimes looks like the garden of Eden families are as fractured here as anywhere else. That despite a wonderful community for those who happily join in and are successful members there are many who cannot participate because of physical and mental health problems etc.
I don’t want to be a pessimist but we cannot truly long for the kingdom until we acknowledge the darkness, pain and violence and failure of life as it is. Our world needs more than just a bit of tinkering on the edges. Jesus did not come among us so business as usual could go on - although to a large extent that is what we in the church have worked hard to achieve! Jesus came to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom – a community in which the light, loving kindness and thriving of God reigns in all life.
Let me suggest three reasons why we need to wake up and be alert to another way of living, three reasons why we might allow desire for change and the rule of God to enter in, three reasons why business as usual does not serve us or anyone!
Firstly the environment that we love cannot cope with business as usual for much longer, in fact is not coping already. We must change our priorities, the amount of material wealth we require for a good life, our share arrangements if the world we rely on is to survive, heal and be restored to the fullness that the Creator intended and intends. The partial success of our leaders at the conference in Glasgow is not enough. We must each play our part now.
Secondly people we love are left out of the current society. Some of us belong to families where it is easy to see the face of some who are left behind by competitive society. Some of us will need to sit still a little longer to see faces and names of those who are left out. And this is just in our small and privileged lives. How much more so in the wider world. How many millions of God’s most precious souls are left out of the joy and wealth of the creation? So many that we cannot simply give more donations, important and kind though that is, real change is needed. Can we for at least a moment actually desire a different world in which the good things that make for life were more evenly distributed – and we wouldn’t necessarily be in charge of that redistribution?!
And thirdly we are stressed out of our rightful minds and hearts. A new kingdom would not be all about our giving up what we have so that others can have more. Or at least some of what we would be giving up is the stress of forever trying to manage things. In a world in which we lived more gently on creation, in which others had more of the resources, you and I might have less of the stress and work! You and I might have more time to walk and sing and watch the dawn and the sunset. Maybe here at least we can have an inkling of the desire for the kingdom of God, the reign of someone other than us, to come.
The truth is it is hard to desire real change, even good change. And to those of us who are a bit feint hearted let me share some words from Maria Boulding (The Coming of God, 1982):
“If you want God, and long for union with God, yet sometimes wonder what that means or whether it can mean anything at all, you are already walking with the God who comes. If you are at times so weary and involved with the struggle of living that you have no strength even to want God, yet are still dissatisfied that you don’t, you are already keeping Advent in your life. If you have ever had an obscure intuition that the truth of things is somehow better, greater, more wonderful than you deserve or desire, that the touch of God in your life stills you by its gentleness, that there is a mercy beyond anything you could ever suspect, you already drawn into the central mystery of salvation.
Your hope is not a mocking dream; God creates in human hearts a huge desire and a sense of need, because God wants to fill them with the gift of God’s own self. It is because God’s self-sharing love is there first, forestalling any response or prayer from our side, that such hope can be in us. We cannot hope until we know, however obscurely, that there is something to hope for; if we have had no glimpse of a vision, we cannot conduct our lives with vision. And yet we do: there is hope in us, and longing, because grace was there first. God’s longing for us is the spring of our longing for God.”
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come into our broken world with your healing wholeness.