First Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 2. 1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13. 11-14; Matthew 24. 36-44 (view all)
One question a lot of people have asked over the last few weeks is ‘how are you sleeping?’. The good news is that like her sister, Thea is already a pretty good sleeper and is settling down okay, at least at night.
But certainly in the first couple of weeks, both Amy and I still had that classic ‘new parent’ look, with our eyes glazed over, not really sure whether we’re awake or asleep.
In today’s readings for Advent Sunday, we are introduced to the great Advent imagery of the Old and New Testaments — contrasting themes of darkness and light, night and day, and in particular, sleeping and waking. The prophet Isaiah, the apostle Paul and Jesus himself warn us ‘wake up’ and be prepared for Christ’s coming.
So what does it mean for us today to live as ‘Advent Christians’, to be those who are awake in a slumbering world?
For Isaiah, in our Old Testament reading, to be awake is about renewing our vision. In Isaiah’s time, the great promises of God given to the Hebrew patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, had been forgotten. And so, with the most vivid, provocative prophetic imagery imaginable, Isaiah sets out to re-awaken a new vision of God’s coming kingdom.
Similarly, in our world today, much of the great optimism of the late 20th century has been eroded. In the 90s, we felt that unrivalled positive progress was possible, indeed inevitable — diplomatic stability, economic growth and technological advancement. And yet now, much of that optimism has been eroded, and the world seems a much darker place once again, our future much more uncertain.
In a world of gathering shadows, where can we turn for guidance? To find a new vision of our future? For today’s world, the vision of Isaiah and the Old Testament prophets could not be more timely.
In the shifting sands of a rapidly-changing world, here is solid ground. A promise of peace which can be trusted, when swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks. A new imagination, which if we take it to heart, will light a path leading us to God’s kingdom fulfilled. To the arrival, and the return, of Jesus Christ.
The Advent season brings both Christ’s arrival in history and future return, together into one theme of waiting and anticipation. As we hear the words of the prophets foretelling Jesus’ first coming, and as we prepare ourselves to celebrate his birth over two thousand years ago, we also build our anticipation of his future return in glory.
A return that Jesus himself, in our gospel reading, warns his disciples to be awake to, and ready for. ‘Keep awake’, he tells them, because to encounter him, to follow him, is to be woken up from the slumber of business-as-usual and set on a new path towards God’s purposes.
To be an Advent Christian today is to be similarly awake. To be awake in a stumbling, sleepwalking society, to the great story of salvation. To be awake to, and live into, God’s plans for our world today.
In today’s epistle, Paul provides us with a picture of what this means practically, to be daytime people rather than people of night. This means living our lives with discipline and purpose, seeing them as training for eternity. Sleepwalking through business-as-usual is no longer possible, because we have been awoken to something far greater.
One commentator, von Balthazar, puts it like this: ‘He [Paul] does not devalue earthly things: eating and drinking continue but not ‘carousing and drunkenness’’; marriage continues, but without ’sexual excess and lust’; work in the fields and at the mill remains but ‘without quarrelling and jealousy’. Earthly life is regulated and restrained, reduced to necessities, when one expects God.’
So we are to focus on the essentials, to live simply and purposefully towards the Advent, the arrival, of Christ. To make him our compass, and his kingdom the ultimate destination of our lives.
So this Advent, in a slumbering, business-as-usual world, how can we be awake to the vision of Christ’s return?
In a world of greed and consumerism, of ‘Black Friday’ excess, how can we make a stand, choosing to live simply and love generously? In the lead up to the upcoming general election, in a world of increasingly divisive rhetoric, how can we live peaceably and pursue unity and reconciliation? In a world of short-term thinking, how can we be awake to God’s long-term kingdom vision?
Because once you are awake, it is very difficult to fall back into sleep again. One of the great films of my adolescence was The Matrix, where the main character Neo is awoken to realise the much bigger real world exists outside of the simulated world, the Matrix, in which all of his life so far has been lived.
Discovering this is a painful process, but once he has come to terms with it, he realises he has no other option than to embrace the task of waking others.
And throughout history, the greatest Christian leaders have been those who have similarly been awoken to a something greater, to God’s kingdom imagination. From Abraham to Moses, John the Baptist to Paul the Apostle, Francis of Assisi to Martin Luther King, Jr. All were awoken to Christ’s kingdom, and called others to address the injustice, the sin, around them, and wake up to God.
So, at the beginning of this Advent season, may we wake up once again to the incredible vision of Christ’s kingdom. In a world of slumber, may we awaken others to live the gospel virtues of simplicity, generosity, compassion and justice. And, in eagerly waiting for his return, may we encounter Christ afresh in our own lives, the one who is our beginning and our end.
In the words of Isaiah,
O house of Jacob [O people of God]… come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.