Sermon for High Mass – Advent 1 Sunday 2 December 2018
ADVENT 1, 2018 HIGH MASS
Readings: Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-end ; Luke 21.25-36
If we are honest, most of us are likely to spend more time and energy getting ready for the celebration of Christmas, the first coming of Christ, than on preparing for his second coming, when he comes to judge the world.
There have been and are Christians who have or do expect the imminent return of Christ; ignoring his strictures against speculating about it; who sometimes display a rather vengeful glee at the thought of judgment being visited on those they disapprove of or don’t like.
Dark and dangerous times, wars and rumours of wars, “distress among the nations,” natural disasters, “the roaring of the sea and the waves,” lead people to “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
TV evangelists tell their viewers that the latest hurricane is God’s punishment for homosexuality. Curiously, in their reading of the “signs of the times,” they fail to notice that these natural disasters are often the consequences of the destruction we have inflicted upon the planet; our neglect of the stewardship of creation which God has entrusted to us.
But if we listen closely to the prophets, we learn that the warnings of judgement they utter at God’s command are precisely because of the people’s disobedience of God’s law, the law they had been given for the common good. The destruction and exile of the nation were the consequence of that disobedience; a failure not just of personal morality but of justice and fairness in the life of the whole community.
But God does not allow hope to die. Jeremiah speaks of God causing “a righteous branch to spring up for David,” who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” All new kings of Israel and Judah were called “Messiah – the anointed one.” Here we have the heart of the Old Testament’s hope for a righteous ruler who would guarantee the peace and security of the people of God.
The prophet speaks of the functions of this righteous ruler the Lord will cause to spring up: “he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land…. Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” This is not the spiritual abstraction Christians have so often made it but quite concrete in its treatment of political and social realities. When the prophets speak of Judah being saved and Jerusalem being able to “live in safety,” they are not referring to mystical experiences or religious practices, but to specific political circumstances in which Judah will be free from foreign domination and Jerusalem from invasion. “Justice and righteousness,” the most common pair of terms from the Old Testament prophets, refer both to fair and equitable relationships among people, impartial law courts, the “justice” that protects the weak and poor from the rich and powerful, and to the personal characteristics – the “righteousness” – which makes such conditions possible.
We read the prophets in Advent, in part because the Church has seen their hopes fulfilled in the Christ whose birth we will soon celebrate, but also to remind us of God’s abiding concern from justice and righteousness. The reign of God comes not only beyond time and this world, but also in history and in this world.
The Great Litany sung at beginning of this service was the first liturgical composition in English at the time of the Reformation. It is an all-embracing exercise in common prayer for the common good; the whole church praying for the whole nation. The idea of any distinction between the two would have been quite foreign to Cranmer and his contemporaries.
We live in a golden age of study and writing about this period. One of the themes of the time is the way in which people like Cranmer hoped and prayed for a “godly prince,” a “righteous branch.”
When we read of Henry’s bloodstained marital history, we think him an appalling figure, a lust-filled and cruel monster; rather than a godly and righteous one. While all that is true, there is more to it than that. Henry’s desperation for a son and heir was born out of the collective memory of civil war only a generation earlier. His father had come to the throne after the long agony of the Wars of the Roses. This struggle over the succession to the throne may sound picturesque but it was anything but.
People knew that civil was dreadful. In it the poor suffered the most, at the hands of marauding armies living off the land and because of the breakdown of law and order. We who have witnessed civil war in the Balkans and Syria, Iraq and Yemen, if only on television, should need little reminder of its horrors. The lack of an heir to the throne brought with it the threat of such strife.
If Jeremiah was speaking to a whole nation, Paul was writing to a small and very new Christian community. His First Letter to the Thessalonians is almost certainly the earliest Christian document we possess. It is addressed to a community of his converts still new and young in faith and facing hostility from the world around them.
It focuses, not on the birth of Christ at Bethlehem but on the future “coming of our Lord Jesus.” But it does so in a way which helps us to make the whole life and meaning of Christ real for us in the here and now. It speaks of an apostle bound to his church by love; of a Lord who can so enrich Christian love that it reaches both inward and outward. It speaks of a Lord who makes our hearts firm and our lives holy and blameless in preparation for the Lord’s coming.
The Letter breathes Pauls loving concern for his people; a love all pastors are called to share. Even in the midst of his mission in Corinth his thoughts and prayers, still return to them. He recalls the success of the gospel among them. He speaks of them as his “glory and joy.” He is encouraged by the steadfastness of their faith in the face of persecution and resistance. But he is anxious for their wellbeing. He knows that the faith of this struggling missionary church is fragile at best. Like a “nurse tenderly caring for her own children”, he is thankful and joyful for them, but he also prays constantly to see them “face to face,” to shore up their faith.
Here we see the Lord’s coming as present reality, understood and experienced in the here and now. We see it in an apostle praying for the members of the church – thankful, joyful, triumphant even, yet yearning to see them, concerned about their welfare, eager to teach them more, to supply what is lacking in their faith, hoping that their love for one another will hold them together and that they will be presentable on the day of the Lord.
We see that “here and now” dimension of the Lord’s coming taking root and shape in the life of a Christian community. The Thessalonians have received the word of God “as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” God has come to them through the preached word. This word still energises them. God’s presence remains a powerful force at work in their midst confirming them in their faith. As Jesus says in the Gospel, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
And it is the community of faith bound to one another in love that is the place of God’s activity. The apostle’s heart is knit to theirs in love, and even in absence his love for them grows stronger. His hope is that their love or one another will grow even as his does for them. But their mutual love is not to be inward-looking, focussed only on their own needs. He prays that their love will abound “to all,” to “the whole human race.” The church that genuinely experiences that coming of Christ into its midst embodies this presence when it extends its love beyond itself.
As a Christian community, we have been around rather longer than Paul’s Thessalonians, yet we too face challenges to our faith and obstacles to our mission. His message to them is equally valid for us. As we see and seek to read the signs of the times, not least in our prayers for our world, we are reminded of Christ’s presence, his coming to us in the here and now, in word and sacrament and fellowship and in the lives and needs of those outside our community.
In such circumstances our readings today provide both of warning and of hope..
Warning: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Hope: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
And so, we pray with Paul, that the Lord may make us “increase and abound in live for one another and for all,” and that he may so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.