Sermon for Advent Sunday 2018
2nd Dec 2018
HOLY CROSS CHURCH, CROMER STREET 2018
Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen. Luke 21.36
The season of Advent, unlike any other season in the Church’s year, involves us in a waiting mode of being. I overheard a child in Tesco the other day saying to her brother “I can’t wait for Christmas!”. In her eyes I could glimpse how children are caught up in the excitement of waiting. It’s a wonderful, suspenseful kind of waiting, and a prolonged wait, peppered for the child with all kinds of promise and of course, gratification.
But for adults waiting can often be a much less ecstatic business. Gratification must be deferred or refused for the sake of the good. When I think about waiting my mind turns to hospitals. Patients (well named) start the day waiting for early breakfasts, for the bed to be made and for the doctor to come on his rounds. They wait for the result of tests and appointments and surgery or to be sent home; some even await their own death. One of the great theological books written on the theme of waiting is Bill Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. In it Jesus is seen above all else as one who waits; most clearly seen in the Garden of Gethsemane as one who waits and holds on with all the fearfulness and the terror of his own position in the waiting. He is waiting in the midst of his own vulnerability and exposure and helplessness. When I think of Jesus, I think of him waiting, of him trusting, of him waiting, open and vulnerable and exposed.
But we do not wait in a vacuum. We wait in time and we wait on God. As time goes by we experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, expressed ominously in this morning’s Gospel, to ‘pray at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. I think we would rather not know what might happen to us, yet we must face the possibility that we might be severely tested. The writer of Ecclesiastes (3.1) reminds us that ”there is a time for everything under the sun” and the Season of Advent has a quality of expectation of what is to come. We are urged not to be afraid. Praying for strength to survive may be seen as an act of human survival itself. Remaining faithful in a real and spiritual awakenness to the surrounding realities is the mark of the Christian character. It echoes St Paul's definition of that faith which will outlast the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and which "...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things". (1 Corinthians 13.7-8).
When Christians wait they wait in faith and hope, and not as though it waiting were useless. Advent is calling us to wait in the hope of the coming of Christ. We have, in the words of Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘great expectations’ and so as we begin this Advent season we are already catching small glimmers of what is to be revealed to us. And our weekly Sunday Bible class this Advent of 2018 will remind us of those who in scripture tradition have committed themselves to waiting. Waiting while God has seen fit to bless their destinies from what seem at first hidden starting places. But their very modest circumstances combine with the magnificence of their utterances. Their witness enlarges our knowledge of who God is and what his purposes reveal in Abraham and Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist and ultimately Our Lady, Mary, Mother of God and bearer of God.
For now this Holy Season of Advent points to the hard fact of patient waiting; the waiting in faith while something greater is being unfolded. Waiting in God’s time. In an age in which a vast amount of choice is available to us. In an age in which temporary gratification is satisfied in so many ways and in an age in which communication is instantaneous and abbreviated we are too often urged to live our lives without the inconvenience of contemplative or useless waiting. Instead we are bewildered with the luxury of too much choice and gratification which turns out to be unsatisfying. The refusal of waiting can lead to a numbing of the senses. A kind of awful dulling or sleeping. There ought to be times when we lay this refusal to one side and consider the place where truer life is to be found. Meister Eckhart wishes for expression of God’s affirmation to make sense, and so he says,
"Nothing is so like God as silence".
When we appreciate this we awaken ourselves to God’s presence. Advent speaks to us of the gradual unfolding of the divine disclosure as this morning one of our children lit the first candle on the Advent wreath. This is a small but vivid marking of that time which will lead us back to God. We are being called to wait. Not in a state of dull abjection but on the God who speaks to us in silence and who awakens the soul.
So, then let us wait; and let us pray; let us wait, and thus awakened, let us see…
Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following him, we may depart from anxiety into his presence. W H Auden.