Isaiah 64.1-9; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37
As the song that first Perry Como and then Johnny Mathis and now Michael Buble have sung puts it so neatly and accurately
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Ev'rywhere you go.
The tree is up, there are lights twinkling in the link, the Christmas Market has been underway since Friday and on the 1st December, as soon as the first door of the Advent Calendar was opened, we welcomed Barnardo’s here for two carol concerts and the strains of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ were heard reverberating around the Cathedral for the first of what will be many, many times. ‘It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas’ but it’s not Christmas it’s Advent and as excited as I am and as desperate as I am to get the Deanery decorated and Christmas properly underway I have to remind myself, as much as remind you, that on this Advent Sunday, the first day of the new Christian year, we’re entering into some precious and special days.
But it’s hard to resist all the pressure that’s upon us and there’s always the fear that if we talk too loudly about Advent to other people we’re in danger of looking like King Canute sitting on the shore in the face of the advancing waves.
Some many years ago the Access credit card, which has now disappeared, ran with the advertising slogan ‘Takes the waiting out of wanting.’ You may remember it – I think it was at the time when we were just beginning to discover the joys of our flexible friend – the credit card, when it was a novelty to get a Barclaycard or an Access card and when the salesperson had to run the thing through some machine that made an impression of it on a piece of carbonated paper.
It was great – you didn’t need to save any longer, you didn’t have to miss out on a bargain, you could have what you wanted when you wanted it, you could buy now and pay later and it made all that waiting a thing of the past.
But instead, we want to make a virtue out of waiting, we want to celebrate what’s so often seen as a waste of time, of miserable hopelessness, in the queue, being held on the phone, watching the Microsoft wheel go round and round, reading the sign ‘wait in the departure lounge’; the church on Advent Sunday is saying to people ‘wait’ because as the prophet Isaiah said to the people of Israel
‘[God] works for those who wait for him.’
We’re not waiting with a sense of hopelessness such as you have on a motorway in a queue of traffic, red lights extending as far as the eye can see, with no sense of movement, hopeless, but we wait with the very opposite, we wait with Advent hope, we wait with Advent anticipation, we wait with Advent eagerness, we wait with Advent desire and excitement and it’s all of that which enables us to do as Jesus calls on his disciples to do, to ‘keep awake’.
Those two words resound through the Gospel reading for this Sunday. Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem, to the sound of singing and rejoicing. Garments and palm branches had been spread on the ground before the feet of the little donkey on which he rode into the city. The people cried out words that we repeat and echo in each Eucharist
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
And Jesus had gone straight into the temple and overturned the tables there and it all seemed to be kicking off – just what they’d been waiting for – it was all, finally happening. And then as quickly as they’d arrived they were back out of the city, back onto the mountain they’d just come down, the Mount of Olives, and they were sitting there with Jesus looking at the city spread before them with its magnificent temple at it’s heart and Jesus was telling them that they were to look for the day and they were to keep awake.
The irony is that just a few days later they were all back on that mountain again, having once more left the city and the room where bread had been broken and the new wine of the kingdom shared and they’d come out into this same olive grove and although Jesus said to them again ‘Keep awake, watch’, they fell asleep.
Keep awake, watch, wait, these are the Advent themes and though for the disciples and though for us it might feel and look as though we’ve arrived yet we’re still in that delicious waiting time.
Thomas Traherne was an Anglican priest of the seventeenth century writing at a similar time and in a similar metaphysical style to that of George Herbert and John Donne, though often much less well known. In a poem that he wrote, called ‘The Anticipation’, he says this
Wants are the fountains of Felicity;
No joy could ever be
Were there no want. No bliss,
No sweetness perfect, were it not for this.
Want is the greatest pleasure
Because it makes all treasure.
O what a wonderful profound abyss
Is God! In whom eternal wants and treasures
Are more delightful since they both are pleasures.
The idea that there’s pleasure to be had in wanting, a fountain of felicity in the very act of waiting, of anticipation, is precisely what we’re celebrating today, in these four Sundays that this year will deliver us directly to Christmas Eve.
But we’re not without as we play this waiting game. St Paul writing to the Christians in Corinth makes this clear
‘You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
We don’t lack anything, grace still abounds, the Lord is with us as we at the same time wait for his appearing. That is why these days, these times are productive and not wasted, that is why these are days of action not of inaction, for these are kingdom building days.
If Advent were just about getting ready for Christmas then it would be simple – get the presents bought and the turkey ordered and all will be well. But that’s only part of the story and unfortunately that’s the part of the story that’s so attractive and which makes it feel ‘a lot like Christmas’.
The more difficult aspect of this season is the looking forward to, the anticipation of those end times that Jesus describes to those disciples who thought that it was all already happening. Jesus is telling us there’s a job to be done as we look for the signs, for the green shoots on the fig tree, there’s the job of bringing in the kingdom.
It’s something that we pray for all the time and will do in just a few moments before we make our communion together, for Jesus told those same disciples and us to pray
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven
And it’s those final words that are so critical.
However we voted in last year’s referendum we’re all in this unsettling waiting period as we watch with degrees of frustration and anger as divorce bills are settled, as the Irish problem becomes a problem once more, as foreign nationals wait to hear their fate, as trade is surrounded by uncertainty, as the currency and the economy struggle. This morning’s news that Alan Milburn and other members of Social Mobility Commission resign is just another indicator of the situation that we face as the government has taken its eye of the issues of social mobility and equality. This is a hard period of waiting for every one of us, wherever we stand on these issues.
The question that we must face as Christians on this Advent Sunday, as we enter this new year, is what are we doing to build the kind of society that we want our nation to be, a society that reflects the values of the kingdom of God, inside or outside of Europe. It’s a task that won’t wait, a task to which we must be awake and alert, a task to which we are all called.
It might look like Christmas but it isn’t, this is Advent and there are things that we must do whilst we wait for the star to settle over Bethlehem and in the strength of this meal we can do them.