Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, 30th November 2014, at St John’s Episcopal Church, West Hartford, Connecticut

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Yesterday I asked your Rector and her Assistant, Hope and Bill, ‘Is today still part of the Thanksgiving season? Or is it the beginning of the run-up to Christmas – Advent?’ I needed a bit of technical advice – both on the Thanksgiving part, and of course also on the theological side.

As you will realise, I can claim to be at all qualified only about the theology. As a mere Englishman I don’t know enough about Thanksgiving – although, as this is my third Thanksgiving here in Hartford, I am getting the hang of it. It’s a lovely time. I have to tell you that at home in England, a supermarket chain, Waitrose, in their in-house newspaper, are claiming that 17% of Brits – yes, Brits – are now celebrating Thanksgiving – or at least having turkey dinners on Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps – and I hope this is not too cynical – this is some variation on the idea of turkeys voting for Christmas, but this time promoted by the farmers.

Hope preached a lovely sermon here on Thursday about remembering: looking back at the year and giving thanks for all the blessings we’ve received. At our Thanksgiving dinner, she went round the table and we all had to tell the others about something we wanted to give thanks for. Both the lovely thoughts the sermon brought out, and our stories round the table, were gentle and kind and good. Good memories, good feelings; real thanksgivings.

But now, as members of Christ’s church, we are called to be in a different mood. The secular world and the Christian one have different calendars here. If we’re not churchgoers, Christmas marks the end of the year, and Christmas, not Thanksgiving, leads to the new year.

But as Christians, Episcopalians, Anglicans, we mark the end of the church year and the beginning of the new one now, just after Thanksgiving, at the end of Ordinary Time, as it’s called in the Lectionary, at the beginning of Advent, today. This is the beginning of a new church year.

And Advent is a season not of unmixed jollification, but of penitence. As Isaiah says, we have rather forgotten God. ‘There is no one who calls on your name.’ We are caught up in Black Friday, and in ‘so-and-so many shopping days to Christmas’.

But if we change our point of view, and see things through the prism of our Christian faith, then Advent is the beginning of a new year, the time of anticipation, looking forward to the Christmas story, to the momentous events which show that God is with us. With Isaiah we say, ‘You are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand’. But God is not just the divine watchmaker, a creator who has simply wound up the mechanism, put it down and let it run, without any further interference. Instead God has become incarnate, become flesh and blood, become a man like us.

So in Advent we are waiting to celebrate the coming of Jesus, the coming of God as a man, that was His first coming. That is certainly something to look forward to, and surely it’s all right to be quite jolly about it. Of course the children – and maybe some of us grown-ups too – get pleasure out of thinking about the nice things they hope to get as presents. But for us the biggest present, the most generous gift, is the one from God, the gift of Jesus.

That should also make us pause and reflect. In the face of this, in the face of the fact that God didn’t just make the world and then ignore it, didn’t just leave it to get on by itself, we have to reflect on the fact that God knows about us, God cares about us. What do we look like to Him? What sort of shape are we in to meet God? That’s why Advent is a time for reflection, for penitence.

Just after my sermon we will say the Creed together. We will say, ‘He will come again’. Jesus will come again. We will pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come’. In both cases, we will imply that Jesus, and Jesus’ kingdom, haven’t come yet. The coming of the Kingdom, the Second Coming is still ahead.

Jesus talked about these things in his sermon which we heard in our Gospel reading today. ‘Lo! he comes, with clouds descending’ as Charles Wesley’s great hymn, which we just sang, puts it. The last trump, the Day of Judgment, the end of the world.

Now I suspect that for most of us that’s a vivid image, a powerful picture – but nothing really more than that. In any case Jesus must surely have been mistaken when He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’: even if we don’t actually contradict that, or reject it, we are tempted not to try to understand it at all. It’s too far-fetched.

But Jesus clearly did want us to keep it at the front of our minds, not at the back. ‘Wachet auf! (‘Keep awake!’) as the music at the beginning and end of the service says. ‘Keep awake, the voice is calling’. There might even be a contradiction between Jesus’ first statement, that ‘this generation will not pass away’ until the end time has come, and His second statement that ‘about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’

What would you do if you encountered the risen Jesus, now? To put it another way, are we right to keep all this talk of the Kingdom of God conveniently separated from our normal lives? Are we right to think of it as something that might happen in thousands of years, but definitely not something that will happen to us? Can we be absolutely sure about that?

Jesus definitely wanted to make us less certain. I would suggest that He wasn’t necessarily talking about a Second Coming which was all in the future. Remember the wonderful passage in St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, when Jesus has come in his glory to judge the nations, dividing the sheep from the goats; and He says to the righteous people, the good sheep who are going to heaven, to eternal life, ‘I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in.’ They didn’t understand. ‘When did we do all this?’ they asked. ‘And the King shall answer and say unto them, “… Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”‘

How really important that is. It means that in one sense, the Second Coming, the Kingdom of God, has actually happened already. Jesus is with us. He is in everyone we meet. If you do it to someone else, you do it to Jesus. You may have difficulty believing in some kind of supernatural Flash Gordon riding on the clouds. But you’d be far less wise to rule out seeing the Holy Spirit in the people you meet.

So do keep awake. Look out for someone who is ‘an hungred’, hungry; someone who has no clothes; who is sick, or in prison. But I would dare to say, don’t worry about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. No-one knows when they will be coming. Have a happy and blessed end to the Thanksgiving holiday, and I pray that this time of Advent will be for you a time of prayerful – and joyful – expectation.

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