Sermon: Wild Advent
Preached on 29th November 2009
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
That gospel reading tears into us like a tornado just when we are settling down into the season of family, fairy lights and firesides. ‘Batter my heart three person'd God', cries John Donne; and this is what Advent does with its apocalyptic message about signs in the sky and portents on earth, and fear and distress coming upon the planet. Well, it will not be long before the season quietens down, and we think gentler thoughts about the Holy Family and goodwill to all humanity. Perhaps not long enough, though, for we need the lion as well as the lamb if they are going to lie down together and a little child lead them. The gospel is both fierceness and fragility. We cannot have Luke's story of the crib if we will not have the crisis this infant's coming brings upon this world.
It is a tough start to the Year of St Luke, and possibly not where Luke would have us begin. It has taken twenty chapters for him to prepare us for this, ‘an orderly account' he says to Theophilus in his prologue, ‘so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed'. Let us take as read for today the stories of Jesus' birth and infancy, his baptism and temptation, his teaching, his parables, his works of power, his disputes with the scribes and Pharisees, his transfiguration, his setting his face towards Jerusalem, his arrival in the city on Palm Sunday and his weeping over it; and above all, the inevitability that hangs over all of this from the day Simeon spoke of the sword that must pierce Mary's heart, that Jesus is destined to suffer and die. We have heard this and been taught it, and we shall gladly hear it again during the liturgical year that begins today. And God willing we shall hear it as if it were fresh and new to us, truly a message of godspell, good news for us and for all our race.
But today's gospel is difficult. We want to know what prompts this outburst of apocalyptic fervour about the ‘end', why Jesus says that ‘this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place'. We want to know where divine mercy belongs in this dies irae when creation cows in terror at the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory. Can this be the same kind Jesus who talks so poignantly about the good Samaritan and the lost sheep and the prodigal son? The preacher must tread warily: these are notorious minefields of New Testament study and I might be wiser to stick to the psalms. But let me, not recklessly I hope, pursue this path, for how we answer these questions will not only colour our celebration of Advent and Christmas but will also shape our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth and what it means to follow him.
I spoke about ‘apocalyptic fervour'. We know that apocalyptic fears, hopes and expectations pervaded the near east in Jesus' time. If we wanted evidence of that outside the New Testament, we only have to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls. ‘Apocalypse' means an unveiling of secret things, in this case, the mysteries of the end time. In the first three gospels, Jesus is answering his disciples' question ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?' That is precisely the concern of apocalyptic, and we find it directly addressed in such books as Daniel and Revelation of which we have been hearing a good deal at evensong in recent weeks. And far from being surprised that Jesus is portrayed as a man much occupied with questions of the end-time, we should expect it. For his teaching is permeated with the announcement that the kingdom of God is coming upon the world as an awesome, life-changing event. God is about to usher in his long-awaited reign. Jesus shows us what it will mean for justice and mercy to be established on the earth, for he lives them out among us and urges his followers to live as if it the kingdom were already here. He teaches us to long and pray for it, to be ready: ‘Thy kingdom come'. And if the human race is unprepared for its appearing, or refuses to acknowledge it, then the kingdom comes as terror as well as magnificence. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
All this is strange to us, who do not expect the world to end with a thunderclap. Stranger still is the prevailing expectation of the first century that it would happen both suddenly and imminently, in the lifetimes of those listening to Jesus. To the apocalyptists, God's was a terribly swift sword. The first three gospels portray Jesus as sharing this belief that the kingdom would come quickly, and that he himself was to be the agent of its appearing. ‘I come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!' he says earlier in the gospel. Many of the parables tell of crises for which their protagonists were not ready because it came upon them when they thought they had plenty of time. ‘If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.' It is true that other parables suggest that the coming of the kingdom might be delayed; and this reflects the situation of the early church recognising that the end had not yet come. Or that the end had already happened in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and a new era of grace had been launched. In this sense, some of those who stood around Jesus as he taught in the temple precinct were witnesses of the very events unfolding a week later which changed the world for ever.
Whatever we make of these things, we can't get away from the apocalyptic Jesus whose purpose is so firmly fixed on the end time and how we prepare for it. I am not going to say that the little apocalypse in this chapter of St Luke warns the world against global conflict or climate change or the other cataclysms whose future shadow falls over us in this uncertain and demanding present, though neither will I say that God's judgment is not present in the decisions we make about the crises we face, for good or ill. But the rhetoric of apocalyptic is fundamentally about what God initiates and completes his final purposes for history and human life. And as a consequence, how we respond, or not, to the kingdom that will one day break in upon our settled, comfortable lives. To be wise is to read his intent in the changes and chances of history and life and begin to recognise the signs of his kingdom of truth and peace.
And that is where, amid our solemn Advent meditation on death, judgment and hell, the light of heaven breaks through. In the eye of the apocalypse, the storm clouds part for a moment, and the wind that rattles the cages of our souls is stilled, and the sun breaks through, and Jesus says to us: when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near'. Advent looked to be dark and menacing. But while it is a time to reflect seriously on things of ultimate significance, this fearful battering of our heart by God is where true hope begins. ‘O'erthrow me and bend your force to break, blow, burn and make me new' says John Donne. It is not exile that Advent proclaims, but our return from a far country, our homecoming.