Preached 3 December 2000 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
I wonder if I’m the only person here who finds that Gospel reading a bit disturbing. Well, quite a lot disturbing actually. Uncomfortable. And inappropriate almost. After all, this is the First Sunday of Advent. This is the Sunday when I thought I could, at last, allow myself to get into the mood that all the high street retailers have been trying to get me in since about September! This is the Sunday when I can sort of “switch on” the Christmas lights inside my head. I mean, three weeks today and it’s Christmas Eve! Except that now, having turned up here at church ready for a good-old Yuletide sing-song, what do I hear? Doom and gloom. Distress on earth. Men fainting with fear. Portents in the stars. Heaven shaken. Apocalyptic visions of a “son of man coming on a cloud”.
What’s going on? What’s happened to the silent night? The little town of Bethlehem? The babe in the manger? The shepherds? No mention of them! No carols. No Christmas tree. No crib. Nothing but a special candle. As Victor Meldrew might say, “I do not believe it!” Can’t the church even organise Advent? Well, yes, of course it can. But the church knows that Advent is not just to do with Christmas, though that might be what’s uppermost in most people’s minds. It’s much more than that, as this definition makes plain: “Advent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the first coming of Christ at Christmas and also a time for self-examination in expectation of Christ’s second coming.”
“A time for self-examination in expectation of Christ’s second coming.” That’s the theme of our service this morning. But how to tackle it? Well towards the end of our service, after the Eucharist, David will (I hope) be reading today’s post-Communion prayer; and I’ve decided that because that prayer so beautifully summarises what today is all about, I’ll let it provide the framework for our thoughts. Here is the prayer:
O Lord our God,
make us watchful and keep us faithful
as we await the coming of your Son our Lord
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Watchful and faithful. Has it ever struck you that we are all, without exception, watchful when someone is expected but hasn’t yet arrived? Last Saturday John and Jen Dening were coming for a meal and they were due at 6.30 for 7 and by 6.45 they still hadn’t arrived. Unbeknown to me, they’d been delayed by a phone call just as they were leaving their house, but every few minutes I kept going to the window and peeking out of the curtains. Where were they?
Watchful! Are we watchful for Jesus’ coming? I remember just before the start of one of our Thursday night fellowships a year or two ago standing with Jenny Medley looking out of our front window. It was one of those wonderful flaming sunsets where the sky seemed on fire and the clouds were like rolling banks of gold. And I remember Jenny saying, “Jesus will come again out of a sunset just like that from just over there.” It was the precision of her “from just over there” that grabbed me!
Watchful, waiting! How many of us truly believe in, watch for, are waiting for the coming of Jesus? It’s not easy is it, because our expectation has grown dim? I mean, although Jesus promised that he would return — and actually spent quite a lot of his short time on earth talking about his return — two thousand years have now passed without a hint that it might ever actually happen. So why should we give the idea even the slightest credence today?
If that’s what your thinking, you’re not the first to have thought it. Indeed, Christians were thinking it within about 25 years of Jesus departing this earth. “Where is the promise of his coming?” they said. And this was Peter’s reply: “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Think about it. On that reckoning, only two days have passed in heaven since Jesus first came to earth. But now, of course, we’re in God’s third day, the third millennium. And, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, God’s rather fond of doing things on the third day!
Look at this. It’s a twig, plucked today (with her permission) from a buddleia bush in Renee’s next door garden. It was pruned back to bare branches only a couple of month’s ago, and look! See what these are? New leaves. We are only just into winter, but here already is the promise of summer. Will summer ever come? “Look at the leaves,” said Jesus in this morning’s Gospel. “When you see them appearing know that summer is near. And in just the same way,” he went on, “when you see things going from bad to worse on earth, know that the kingdom is on its way.”
Does it scare us when we hear of melting ice caps, vanishing ozone layers, global warming, catastrophic climate changes? Of course it does. This is our world and we care about it and for the youngsters who are just starting to grow up in it. But if we take seriously what Jesus is saying to us, we should also see in all these things increasingly clear signs that the end is near; that he is about to return — in power and majesty and great glory. And — for believers at any rate — that is not a cause for fear. On the contrary: because “the end” is when Jesus returns for us, it is actually “the beginning” — the beginning of what C S Lewis was pleased to call “Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
So … “make us watchful”, Lord. Make us watchful. But not just watchful … faithful too. O Lord our God, make us watchful and keep us faithful. But what does “faithful” mean? The rest of this lovely post-Communion Advent Sunday prayer unpacks it for us. That when he shall appear he may not find us sleeping in sin but active in his service.
