A sermon on Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37 by Nathan Nettleton
The season of Advent is, without question, the least well known and understood of the seasons of the traditional church year. Even many Christians who have long belonged to churches that have this week changed the colour of the banners and set up their Advent candles would probably scratch their heads a bit if asked to tell you what Advent is all about. There are two main reasons for this. The first is the early history of the Advent season itself, because it was the last of the seasons to develop, and it grew out of a somewhat difficult merger of two earlier observances which different parts of the church had been practising, but which had quite different meanings. In the last century the problem has been greatly exacerbated by the second cause of confusion, and that is that Advent has been largely swamped by the commercialisation of Christmas. In order to make Christmas as commercially profitable as possible, it was necessary that it become a season of about two months of growing intensity, climaxing in a grand finale on Christmas day, instead of being a season of twelve days which doesn’t start until Christmas eve.
This has caused a big problem for our celebrations of both Advent and Christmas. Advent gets drowned out, because the commercial Christmas has a very loud and powerful advertising industry backing it up, and its is hard to get anything else heard above that. And Christmas suffers from a kind of fatigue, because commercial Christmas has misappropriated just enough of the symbols and music of the Church’s Christmas to give the impression that the two are somehow related, and so by the time we get to the Feast of the Nativity on December 25, we have heard ‘O come all ye faithful’ sung by overblown garden gnomes and red-nosed reindeer so many times that another twelve days of it sounds like some kind of penitential discipline.
The question today’s churches face then, is whether to give in and observe the next four weeks as Christmas, thus synchronising our celebration with that of the society we live in; or whether to hold the traditional line and be a dissonant and counter-cultural voice in the wilderness. As you may have guessed from the absence of Christmas carols and the rather apocalyptic flavour of our readings and prayers, I’m about to advocate the voice-in-the-wilderness approach, but before I do, let me acknowledge and briefly respond to the big dilemma that such an approach causes us. If we resolutely observe Advent now, and don’t begin celebrating the birth of Jesus until Christmas Eve, what are we supposed to do about all the so-called Christmas celebrations everyone else will be inviting us to? My advice is this: there is no value in disdainfully avoiding them, but there is also no value in the “put Christ back into Christmas” campaign. A festive season at this time of year, with decorated trees, presents and family feasts, pre-dated the celebration of the birth of Jesus anyway, so just think of it as the Summer Festive Season, and attend and enjoy whatever celebrations you like. It is no more religious nor pagan than celebrating Grand Final week, so just enjoy it if you can or endure it if you must, and don’t waste any effort on the futile quest to reconcile it with the church’s celebrations of Advent and the Nativity. Meanwhile, while sharing some of the world’s celebration of Summerfest, we will separately observe the important season of Advent, a season which I think is an immeasurable gift given to us from the wisdom of God’s people down through the ages; a gift which may be all the more important because it does come at a time when we are being assailed by the excessive hype and compulsive consumerism of the Summer Festive Season.
One of the most important reasons for observing fully the seasons of the church year is that they ask us to consider our faith and the living of our lives from different angles, and so they help prevent us from veering off into the kind of heresies that result from going too far down our favourite tracks without being confronted with other demands of the faith. They help prevent us from reshaping Christianity as a reflection of our own wants and desires. The season of Advent is the time when we are challenged to consider our faith and lifestyles in light of the expected coming of the Messiah. This includes reflection on how we experience God coming into our lives now, and as we get closer to the Feast of the Nativity, it will include reflection on how the coming of the Messiah once took shape in the baby of Bethlehem; but primarily this time is about our anticipation of that which is not yet fulfilled, the final coming of the Messiah in glory to fulfil the ancient destiny of the world and all who live in it.
One of the issues we are confronted with as we look at our faith from this angle is the frequent divide between what we would like God to do and what we often experience God doing. You could hear this tension in the reading we heard from the prophet Isaiah tonight. “Lord, if only you would tear open the sky and come on down!” Isaiah looks back wistfully on stories from the past of how God has taken action to save the people and wipe out their enemies. If only it could be like that again. We know these feelings. Especially in the last year we know the feeling of the world seemingly descending further into violence, chaos and terror, and desperately wishing that God would put it all right and deal with those whose hatred and hostility makes us afraid to even get on an aeroplane or sit in a crowded cafe. O that you would come down and save us and deal with them. But underlying Isaiah’s plea is an anxiety about calling on God to sort out the sinners. Isaiah is uncomfortably aware that God is already taking action to sort out the sinners, but the sinners may well be us. And so he is stuck in the bind of wanting God to go easy on our sins, but dish out tough justice to those who have sinned against us. So as we pray “come, Lord Jesus,” the Advent challenge is to be sure that we are not just longing for a God who sort out everyone and everything else and leave us unsearched by the blowtorch of truth and justice. We are challenged to open ourselves up to the possibility of God beginning the salvation of the world by refining and purifying us, and that, of course, challenges us to think about how we are living now and what needs to be changed and how willing we are to changed in the image of Christ.
Another issue that we are confronted with as we look at our faith in light of the anticipated coming of the Messiah to remake the world, is the question of what it takes to live faithfully in the world between now and then. This is an especially acute question at this time of year, because if ever we are to be aware of the conflict between the aspirations of he consumerist society around us and the gospel call for simplicity and redirection of resources to the service of the poor, this is it. In the gospel reading we heard Jesus calling us to be vigilant. Our longings for God to put the world right will be fulfilled, but we can’t know when, so putting off dealing with the challenges and always promising to simplify our lifestyles next year is not an option. Next year may never come. And it is not as though God leaves us without the resources to tackle these things now. As Paul said in the extract we heard from his letter to the church in Corinth, God strengthens us and equips us with the gifts we need to live with integrity in the here and now as we wait for Jesus the Messiah to step back onto centre stage. Because we are constantly bombarded by messages glorifying rampant competition and consumption, part of what will get us through is some dogged determination and patient endurance. We are dependent on God’s gifts to enable us to tough it through, and it may well be that the invitation to reflect on the Advent challenges at this time of year is, in fact, one of those gifts to help us endure.
One final issue, for this week’s list, that emerges as we look at our faith in light of the anticipated coming of the Messiah in glory. Paul speaks of us being enlightened or enriched in knowledge during this time of waiting and preparation. There are no end of applications of that, but one of them specifically relates to the questions about the relationship between Advent and Christmas. Christianity is a faith which to a large degree is only adequately understood when we read its stories backwards. The meaning of many of the events we remember and celebrate in the life of Jesus are only understood in light of what later emerged. Good Friday would never have been called ‘good’ if it hadn’t been for what occurred later. We can only understand the significance of the cross in light of the resurrection. Similarly, we can only understand the significance of the stories of Jesus’s birth in light of what happened at Easter and in light of his anticipated return in glory. Without those reference points, it degenerates into just a cute baby story. And since the cute baby story bit is one of the main bits that have been imported into the commercialised Summerfest version of Christmas, it is terribly easy to not see past that. We desperately need this season of Advent to prepare our minds with frame of reference that can enable us to see through the sentimental trivia and perceive the earth-shattering significance of that baby story.
So, let’s do our best to hold the line and, at least in our worship here, resist the temptation to skip straight to baby stories and comfy Christmas carols. Let’s explore this season of Advent as fully as we can, so as to open ourselves to the much needed gifts God is offering us in it. And let’s continue that now by standing, and with the thoroughly Advent flavoured words on page 20, affirming the faith of the church.