I saw a little book of religious cartoons the other day – in fact it was Frank and Ernest’s ‘Short History of the World’ – and somebody asks Methuselah what it’s like living to 900 and he says not bad really, except for the déjà vu.
Is it just me, or does anybody else have this nagging feeling we’ve been here before? It’s Advent Sunday and everything is going into overdrive. Shopping centres are open all day, the tinsel is out in force, armies of Santas are waking up and going to work. Advertising agencies are moving into overdrive as they work out how to re-sell the age-old Christmas message that too much of a good thing is never enough. Just in case the full spirit of bonhomie hasn’t yet dawned on you, Australia Post will be reminding you soon that the overseas mail has closed before you’re remotely ready, and you’ve probably double-booked yourself for one or other of the interminable round of break-up functions.
Yes, it’s the season to be jolly - except just to be different, the Church says bah humbug. No, the lectionary readings seem to be assuring us, it’s the season for thinking about the world falling apart. For me, there always seems to be a wonderful disconnect between the secular calendar and the Church’s calendar at this time of year, a wonderful parallel universe kind of splitting off. Actually, the Church isn’t being a stick-in-the-mud – we are every bit as caught up in the mood of expectation as the retail giants are – but maybe what we are expecting is just a bit more nuanced, just a bit harder to pin down. Welcome to Advent.
Have you ever wondered why the short season of Advent begins – not with backward-looking predictions about the birth of Jesus – which is to say the memory of the ancient world’s expectation of God’s breaking in to human history – but a look forwards? With slightly scary hints of cosmic mutations and vague over-the-top promises of the future fulfilment of all things – ambiguous promises of the once and future reign of Christ? Advent’s watchwords are waiting and preparation – but what are we actually waiting for? What are we preparing for? Something that happened 2,000 years ago? Or something here and now? something that might just affect our own lives and change the world we live in? Advent is subversive, not an exercise in misty-eyed nostalgia but a bold declaration that the time of God’s visitation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is not the end of the story but the beginning. Not just the celebration of an ancient, long-anticipated messiah, but the down-payment on the future hope of all creation. And so I want to suggest three things about Advent by way of orienting us to its claim on us this year.
The first thing maybe sounds obvious. That Advent is about waiting for Jesus. The Jesus whose long-ago birth we wait to celebrate on - let’s fce it, a fairly arbitrary date - and also the Jesus who tells us in no uncertain language to expect to encounter him again. I often think it’s a pity that Mark and Luke in particular include these cryptic and vaguely suggestive passages in a style often favoured by ancient writers when they wanted to say, or at least suggest, more than they knew they could get away with. This passage from Mark isn’t actually a divine warning about the end of the world, no matter what some Christian interpreters of our own time would have us believe. However, he is pointing toward events that at the time of writing around 64AD while Roman troops in Judea put down the latest messianic uprising with their usual ruthless brutality were still some years in the future. Many Jews, including Jewish Christians, would have been waiting for God to act, to intervene to protect his people. Many probably believed the world really was ending. The destruction of the Temple in 70AD was in some ways just the logical conclusion of the process by which the might of Rome crushed not only hopes of political independence but much of the apparatus of the Jewish religion as well. It was the end of Temple worship and the sacrificial system, and historically provided the impetus for two major streams of religious reform in the Holy Land. One was emergence the rabbinical system, Judaism as we know it today; the other was the separation of Christianity as a separate religion.
But Jesus description of the terror of this time of war are deliberately separated from, not joined to, his promise to return. ‘After these things’, he says. And I think the point is– despite our temptations to believe otherwise – that wars and the rumours of wars are not the means by which God’s intentions come to fruition. God’s priorities are not revealed in the most frightful things that human beings do to one another, but in the difficult struggle for peace and the costly exercise of mercy and compassion. God never exercises power the way the leaders of the world do, and thank heaven for that – not in Jesus earthly ministry shaped by humble, self-giving love – and not in any future re-run either.
This is important, because if for Mark’s generation the war was a false sign of the end of all things, then our own world has got its own plethora of false signs. Wars and the rumours of wars, global capitalism that increases inequality and keeps whole populations in poverty, climate change with its dreadful companions: bushfire and drought and flooding and plague– big worries for sure, but not signs that God is about to blow the whistle and end the game.
So it’s not about giving up and hoping that God will pop through the sky and sort it all out. I think that this view of the second coming is fundamentally mistaken, and the reason it’s mistaken is because it doesn’t take the first coming seriously. It doesn’t take seriously Jesus’ promise to be with us always. Maybe the second coming happens for us when we finally learn to recognise what the Spirit of Christ has been doing in our world all along, when we finally learn to recognise where God’s purposes and God’s priorities for forgiveness and compassion are being made concrete, and where the priority of self-interest is being exchanged for the priority of self-giving love. Sometimes that is in Christian communities. Other times we see the Spirit of Christ active in the world in places and among people we least expect. Always when we recognise it, the challenge is for us to begin to imitate the way of Jesus ourselves, to exchange the logic of ‘what do I want and what do I need?’ for the logic of ‘how does this person need my compassion?’
Which brings me to my second point, which is that Advent is dangerous. Because Advent implies the insistence that all is not right with the world. Our readings this morning kind of make that point, don’t they? Does anyone need to be convinced of this – that all is not right with our world? And insisting on hope, insisting that we need to live in hope for God’s purposes and priorities to be revealed – pretty much implies we think that the old systems, the business as usual priorities, aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. So, the claims of Advent are meant to rattle and disconcert the powers of this world, meant to challenge all who benefit from exploitative and domineering forms of power.
Except – as Christians we can’t get too comfortable. Because this really is one of those situations where the one finger pointing elsewhere means four more pointing back at you. And at me. If all isn’t right with the world, how complacent can we be that all is right with us? Do we stand accused by our own material comfort and security in a world where the comfort of the few implies the poverty of the many? Does Advent indict us of not caring enough about justice, because deep down we know we ourselves are the beneficiaries of this world’s inequity? Does Advent indict us of complacency? How might the world be different, just if we loved as much as we say we should? Yes, Advent is dangerous.
And my third and final point about Advent is that it is busy. Way busier than it looks, don’t be fooled by the Church’s practice of silence and the deep purple of this season’s vestments. Waiting and watching for Jesus in our midst is not about passivity or restful inactivity, but about perceptiveness and learning to process reality in a new way. What is in mind in this passage from Mark’s Gospel is the sort of waiting that already knows full well who it is whose coming is expected, and that understands that the one who is coming might need to be born - in us. The sort of waiting, in other words, that implies a willingness to be transformed, and an active cooperation with the infinitesimal processes of the Spirit at work in us.
Actually, the message for the first week of Advent is the same message we’ve been hearing in different ways for the last few weeks. Stay alert! If you’ve nodded off, now might be the time to wake up! Yes, like Methuselah we have been this way before but this time God just might be telling us something new - get ready to encounter the one who is coming and who might just change your world.