The week beginning Sunday, 29th November is the first week in Advent. This marks the beginning of the season of the year when many families start opening Advent calendars. Inside will be pictures of Christmas trees, holly, Christmas stockings, a robin red breast and an intimidating snowman. Does this cover the meaning of Advent? The word ‘advent’ comes from two Latin words: coming and towards. The Advent message is a ‘coming towards’ and can be split into three parts. Firstly, Jesus came as a baby; secondly, Jesus is still coming to us today through the Holy Spirit and, finally, Jesus will come again in the future. For most people in Guildford and, indeed, around the world, their understanding of Advent is the story of Jesus coming as a baby to a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. However, the first Sunday in Advent focuses not on this, but rather on His second coming. The Bible passage assigned to this week is the ‘signs at the end of the age’. This is recorded in Mark’s Gospel chapter 13 and verses 24 to 37 and it focuses on a very different aspect of Advent to the common perception of Advent as a crib scene. This Bible passage highlights that Jesus’ second coming to the earth will be very unlike the first. It will not be as a tiny vulnerable baby born to a scared teenager in poverty but, rather, in glory and judgement on the whole earth. Nobody likes judgement. To be judged by an awesomely powerful and perfect God is even more terrifying. With regard to the pictures in the advent calendar, it is probably best not to frighten children with stars falling from the sky and the solar system shaking. However, and thankfully, Jesus has already given us one of his watertight promises: “whoever comes to me I will never drive away”. Thank God for this. Perhaps this is the real joy of Christmas. God is with us, Emmanuel, and if God is with us nothing can come against us – not even an intimidating snowman!
Old Testament reading for this week: Isaiah 64:1-9
Gospel reading for this week: Mark 13:24-37
Epistle reading for this week: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Psalm for this week: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
What does it feel like to be chosen – to be chosen by family, friends, work colleagues or others we respect? What does it feel like to be chosen by God? The theme of the Bible reading this week is fundamentally one of being chosen. God chose humanity, God chose the people of Israel, God chose Mary and Joseph. That is the Christmas message. What did it feel like to Mary and Joseph to be given the baby Jesus to care for and raise? It must have felt like a mixture between terrifying and an indescribable honour. In the Bible we also read that we have been chosen to belong to Jesus Christ. Two initial thoughts spring from this. Firstly, how should we feel about this slightly terrifying but indescribable honour and, secondly, we might ask the question, what have we been chosen for? As we journey through this Christmas season into the new year, our prayer is that we might marvel at what God has done for us and discern his true purpose for our lives.
How spiritually fortunate are we? In the Bible reading for this week we have Jesus’ words about John the Baptist. What was the significance of John the Baptist? Was he more significant than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and all the minor prophets? Crucially, was he more significant than Elijah? Jewish custom was that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return. Elijah represented the prophets in Judaism as Moses represented the Law. Was John the Baptist greater than any of these? What does Jesus say? Jesus says that John was more than a prophet – more than anyone that came before. Yet, equally interestingly, Jesus says that the least in the Kingdom of God will be greater than John the Baptist. What does this mean? Perhaps Jesus is alluding to the fact that unlike us, John never knew the breadth of God’s love revealed in the cross. John died before Jesus’ passion and resurrection. John knew about judgement, destruction and the need for repentance but he didn’t know the other side of God’s gracious love and forgiveness revealed in the cross. What about us? How fortunate are we? We know about the meaning of the cross. We have a fuller picture of what God is like. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension we have the complete jig-saw of what God is like. John had this in part, but not fully. How spiritually fortunate are we?
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.