Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Advent 2017
The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 3rd December 2017 at 11.15 AM
I can only put it down to an over-exposure, at a tender age, to David Attenborough and his matchless natural history programmes, but whenever the Advent message is proclaimed; to keep awake, to be alert; my mind moves, (bear with me) to meerkats—not selling me internet services (too surreal), but emerging suddenly from their burrows, heads switching backwards and forwards checking for the approach of any marauding predator. They are surely the epitome of vigilance.
However, if this is to be a true image of Advent, then those meerkats would need to be not on some sun-kissed savannah, with clear skies and far-distant views. To be a true analogy of Advent, those darling, furry little sentinels would have to be plunged into the deepest, most impenetrable fog; for Advent is a dark season.
We are called to be vigilant, to be watchful, precisely at those times when it is most difficult to see anything with clarity. Even were it not for the shortening days of December, the endless confusions in our politics, at home and abroad, leave many of us wondering what’s going on, and where it’s all going to end. Besides that, I imagine we could all point to things in our own, personal lives, or in the lives of those we care about, things that make little sense; where there is no discernible light—mental illness, grief, frustrated ambition, and the fading of the body’s powers. It can all feel pretty dark out there, and in here, and like those vigilant meerkats, we wonder if there might be something nasty lurking around. For all our looking, things don’t always become clearer. And then there’s God…
The Israelites, exiled in Babylon, longed for God to make an appearance; to come down, to show himself as in days of old. Psalm 80 would have come readily to their lips:
Stir up your mighty strength and come to our salvation.
…show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
They wanted something dramatic and unmistakeable, like a burning bush or a parting of the sea—who wouldn’t? Instead Isaiah suspected that God had turned away from them, hiding his face, giving them up to their own iniquities.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father—they lament—we are clay… the work of your hand. It is a pitiful cry in the dark.
At first glance, in today’s gospel, Jesus offers little reassurance, quoting the apocalyptic vision of Daniel:
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven…
All natural light will be taken away, it seems, and yet we must keep alert, looking, backwards and forwards into the gloom.
Janus was the two-headed Roman God, who could look simultaneously back into the past and forwards into the future, who gave his name to the first month of the year. Well, Advent is our January, and we have a similar job; to look back to Christ’s first coming, his appearing on earth as the Son of Mary, and to look forwards to his return and the fulfilment of the Kingdom he preached.
Looking in either direction there is a great deal of obscurity to contend with Looking backwards, the mystery of the incarnation is well-hidden behind the clutter of 21st-century commerce and lavish pre-emptive celebrations. It is hard to hold firm; to allow this season its distinctiveness. We must do what we can. The Advent calendar in the Minor Canon’s office, you will be glad to hear, contains no chocolate, no make-up and certainly no prosecco (the very thought!).
Looking forwards, into the future, is even foggier. We do not know when Christ will return, as he himself tells us, and we will not know until it actually happens. Jesus quotes Daniel again, that the Son of Man will come ‘with clouds descending’, as we will sing at the end of the service. Clouds, as we know so well here in Britain, do not reveal so much as obscure—yet this is a rich Old Testament symbol of Divine presence—think of Moses ascending into the cloud on top of Mt Sinai.
Even when God appears, God ‘appears’ in obscurity; his self-disclosure is also a kind of hiding; for God’s light will always exceed our ability to see it; the knowledge of God will always involve an even greater degree of unknowing.
The incarnation itself is a revealing in obscurity; God’s power hidden in infant weakness; God’s majesty amidst the muck and mire of a cow-shed. And as for the horror of the Cross, thirty years later, this is about as hidden as God can be.
We look back into obscurity and forwards into darkness; and we are told to keep watching and waiting.
With the best will in the world, this is not an easy ask, especially when our lives are darkened by anxiety and pain. Our cry goes up with exiled Israel:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…
Yet the biblical record suggests that darkness and obscurity is not a mark of God’s absence, but the very place where God is most intensely at work. The light shines in the darkness, as we will be reminded in a few weeks’ time—the incarnation assures us that no darkness is beyond God’s reach, God’s redeeming.
And we are promised that we will not be left comfortless. St Paul notes that the Christians of Corinth ‘are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ While it may feel as if we are left on our own, clinging to faith against all the odds, in a world that wonders why we bother, it is the Holy Spirit of God that upholds and strengthens us in this watching and waiting, even if the same Spirit exceeds or eludes our capacity to feel or know.
And while, in this waiting, there may be as yet no bright lights, no parting of the clouds, no lifting of the fog, there are perhaps some points of light, some hints and glimpses to reassure us.
Firstly, the Scriptures, for all their complexity and sometimes baffling incongeniality, they nevertheless point to the overarching loving purposes of God, even as those purposes exceed our ability to entirely know or comprehend them. Spending some time each week, perhaps with just the Sunday readings, can help us keep our bearings amidst the mist and confusion.
Then, of course, the Sacraments—our baptism is the assurance that the Holy Spirit is indeed upholding and strengthening us. I’m sorry we don’t have water stoups at the door as a physical reminder, but perhaps there are other moments—when we wash our face in the morning?—moments when we might deliberately remember that we are baptised, and that the Holy Spirit of God dwells unfailingly within us.
And, for looking both backwards and forwards, we cannot do better than the Eucharist. In bread and wine ‘we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’. We look back to his incarnation, his betrayal and suffering; we receive Him here and now; and are propelled forward, in Him, to the victory of heaven, the fulfilment of the Kingdom.
Yes, there is obscurity even here. St Thomas Aquinas talked of ‘Christ who now beneath a veil we see’, describing Him as our ‘hidden Saviour.’ The Reformation was largely fought over how bread and wine could in fact do all that they were said to do; we may look at the gift in our hand, the gift in the chalice, and wonder how this can be so much more than it appears. But I don’t think the Lord wanted the Eucharist to be something over which we should be troubled, let alone something over which we should argue, but something in which we might find reassurance—reassurance of his presence and of the Kingdom into which he is drawing us.
We wait for the Lord in the midst of much confusion and darkness, as generations have done before us, and the temptation to simply curl up in our burrows, turn our furry backs on the world and hibernate is very, very strong.
But there is work to do, as Jesus makes clear. ‘It is like a man going on a journey—he says—when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work.’ Every loving work on behalf of our neighbour, every charitable gift of our time, attention and resources, is another hint, a glimpse of the Kingdom we await—the Kingdom we are promised in the Scriptures, the Kingdom we receive in the Sacraments. We are called to be alert and active, not just mentally and spiritually, but physically, as far as we are able.
In these weeks of Advent, perhaps we can channel our inner meerkat; peering faithfully into the misty past, to His first coming; looking expectantly into the foggy future for His promised return; strengthened for good works by the Holy Spirit, with the Scriptures and the Sacraments as our compass. We look for the Christ who was and is and is to come; descending to us even in the darkest cloud.