Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Advent: Sunday 29 November 2009
29 November 2009 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon of Westminster
I rather imagine that there is no time in the year when Biblical images sit more uncomfortably with our present way of looking at the world than at Advent. The oldest of the passages we have just heard in the readings for today, from Jeremiah, perhaps presents the least problem. His picture that one day a righteous branch would spring forth for David to execute justice and righteousness in the land is easier for us to understand in the light of the life of Jesus. Whether that is entirely what Jeremiah meant is, of course, another matter, but at least Jeremiah’s picture does not strain our credulity.
Neither, I suppose, does the passage from 1 Thessalonians: ‘May he establish your hearts unblamable before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all the saints.’ We may wonder exactly what the last part of that verse means, but we can see the point of exhorting people to love one another as happens earlier in the passage and so we can gloss over that last part. But if you read on in that letter to the Thessalonians the pictures of Jesus returning become more elaborate, with ‘the Lord descending from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangels’ call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.’ Read on to there and I suspect for most of us it all becomes a bit difficult, because do we really believe that?
But of the three readings we have heard this morning it is probably the gospel passage that most perplexes us. We may well understand the notion of times in the life of the world when people faint with fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world; that has probably happened in all sorts of places as war or civil conflict threatens normality, or even in the face of flooding and natural disaster as parts of this country have faced recently. But the idea of the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great glory simply seems far fetched. Of course there are always individuals and groups who take it all literally and pedal doom and judgement with sandwich boards in Oxford Street, but then they often have to explain away later with some embarrassment why they misinterpreted the particular signs of the times and so got the date wrong for the return of Christ.
But I believe we misunderstand all of this Advent imagery if we see it as pointing to a particular moment in the future, just as we misunderstand the story of the fall of Adam if we see it as referring to one specific moment in the past. Adam’s fall is surely a symbolic picture of something that is happening to men and women every day of the week as they fail to listen to the voice of God and pursue purely selfish desires and a desperate search for power. Like that story for the past, the image of the return of Christ points not to some distant event in the future, but to something that can and does happen every day.
For I suspect most of us are aware of moments when we have experienced judgement. Sometimes it may be that we are caught out, we thought we had got away with something but suddenly we find we haven’t, and the shock hits us like a bolt out of the blue as we begin to face the consequences of discovery. At other times it may be that something happens that makes us suddenly realise that what we thought was all right in fact wasn’t; we suddenly see things in a new light, and then we realise we simply cannot go on like that, or if we do it will be at the cost of a bad conscience.
And what the images of the coming of Christ are about is that they point to the fact that he is the agent of this judgement. Suddenly in some area of our life we come up against him, and we find that his life somehow judges us. It may be part of his moral teaching, which we may realise we have failed to live up to in some way, but more fundamentally it may be the whole fact of his life including his death. When God showed us what he was like he did not do so in a figure of obvious power, but in a man who allowed himself to be edged out of the powerful world onto a cross, but who thereby judged that powerful world in the most effective way possible. Who is now the more enduring and significant, Pilate, the man of power, or Jesus, the man on the cross? Judgement comes in some extraordinary ways.
And what I think the early church writers were trying to convey in those impressive images of Jesus returning was that he was the final and ultimate judge, not final or ultimate in the sense of at the end of time, but final and ultimate in value and significance. Of course they may also have believed that he would literally invade time again and bring about some apocalyptic end of the world, it is difficult to decide whether their words were meant to be taken literally of figuratively, but if they were meant literally then I think we have to say simply that they seem to have been proved wrong, although of course we can never finally know that. But if we do only take them literally so that we simply focus our eyes on the horizon to try to see whether he is coming in clouds and glory or not we may well miss him in far more mundane but nonetheless significant ways. Take, just an example, this nation’s response to asylum seekers. If you are only concerned with some apocalyptic end of history you will dismiss asylum seekers as temporary or mundane, but if you see Jesus as the ultimate and final judge even in the daily affairs of men, then maybe he comes to us in disguise in some of those people whom we may so easily but wrongly turn away. Take the homeless person begging on the street, or the difficult neighbour, or the depressed and weak colleague who seems to be letting the side down at work. Through all of them Christ can come in judgement, as we are made to realise just how selfish and self-centred we are, how reluctant we are to have our comfort disturbed by another’s need, how different our way of responding to such people is compared to the responses of Jesus.
What I believe we need to do is to release the Advent language from the fantastic, and from the remote future, and translate it into the here and now and the stuff of our daily lives, where Jesus continually comes, if only we had the eyes to see him.
And we could start with one place where perhaps we can meet him most easily, here, in this service of the Eucharist. The old Prayer Book exhortation, which was rarely if ever read in most churches in the last century to say nothing of this one, was quite clear on the role of the Eucharist in this matter. ‘My duty’, the priest was to say, ‘is to exhort you…to consider the dignity of that holy mystery, and the great peril of the unworthy receiving thereof.’ Now I am not so sure about the peril, but I am sure that here in the Eucharist we can meet with Christ as we take him literally into our lives. Of course he comes as forgiver and Saviour, and that should never be gainsaid, but he comes as judge as well. Maybe on Advent Sunday we should let him be judge first of all.