Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the First Sunday of Advent 2022
Is the coming of the Son of Man at an unexpected hour a threat or a promise?
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 27th November 2022 at 11.15 AM
Is the coming of the Son of Man at an unexpected hour a threat or a promise? The teaching that Christ will come in glory to complete his work is a central teaching of the Christian faith. We do not know precisely what it will look like, nor can we guess the day or the hour. We can be pretty sure that the earliest Christians expected Christ to come again during the course of their lifetimes. They were not only responding to Jesus’s own teaching that The Son of Man – a highly-charged messianic phrase by which he referred to himself – would come in glory, but also to the entire Jewish sweep of messianic hope from which Jesus emerges. Today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah articulates something of this in the vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem. Here, the future House of God, is a magnet for many nations, a place where the Lord’s word establishes peace and justice, as diverse people are gathered in. That is future hope, a longing for the kind of peace and the kind of togetherness which only the Lord’s ultimate rule can enable and sustain. These are ‘the days to come’ articulates the Prophet, who is passionate about sharing this vision of ongoing engagement with the Lord’s future. This is promised, it is assured.
Jesus’s own teaching in today’s Gospel feels much more urgent and undoubtedly has an edge to it. The images Christ uses to exhort us to be prepared should take our breath away – the burglary of the house when the owner was fast asleep; the immediacy of two people in the field, two women grinding meal, one taken, the other left. This is not so much hopeful expectation, but shock interruption to the usual order of things. It’s no wonder that at various points in Christian history, at the turning of millennia and at times of particular cultural stress, the expectation of Christ’s return has become a frenzy, driving people to prediction and panic.
But Jesus teaches us that such speculation is futile and actually undermines the real message here. We are not called to predict the future. The point is to be ready. Alert. Prepared. Because in the realm of the eternal gift of God’s promises, testified to in the scriptures and celebrated in the worship of the Church, just because the full fruits of this promise are in the future, does not mean that they are currently absent. There is, if you like, an eternal ‘now’ which St Paul alludes to in his letter to the Romans. St Paul writes, now is the time to wake from sleep. Live, as in the day, live as if now is the time. And when you do so, you will really live the Christian life. You will be alert to God’s gift, and to God’s unbreakable promise.
The season of Advent is an annual reminder of God’s promise to his people, a promise that is intrinsic to the Christian Gospel. We look back at our history, the temptation can be to treat Advent as if it is merely a preparation for our annual celebration of Christ’s birth, that key moment in all history. And yet, because we are so bound into the reality of now, the trudge of the ordinary, the march of time, we lose our vision and underestimate the full potential of God’s promise. This is a deeply mysterious thing. It is woven into the warp and weft of human longing, of hopes which can only just be articulated, of a sense that somehow nothing of this creation will ultimately be lost in Christ’s new creation. And yet, to begin to appreciate this, we have to hand ourselves over to God and to God’s promises. To ‘put on the armour of light’, and to keep awake, making sure that our spiritual senses are alert to recognise not the time of Christ’s coming, but the fruits of his gift: love, healing, reconciliation, truth, beauty, justice. Just because the fullness of this gift is still to come, the promise still to be hoped for, does not mean that we cannot perceive it, experience it now.
Talking about Christ’s second coming is embarrassing for many Christians who believe themselves to be educated or rational. Imagery of a human being coming to earth on a cloud, at the end of time (whatever that might mean) is perhaps not considered very helpful as we try to engage with a secular culture which is a long way away from such imagery. But it is a key proclamation of our faith that God in Christ has not finished with this world, and that the depth of love we see in Christ’s birth, death and resurrection is one which will be the ultimate story of reality. The imagery scripture uses to try and help us understand this is perhaps meant to shock us – it is what we call apocalyptic imagery, which stirs, bristles, sparkles, as it tries to articulate something about the ultimate. That is not threat, but promise. A promise which has been kept alive in the darkest corners of persecution, pain and doubt. A promise treasured by saints. A promise pondered by poets. A promise kindled in the hearts of all those who would come to Christ in faith.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has wrestled a lot with concepts of time. He refers to this period of time since Christ’s resurrection as ‘the time that is left to us.’ We live in Messianic Time, that is time not governed by the clock, by the relentless ticking which asks, ‘well, why isn’t he here yet?’, but which instead sees reality as conditioned by both past and future. This is the time that is left to us, when the events of Christ’s death and resurrection are operative now, and where the final judgement of God in Christ which is, in a sense, future, is also the shape of the life we are called to. So, now is the time to awake from sleep, because in this now Christ will give us life. Living as if we are expectant of Christ’s coming is to allow our spiritual senses to become confident in his love and humble in his service.
The Advent message is this – that the Christ of Bethlehem, who is the Eternal Word of the Father, foretold by the prophets, whose death and resurrection has fundamentally changed the character and quality of our time together in the life of the world, will come to complete his work, and to utter the final, ecstatic YES, as the consummation of the whole of creation. That is not a threat, it’s a promise. And as so many millions have found before us, it is a promise worth living and dying for.
Come Lord, and do not delay.