Wake up. Get up. Clothe yourself in Christ. The day is near. (Advent One. Matthew 24:36-44; Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; and Romans 13:11-14.) Advent begins with images that sound a trumpet fanfare or an alarm clock. Time is later than we think – awake and arise. Be ready for change, for something new, for the coming of God. This language can be alarming or exciting! And for some of us it is both.
There is nothing gentle or particularly subtle about the beginning of Advent. Which is kind of appropriate as our world is so tired and bruised, so disturbed and disturbing, that only a trumpet fanfare or an alarm could be heard over the background sounds of fear, war, hunger, and every kind of daily distraction. Before we can sing carols about the birth long ago of a baby and eat rich foods with our nearest and dearest we need to surrender to the process that Advent is. Before we can welcome in a new age, a kingdom way of peace and justice, we must give up the futile efforts to win a war that cannot be won by force and surrender to the journey of love that makes us vulnerable. And before we arrive at the Christmas story we will hopefully be fully engaged with the need and desire for a new way of doing life and the hope invested in the child who became one of us and all that can mean.
Now many spiritual traditions have themes of the need to awaken but what as followers of Christ are we awakening to and why do we need to come back to this point so many times (how many times have you faithfully journeyed through Advent)?
I think we are awakening to three related things. Firstly we are awakening to how things truly are in the outside world and our inner worlds – to the lack of peace, to the spirit of war that disturbs our world, to the brokenness and despair that so many suffer from, and to the unimportant and distracting activities and issues we give our lives over to – or what we might more generically refer to as sin or our brokenness. We are also awakening to the hope of life abundant and merciful and just that our tradition has taught us about and that God dreams for us and our world. And thirdly we are awakening to where we are in that tension, to seeing and nurturing what is already emerging, to fanning the spark of hope in ourselves and those around us, and to celebrating all that already radiates the love of God – to the signs of the kingdom already breaking through.
And why do we need to do this year after year, season after season, always being somehow taken by surprise? I suspect because we live in a culture that puts us back to sleep, that sedates us, that overwhelms us with things of secondary importance, so that we are too busy, too tired, too fearful or furious, too self dependent to awaken to the timing of God. We succumb to thinking war inevitable, fear normal, competition for the scarce resources of love and abundance somehow admirable, and suffering avoidable if we work hard enough. It is not that we have not at times been wide awake to the presence of God; of the possibility of peace, love, joy and abundance for all but that we struggle to stay awake. Our eyes grow tired and we drift back to sleep.
And maybe that is ok, or at least not the end of the world (yet), because God through the seasons of the spirit and our lives shakes us awake again and again. Once we have been through the cycle a few times we awaken quicker and begin to recognise and trust the process more. Initially it can feel very disorientating and disturbing. Indeed it can feel like failure or punishment to be undergoing the disturbance that so often seems to be part of awakening – as individuals and as communities. But nations do not tend to decide to beat their armour into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks until they have a strong reason to do so. And individuals often do not get around to the change and growth they know they want until it is too uncomfortable to stay the same any longer. So while the images we hear in Scripture this week are unsettling it is part of what has the potential to awaken us and then it becomes good news - not easy to digest news, but good news, life giving news.
But before the disturbing news can become for us the good news we do need to confront this theme of judgement in the readings, especially in the images that Jesus centres this teaching around. It is worth noting that there are two locations or occasions of judgement. The first is around the destruction of the Temple and the terrible sacking of Jerusalem about which Jesus makes it clear that he does know what is happening. However about the second or more general time of judgement he says that he as the Son does not know. There has been much conjecture about the end times, and the rapture, and whether one should fear being left behind or aspire to be one of those left. (Ideas that many have been taught about a coming Rapture and the taking up of the faithful in recent years seem to have first been written about by an Edward Irving 1792-1834 and most scholars do not credit this interpretation). My position is that whether judgement is a process that we as individuals go through as part of preparing to die, or indeed during our dying, or whether it a shared day of judgement for all, that there is a process of reckoning and reconciling in our life to be engaged with. And if Matthew 25 (the parable of the sheep and the goats) is any indication the basis of judgement will not be on how correct our theology is but on how we have lived and loved our God and neighbour, about how Christlike we have been in our capacity to love in everyday ways those we come across.
And so the awakening that we are called to in Advent begins with a loud trumpet call which unsettles everything we are busy doing but really will bring our attention back to the everyday opportunities and demands of life to love those in front of us. We need to awaken not to set off on a heroic journey away from the here and now but we need to awaken to what is before us: to the God who comes to us in human flesh and daily life so that our daily life can be full of God and that we can then share that with those around us.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ and awaken us to all that is of you.