The story is told of Abraham Lincoln, during the darkest days of the Civil War, when one of his political opponents demanded he commit troops to a particular action. ‘God is on our side, Mr President’, the man told him. ‘We can’t fail’. To which Lincoln replied, ‘Sir, I’ve never been concerned with whether or not God is on our side. God is always on the side of holiness. My great concern is whether in the light of history we will be shown to have been on God’s side’.
Today as Christians we begin a New Year of the Lord, a new Anno Domini on the Church calendar that works on a different time frame from the rest of the world, the time frame of salvation history, God’s time. The readings from the Bible swing wildly back and forward from the end of all things to the hope of new beginnings, the hope that this year will belong to God, that it will reveal God’s presence in history and in our own lives. We have entered Advent time, the time of waiting for God’s purposes to be revealed, the time of waiting for justice, of waiting for God’s promises to take on human flesh and blood, the time of waiting with held breath for Mary’s ‘yes’ which allows the Word of God to take root and grow in time and history; our own ‘yes’ that God’s purposes and promises may gestate and come to maturity in the world around us.
Today we pinch ourselves awake. Have we got too comfortable? Have we fallen asleep through the long countdown of Sundays after Pentecost, the so-called ordinary Sundays of teaching and preaching, miracles and meals and confrontations on the fateful journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Has church become routine, a spacer to keep the weeks from sliding into each other, a spiritual vitamin pill, an hour a week’s break from reality, a gossip with all-too-familiar friends? Zen master Dogen used to teach his disciples that the correct frame of mind to cultivate is that of the instant between sliding off the back of a horse and hitting the ground. No time to prepare. No time to change your mind. No time even to think. Just be ready ... ‘thump’ .... Advent is the instant in which your world changes – are you ready? ... ‘thump’. Hope so.
Today’s readings present us with a bewildering mix of images. The fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple that for righteous Jews was the centre of God’s presence in the world. Is it the end of all things or the beginning? What do we make of echoes of Luke’s apocalypse in the great events of our own time? The signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, the distress of nations confused by rising global temperatures and sea levels. The heady mix of anxiety and over-reaction, denial and head-in-the-sand politicking. Like every generation before us, we see the great events of our own time mirrored in these ominous-sounding lines. Advent is the sound of gears grating, of out-of synch calendars readjusting. Hold the Christmas cards and the fake Santas, don’t break out the tinsel too soon. Advent reminds us that all time belongs to God, that human history with its stress and violence is critiqued by eternity, that salvation history comes to its conclusion in and through the appalling and heartbreaking strife of human competitiveness, conflict and over-consumption.
And Advent says, ‘are you awake yet? Look – history itself is pregnant with the power and the purposes of God. Just look at the contradictions in the world around you, look at the contradiction between the glossy advertisements for fashion and electronic gadgets and overseas travel - and the reality of children in our own wealthy country going to school without breakfast because dad lost his job in the economic crisis, children in remote communities growing up without the prospect of ever going to school, ever getting a job or ever escaping the squalid environment of the town camps. The escapist fantasy of overconsumption for the comfortable middle-class versus the escapist reality of alcohol abuse and glue-sniffing for the desperate poor in the next town or the next street. Look at the contradiction of values laid bare when wealthy developed nations like our own invest vast resources in making sure the poor of the world never even get here to make a claim on our underdeveloped compassion. Look at the contradiction between God’s promises and the reality of the world we live in, the contradiction between God’s promises and the hard-hearted way we actually live. All time belongs to God, yet most of the time you’d be hard pressed to see any sign of it.
Yet Advent says, ‘look, time itself is ripe to bursting, ready to split apart and reveal the power and justice of God’. Advent critiques the non-arguments of the climate-change deniers and the self-serving arguments of the do-nothing-until-the-rest-of-the-world-does brigade. Advent makes the claim that the demands of justice can’t be put off, and the even more startling claim that the signs of God’s breaking into human history are all around us if we care to open our eyes.
Look at the fig tree, Jesus tells his disciples, and learn its lesson. Learn to recognise the signs of renewal and hope. A few weeks ago I read the story of two primary school children living in Victoria, in the area destroyed in the Black Saturday bushfires last February, who have begun to photograph the bush around them as the blackened stumps burst into green flame. Their work is being published as a calendar of hope. In the same way the prophet Jeremiah, writing in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the holocaust of the Babylonian invasion in 587BC says, in this wasteland, in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are empty and desolate you will once again hear the sound of laughter, and songs of thanksgiving. The blasted stump will sprout again, the green shoots of irrepressible new life will reveal God’s promises and God’s good purposes. As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it succinctly when he says that as Christians, we are prisoners of hope. We are prisoners of the future, oriented towards God’s future and the justice God promises. There is no other Christian way to live. To be Christian is to notice the dissonance between what is, and what God promises, and to proclaim that God gets the last word.
But Advent starts with a warning. Don’t get sucked in, don’t go with the festive season flow, don’t over-indulge or you’ll miss the good bit. Advent calls us back to live in the in-between times, with integrity, clarity, compassion and to substitute true worship for idolatry. Jesus tells us, “be on your guard, in case your spirits become bloated with indulgence and drunkenness and worldly cares”. It’s not just a case of avoiding the office Christmas party or not overdoing the rum in the Christmas pudding. These words from St Luke’s Gospel remind us of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Gethsemane, the night he woke his disciples and pleaded with them to pray not to be overcome with inertia. It’s one of the strongest and most startling images in the Gospel, the image of the great day that catches you unexpectedly, that suddenly closes on you like a trap while you were distracted by the tinsel and the fairy lights. It’s not just a risk for those men and women who followed Jesus in his earthly ministry, it’s a danger for us, if we pay more attention to the agendas and the enticements of our own culture than to the signs of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
At the beginning of Advent, the beginning of a new year, we are shaken awake with a warning. Watch your step, because there are traps! In fact there are lots of different traps in our culture but they have one thing in common, which is to distract us from what is important, to turn our attention from the core of our own identity. Trapped in the superficial and failing to attend to what is truly urgent, we find ourselves trapped in opposition to justice and the reign of God. The gospel warns us not to be bloated with indulgence - again, it’s not just about the plum pud, it’s about filling ourselves up with distractions and failing to be filled with the Holy One of God; about filling ourselves up with more stuff than we need while others lack the bare necessities of life; about filling ourselves up with details and plans and busyness, and remaining empty, hungry and thirsty for the justice and mercy of God. Hollow out some empty space in your life, make space for others, and make space for God’s Word to grow in you.
Advent sends us back to the beginning as disciples, back to the apprenticeship of our faith. Are we ready to begin? Are we ready to learn how to listen, how to be receptive to new ideas, to acquire new habits of hospitality and generosity? It is time to re-commit ourselves to the discipline of discipleship, to make a new year’s resolution to put aside timidity and luke-warmness, to put aside self-serving versions of our faith that claim God as being on our side, and to decide that, this year, and in the light of history, we will be found to be on the side of God.