First Sunday of Advent
Revd Dr Susan Blackall 2 December 2018
Today we’re celebrating the first Sunday in Advent.
But we could be forgiven for not noticing its arrival – given all the flurry around us in events, instructions, offers, buy one get one free and other commercial blandishments, all conspiring to draw us earlier and earlier each year into the celebrations of Christmas. Indeed, even someone who had only heard of Advent and wondered what it was could easily be led in the direction of all this rabid consumerism. I once searched for Advent on Google and the links highest up the results page include these encouragements : Buy Advent, Save on Advent, Advent Discounts, Download Advent.No, this was not the Church of England desperately trying to boost its clergy pension fund by cashing in on the liturgical season. Advent was apparently a brand of computer software!
Advent is, of course, not at all about these frenzied and wholly worldly things. Rather, it is the start of the Church year.
And, perhaps not dissimilarly to our practice of making resolutions for improving our lives at the start of the secular calendar year in January – Advent is a time for inner examination, reflection and preparation. A time of prayerful journeying towards the light of – not just a new year, but a new life of committed faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.
In particular, as its name indicates, Advent, the Latin for coming is a time for remembering with extra focus and thankfulness the coming together of heaven and earth in the person of Jesus, God with us, our Saviour for our journey in this life and beyond.
And also a time for looking forward to his coming again at the Last time, when the whole earth will be redeemed and restored for all eternity, fit to be fully part of the Kingdom of God. Advent is a season to contemplate the significance and meaning of these comings of God among us and his continuing purpose in the power of the Spirit to sustain our coming to him.A theme picked up in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, encouraging them – and us – to strive to live lives in way of the Lord. Giving primacy, as Jesus himself did, to love of God and neighbour.
And this theme appears again, in Luke’s Gospel, where we see a vision of end times and hear the exhortation to live as rightly as possible, so that there’ll be in us enough of a heart of genuine love that the Lord will recognise us as made in his image, when we come before him as our Judge.
Traditionally, then, this is a time to focus on Last Things : death, judgement, heaven and hell.
Death itself may be scary enough to skirt over it quickly, but I’d guess that Judgement is the thing we don’t really allow ourselves to dwell on very long. Like the end of the fallen creation, no one knows exactly what it’s going to be like. It remains in many ways uncertain. And we fear it.
But it’s worth asking ourselves why we do this.
It’s because, I think, we tend to think of judgement in the only terms we know, from human experience : associating it with humiliation, punishment, retribution, and pain. Because that’s largely how human beings execute judgement on one another – emotionally, physically and legalistically.
We see and hear this every day in the media. We receive it ourselves. And we inflict it on others, at least to some degree, even if only in our hearts and minds – our judgements on those we perceive to have wronged us, or of whom we disapprove. It happens all the time in this world. But it’s not always the case, even in human contexts. Especially in the context of reconciliation. Of admitting to wrong doing, asking forgiveness, receiving it – and also genuinely offering it to one another. It does take two, both sides. Like a ceasefire and then some. Healing relationships.
And this doesn’t just apply to those who’ve committed or been victims of terrible offences, though it may include them.
Indeed, as many violent criminals have related, being able to admit to their acts can be a great release. As the saying goes : ‘a burden shared is a burden halved’, when confessing to another human being. A burden lifted when we confess our sins to God. For, as we say in the Prayer Book confession : ‘the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable’. That’s why the Anglican tradition continues to offer the sacrament of reconciliation – of making a confession and receiving absolution through the power of the Holy Spirit in private. It’s not required. We may all do this day by day in prayer and in our shared worship together, as when we use the Lord’s prayer. But it’s available as an additional access to God’s grace and forgiveness. As our tradition tells us, engaging in formal confession is something which : all may, none must, some should. It’s our choice.
To my mind, and supported by what I read in scripture, the Lord’s judgement of us at his coming again at the Last Time will be something like this. Not like our typical limited, human ways of judging each other. To ascribe that sort of judgement to God is put our limits on him when he has none. Indeed, it puts limits on God which don’t even constrain us as mortal human beings when we live in the way of the Lord.Instead, I believe that the Lord’s judgement will be more complete and more fully healing than any act of confession or reconciliation that we can share as human beings. Because he knows all the secrets of our hearts. Even our failings that we aren’t aware of ourselves, or hide from ourselves. And we’re all rather good at that!
God is able to see these in us and forgive them. And, through Jesus, he also takes on himself – not just a shared half – but the whole burden of our sin. He has become our Saviour and will be our Judge. To set us free. So when we come before him as our Judge, I don’t think it’ll be like any earthly judicial experience. It won’t be a penal judgement, or torture, or rejection, or isolation. It’ll be something more like what we receive from the medical profession – a limited but perhaps helpful analogy. Today, modern medicine can discern both the physical problems we’re aware of and those that lie hidden, by searching us with blood tests and scans and xrays. And modern medicine, to put right what is diseased or damaged or missing, can offer us medicines and therapies and surgeries to remove and repair and replace. These treatments can be very uncomfortable, even painful. But we receive them gladly because they put us right. These treatments are not forced on us. We choose them.
That, I believe is what the Lord’s judgement will be like. He’ll see all our sins and failings, consciously known to us or hidden. And, if we’re willing, he’ll take them on himself and heal us and restore us to his likeness.
It may be a painful process. And our resurrected bodies may bear the marks of our sins like the scars of surgery. But even as the risen Lord bears the marks of the nails and the sword in his own body, these marks will be to us wonderful signs of God’s healing power, beyond all human imagining.
That’s why, I think, in the Book of Revelation, in chapter 22, we hear of the new Jerusalem in the new creation after the Last Time, and of water of the river of life, with the trees of the life standing on either side. And we hear that the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.
Those leaves are for us. They’re for healing. They’re the loving gift of our Lord’s judgement. And we only need to prepare ourselves as best we can. Not to be perfect. But simply to say ‘yes’.
To say ‘yes’ in this season of Advent. And throughout the whole of our journey through this mortal life.
No one who turns to the Lord and says ‘yes’ will be refused.
And so I leave you with a little story that might help you remember that.
One time, as the school term drew toward the Easter break, a teacher was talking with her class of seven year olds about Holy Week. And especially about Good Friday and Easter Day. Then one child asked her : ‘What happened to Jesus after he died and before Easter Day? Where did he go?’
As she paused to consider how best to answer this, a small boy put up his hand. ‘Yes?’ she asked him, thinking he had another question.
But instead, he had an answer. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘Jesus went down to hell. To get his friend Judas.’
The Lord’s judgement is deep, thorough, cleansing, healing and above all, loving and forgiving. It is open to all.
The Lord’s judgement is not to be feared. But to be deeply longed for.
May that be our prayer this Advent.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.