I saw a little book or religious cartoons the other day – in fact it was Frank and Ernest’s ‘Short History of the World’ – and somebody asks Methuselah what it’s like living to 900 and he says not bad really, except for the déjà vu.
Is it just me, or does anybody else have this nagging feeling we’ve been here before? So it’s a big day today. Carousel is open all day, the tinsel is out in force, armies of Santas are waking up and going to work. Advertising agencies are moving into overdrive as they work out how to re-sell the age-old Christmas message that too much of a good thing is never enough. Just in case the full spirit of bonhomie hasn’t yet dawned on you, Australia Post will be reminding you soon that the overseas mail has closed before you’re remotely ready, and you’ve probably double-booked yourself for one or other of the interminable round of break-up functions.
Yes, it’s the season to be jolly, and just to be different, the Church says bah humbug. It’s the season for thinking about the world falling apart. For me, there always seems to be a wonderful disconnect between the secular calendar and the Church’s calendar at this time of year, a wonderful parallel universe kind of splitting off. No, the Church isn’t being a stick-in-the-mud – we are every bit as caught up in the mood of expectation as Target and Myer are – but maybe what we are expecting is just a bit more nuanced, just a bit harder to pin down. Welcome to Advent.
Have you ever wondered why the short season of Advent begins – not with backward-looking predictions about the birth of Jesus – which is to say the memory of the ancient world’s expectation of God’s breaking in to human history – but a look forwards? With slightly scary hints of cosmic mutations and vague over-the-top promises of the future fulfilment of all things – ambiguous promises of the once and future reign of Christ? Advent’s watchwords are waiting and preparation – but what are we actually waiting for? What are we preparing for? Something that happened 2,000 years ago? Or something here and now? something that might just affect our own lives and change the world we live in? Advent is subversive, not a time of misty-eyed nostalgia but a time of declaring that God’s historic incursion into human affairs through Jesus Christ is not the end of the story but the beginning. Not just the fulfilment of the promise, but the down-payment on a future hope of God bringing ultimate promises to fruition. And so I want to suggest three things about Advent by way of orienting us to its claim on us this year.
The first thing maybe sounds obvious. That Advent is about waiting for Jesus. The Jesus whose long-ago birth we wait to celebrate in due course, and the Jesus who tells us in no uncertain language to expect to encounter him again. I often think it’s a pity that Mark and Luke in particular include these cryptic and vaguely suggestive passages in a style often favoured by ancient writers when they wanted to say, or at least suggest, more than they knew they could get away with. This passage from Mark doesn’t orient us toward the impending destruction of the world, no matter what some Christian interpreters would have us believe. However, he is pointing toward events that at the time of writing around 64AD while Roman troops in Judea put down the latest messianic uprising with ruthless brutality were still some years in the future. Many Jews, including many Christians, would have been waiting for God to act, to intervene to protect his people. Others probably believed the world really was ending. The destruction of the Temple in 70AD was in some ways just the logical conclusion of the process by which the might of Rome crushed not only hopes of political independence but much of the apparatus of the Jewish religion as well. It was the end of Temple worship and the sacrificial system, and historically provided the impetus for two major streams of religious reform. One was the rabbinical system, the other was the emergence of Christianity as a separate religion.
But Jesus description of the terror of this time of war are deliberately separated from, not joined to, his promise to return. ‘After these things’, he says. And the point I think is that – despite our temptations to believe otherwise – wars and the rumours of wars are not the means by which God’s intentions come to fruition. God’s priorities are not revealed in the most frightful things that human beings do to one another, but in the difficult struggle for peace and the costly exercise of mercy and compassion. God never exercises power the way the leaders of the world do, and thank heaven for that – not in Jesus earthly ministry shaped by humble, self-giving love – and not in any future re-run.
This is important, because if for Mark’s generation the war was a false sign of the conclusion of all things, then our own world has got its own plethora false signs. Geo-political worries, global terrorism, the stranglehold by which the interests of global capital keep whole populations in poverty, resource limitations, climate change – big worries, but not signs that God is about to blow the whistle and end the game.
It’s not about looking at the worst human beings can do, and hoping that God will pop through the sky and sort us out. I think that this view of the second coming is fundamentally mistaken, and it’s mistaken because it doesn’t take the first coming seriously. And it doesn’t take seriously Jesus explicit promise to be with us always. I think the second coming is when we finally learn to recognise what the Spirit if Christ is doing in our world right underneath our noses, when we finally learn to recognise where God’s purposes and God’s priorities for forgiveness and compassion are being made concrete, where the priority of self-interest is being exchanged for the priority of self-giving love. Sometimes that is in Christian communities, sometimes we really do tell the truth when we assure ourselves that we are Christ’s body in the world. Other times we see the Spirit of Christ active in the world in places and among people we least expect. Always when we recognise it, the challenge is for us to begin to imitate the way of Jesus ourselves, to exchange the logic of ‘what do I want and what do I need?’ for the logic of ‘what does this person need from me, so that she can be whole?’, and ‘how does this person challenge my compassion?’
Which brings me to my second point, which is that Advent is dangerous. There should be health warnings on our liturgy sheet this morning, in fact come to think of it I might do that next year. It’s dangerous because it’s challenging, and when you persist with challenging activities you shouldn’t be surprised when there’s a backlash. No, you probably won’t be thrown in jail for practising Advent. The backlash is more likely to come from – you.
Because Advent implies the insistence that all is not right with the world. Our readings this morning kind of make that point, don’t they? Does anyone need to be convinced of this – that all is not right with our world? And insisting on hope, insisting that we need to live in hope for God’s purposes and priorities to be revealed – pretty much implies we think that the old systems, the business as usual priorities, aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. So, the claims of Advent are meant to rattle and disconcert the powers of this world, meant to challenge all who benefit from exploitative and domineering forms of power.
Except – don’t get too comfortable. Because this really is one of those situations where the one finger pointing elsewhere means four more pointing back at you. And at me. If all isn’t right with the world, how complacent can we be that all is right with us? Do we stand accused by our own material comfort and security in a world where the comfort of the few implies the poverty of the many? Does Advent indict us of not caring enough about justice, because deep down we know we ourselves are the beneficiaries of this world’s inequity? Does Advent indict us of not allowing our own spirituality to wound and change us at the deepest level? How might the world be different, just if we loved as much as we say we should? Yes, Advent is dangerous.
And my third and final point about Advent is that it is busy. Way busier than it looks, don’t be fooled by the Church’s practise of silence and the deep purple of this season’s vestments. Waiting and watching for Jesus in our midst is not about passivity or patient inactivity, but about perceptiveness and learning to process reality in a new way. What is in mind in this passage from Mark’s Gospel is the sort of waiting that already knows full well the one whose coming is expected, the sort of waiting that involves opening ourselves up to the possibility that the one who is coming might be revealed – in us. The sort of waiting, in other words, that implies a willingness to be transformed, and an active cooperation with the infinitesimal processes of the Spirit at work in us.
For our Christian sisters and brothers in the Northern hemisphere, Advent comes at the time of the longest darkness, the entry into the cold of winter, and the lighting of candles easily symbolises the persistence of hope. In our Aussie climate we have different signs, no less powerful and persistent – the flowering of the jacaranda tells us the time for change is now. The one we are waiting for is all around us if we can just learn to see.