The prayer clearly has the thirteenth chapter of Mark’s gospel in mind. There, Jesus is once more talking about the time when he will come again, and he says this: “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work. Watch therefore … lest he come suddenly and find you asleep” (Mark 13:36).
Part of being faithful is getting on with the jobs that the master has given us to do in his absence — being active in his service as the prayer puts it — and not kicking off our shoes and curling up on the couch for a good long kip in the belief that he’ll not be back for ages — sleeping in sin. But there is a danger that we shall let ourselves off the hook a little too easily on this one if we think of “sleeping in sin” solely in terms of doing nothing. What the prayer calls “sleeping in sin” may actually involve quite a bit of activity, but activity which is, unfortunately, of quite the wrong sort. Let me explain what I mean.
Many years ago I worked briefly for a firm of accountants in Leeds called Wheewill and Sudworth. I was part of an audit team and the audit teams were located in a building linked to the main building by a glass-sided walk-way. And the walkway was clearly visible from the audit-team’s building. But all the partners — the bosses — were in the main building, so you can probably guess what happened in the audit block can’t you?
At various times during the day, when people got bored, an office junior would be posted as a lookout, keeping watch for any partner who might come across the walkway, and the principal activity in the audit room would then become table football played with straws and a ping-pong ball. Now in the terms of this little prayer we’re looking at, that was “sleeping in sin” too. Being unfaithful. In this case, cheating the partners by neglecting the rightful task.
And that’s something I believe that we Christians can fall into if we’re not careful. We can all too easily engage in “spiritual table football” instead of getting on with the real business of the Kingdom in the Master’s absence. And what is the real business of the Kingdom? You know it as well as I do. The teaching of Jesus is full of it. Open the gospels almost anywhere and you’ll find it. But in Romans 12 the apostle Paul gives a fair summary: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them … Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil. So far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.”
If we want to know how to be active in service, that’ll do for starters. But being “active in service” is, according to this little prayer, only one side of the coin of the “faithfulness” expected of us as we await Jesus’ coming. And the other side of the coin may have surprised us. Can you remember what it is from when I read the prayer out earlier? It is being “joyful in praise”.
O Lord our God, make us watchful and keep us faithful as we await the coming of your Son our Lord that, when he shall appear, he may not find us sleeping in sin but active in his service and joyful in his praise.
I like that very much. We may be tempted to think that so long as we get on with the job Jesus has given us to do — walking the walk and talking the talk — it doesn’t matter too much what sort of spirit we do it in.
But this prayer makes it very clear that it does matter — very much indeed. When Jesus comes again he doesn’t want to find a church full of fed-up drudges — he wants a church full of joyful praisers. And just in case we are a little hard of hearing so far as that message is concerned, the Bible repeats it for us over 200 times. “Praise the Lord,” it thunders. But why? Is God so insecure that he needs to be constantly reminded of how great he is? Not a bit of it. He doesn’t need our praises, but we need to give them to him, because somehow the very practice of giving God praise unlocks our lives to his power and presence in a way that nothing else can. And it aligns us with God in a way that enables him to work in and through us far more effectively than would otherwise be the case.
That great 18th Century clergyman William Law wrote this: “Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world? It is not he who prays most or fasts most; it is not he who gives most alms, or is most eminent for temperance, chastity, or justice; but it is he who is always thankful to God, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness, and has a heart always ready to praise God for it. If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness, and all perfection, he must tell you to make a rule to yourself, to thank and praise God for everything that happens to you.”
Active in service. Joyful in God’s praise. The two sides of the coin of faithfulness. Which should be rubbing together with the coin of watchfulness in every Christian’s pocket or purse this Advent.
O Lord our God, make us watchful and keep us faithful
as we await the coming of your Son our Lord
that, when he shall appear, he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service and joyful in his praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.