This Sunday marks the beginning of advent. Advent is about preparation. Are we ready for Christmas? Are we ready to welcome the baby Jesus into our world? Many families in the church have models of Mary and Joseph which move from home to home in this season to remind us to be welcoming and prepared for the birth of Jesus. But, of course, Advent not only celebrates that Jesus came to the earth but also looks forward to his coming again. This is a much more unpredictable event. While we make all the preparations for the birth of the baby on 25th December, we need to ask ourselves, are we prepared for the second coming? When will this be? The Bible reading for this week tells us that we simply don’t know. It could be before the 25th December; it could be tomorrow; it could be tonight! We have recorded for us in Matthew’s gospel the account of Jesus talking to his disciples about this. The advice that Jesus gives is that we need to be permanently prepared. Yes, live our lives to the full without fear but always be conscious that Jesus may return at any moment. When he does, everything else will pale into insignificance. Are we prepared?
The Bible passage assigned to this week may be summarised as “Tidings of Trouble”. Here Jesus lays out the future. It is a difficult passage to understand because there are several themes which combine including: the ‘day of the Lord’ (cosmic upheaval), the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, the second coming and the persecution of the early church. What moved Jesus to prophesy all these things was a comment about the wonder of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus knew it would not always be like this. Without going deeply into what Jesus meant, I think it is possible to identify four things from this enigmatic passage. Firstly, Jesus knew the future was bleak but that did not deter him in the present from doing God’s work. Secondly, Jesus was intensely honest with his disciples and didn’t try to ‘sugar coat’ what was going to happen to them. However, Jesus also pointed out that his disciples will not meet these tribulations alone. He will be with them through the pain. Finally, beyond the pain of this earth there is a heaven where, in Jesus’ words, “not one hair of your head will be harmed.” Yes, sometimes for the Christian things are bad or will be bad. We need only think of our persecuted brothers and sisters in some countries today. The Christian hope remains though, that in the final analysis, if we endure to the end, we will be safe in Christ.
What is the significance of the advent candles? The answer to this question varies according to the different Christian traditions. However, in the UK for churches following the revised common lectionary, the first candle is for all God’s people; the second candle is for the Old Testament prophets; the third candle is for John the Baptist and the fourth candle is for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Does all this matter? The simple answer is no, and yes! Certainly, there is no teaching in the Bible from Jesus or any of the Apostles about advent candles and yet the Church is wise in creating a liturgical year in which God’s people can find rhythm and coherent teaching to develop their faith. This is the fourth Sunday in Advent and therefore the focus this week is on Mary, the mother of Jesus. What is wonderful about Mary is her pure, simple faith and obedience. Perhaps for us, there is nothing more we need to remind ourselves about and learn this Christmas. When God reveals Himself to us through creation, other people, the Bible, the church, circumstances or other more supernatural ways, let us simply say ‘yes’ to his plans, not only this Christmas but for evermore.
Should Christians only perform certain jobs? In the Bible reading assigned to this week, the words of John the Baptist suggest otherwise. In this, the third week of advent we get an insight into what we should be doing when Jesus returns. The answer is simple: we should be about our daily business which God has called us to do. In John’s time, the question was: ‘What should we do?’ Perhaps surprisingly, John deals with two jobs which shored up a pagan Roman empire which suppressed God’s people. John says, in effect, if you are a tax collector, keep collecting taxes – but do it fairly. If you are a soldier, keep soldiering – but do it justly. So it is for us. We are not called to desert our jobs and live in isolation. John Wesley once famously said, ‘The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion’. When Jesus returns, let’s be about the business that God has called us to. Let’s bring glory to the Kingdom of God by doing our jobs to the best of our ability and with as much love, kindness, integrity and professionalism as we can muster.
How do we respond to church members who hold very strong views which cause conflict within the church? How do we respond to neighbours, or colleagues at work, who challenge our way of thinking and make implicit criticisms of the views we hold? I suspect that most of us would shy away from these people, avoid them altogether or even make complaints about them behind their back. This week marks the second Sunday of Advent where the Bible reading assigned focuses on the story of John the Baptist. John the Baptist caused conflict in the church. John the Baptist was the source of division and argument amongst the religious people and their leaders of his day. What about us? How would we treat a ‘John the Baptist like figure’ in our church every Sunday morning? How would we respond to his powerful preaching, his challenges to the lives we live, his call for a radically different approach to God? I suspect a lot of us would be upset; we may even make a complaint to our church leaders. But, of course, this is the whole point. Christianity never was, never is and never will be a ‘walk in the park’ for the rich and respectable. Rather, it is about confession, repentance and obeying God. This is what John the Baptist was saying in the wilderness and it is as true today as it was then.
The week beginning Sunday, 2nd December marks the first Sunday in Advent and the start of a new lectionary year as we transition to the Bible readings of ‘Year C’. The word advent comes from two Latin words ‘Ad’ meaning to, and ‘Vent’ which means coming. Advent is a coming towards. The message of advent is that Jesus came, Jesus still comes, and Jesus will come again. On the first Sunday of advent we focus on this last aspect, the fact that Jesus will come again. The Bible reading assigned to this year is from Luke’s Gospel chapter 21, where we have this warning from Jesus: “Watch out! Don’t let me find you living in careless ease and drunkenness, and filled with the worries of this life.” I am sure that this Christmas we will all be filled with the worries over the economy, the future of our country and, within that, our own futures and the futures of our own families. Jesus’ command is to not let this dominate our lives. There is something more important for all of us. The picture that Jesus paints of these times of His return are times of great uncertainty and great fear. However, for the Christian, there is the hope of escaping all these horrors and standing before the Son of Man. This advent season let us cling to this hope and keep watching out without being distracted from what is going on around us.