Advent Sunday, 30 November 2014, St Mary’s, morning

Readings: Isaiah 64.1-9, Mark 13.24-37

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Wouldn’t it be great if God really showed up this morning? If he stopped moving in a mysterious way for a bit and came among us and really did something? Put it about a bit? All those people not in church this morning, the ‘it’s-my-only-day-for-a-lie-in’ brigade, all the ones making an early start for the last day of the Westfield Christmas Shopping Event (up to 20% off your favourite retailers, terms and conditions apply), all those people who say, ‘If I’m supposed to believe in God, then where is he?’ all of them – if God really did something this morning, they’d sit up and take notice, wouldn’t they? That would give them something to ponder in the checkout queue. Then, at the Advent Procession this evening – standing room only.

I offer these thoughts, not to as a good and generous way to think (it isn’t) but to help us get inside the feelings the prophet Isaiah gives voice to in the first reading, though he and his people have bigger worries than some underfilled pews. They are a nation uprooted, reviled, bereft, and they ask, ‘Where is God? Where are the signs of God among us? O that you would tear the heavens and come down!’ No wonder all the other nations are living as though the true God doesn’t exist – Come on, Lord, rip the sky apart, make the mountains tremble. Give it a bit of stick. That’ll show them. Then the tone changes: the prophet remembers that their troubles are in part the consequences of their own actions and that it is to God that they owe their very existence – ‘We are the clay, and you are the potter’ – but even so, they want God to stop hiding. But – imagine you are one of Isaiah’s people – if God really does come out of hiding, will that only be a big and scary thing for ‘them’ (whoever ‘they’ are)? Won’t it also be big and scary for you too? Jesus seems to say so.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells his friends about the coming of the Son of Man. Again, imagine his words are said to you: they are unsettling. For a start, who is this ‘Son of Man’? Is it Jesus, your friend? Or someone else? If it is Jesus, why not be clear about it? That makes you feel uneasy. And there’s more. When will the Son of Man come? There will be signs that he is near, but no-one knows exactly when he will arrive. No one? No – not the angels in heaven, not even Jesus himself, only the Father knows – but we do know that when he comes it will be sudden. It will be like the boss saying, ‘You’re in charge,’ then going away and suddenly coming back at a random time – evening, midnight, first thing. It will be like the phone call our parish school, Christ’s, got one afternoon last year, ‘Hello, this is Ofsted. How are you doing? Our inspectors arrive tomorrow morning.’

So what are they supposed to do? What do you do at school or work when someone says ‘The teacher’s coming, the boss is outside?’ You probably try to look – let’s say, fully occupied. ‘Jesus is coming – look busy!’ says the T shirt. But Jesus’ own advice to his friends is not quite that. He is more concerned that they should be alert. He doesn’t say, ‘Keep busy’ but ‘Keep awake’. Keep awake, because God does come, not usually with earthquake and fire, but in ways that it’s easy to miss if you are too busy doing things. Jesus’ image of being asleep in is not so much about being literally unconscious as being unaware of God’s arrival. And that is the saddest thing, to miss God.

Now – no cause for alarm but, counting today, there are 25 days to Christmas. There is much to do, stuff to buy, work to finish, carol concerts to go to, cards to write. Much activity and busyness. But let us be awake to what it is that we are getting ready for: God coming among us in the birth of Jesus. And God does still come among us – not just once when Jesus was born, not just at the end of life or the end of history, but all the time, in big things and small, in the words of friend or stranger, in unbidden thoughts to ring that person or drop them a text, in moments that ambush you with a sudden twinge of guilt or thrill of gratitude. So easy to miss – or dismiss – unless you are awake and alert.

Keep awake, then: a metaphor for life lived with alertness for God. But how do we learn that? Well, in my four and a bit years here, there have never been so many opportunities to deepen our awareness of God (or wake it up for the first time) with such good people to help us. Look at the notice sheet:

  • six days out of seven, if you have 15 minutes to spare at 0830, there is morning prayer here in St Mary’s.
  • Monday tomorrow evening, Felicity Collins’ excellent meditation group
  • Wednesday evening, Sarah Gardiner’s Lectio Divina group – literally, ‘divine reading’ – with the opportunity to chew over next Sunday’s gospel reading,
  • on Thursday, our new and growing home group at the home of Paul and Eileen Vickers.The aim is to clear a little space, to wake up to where God is and what God wants us to be doing. I have an image for this, or rather a sound – in fact, two sounds. At the end of the service, take a few moments to listen as Matthew plays Bach’s chorale prelude, Wachet Auf. I know nothing of musical analysis, but to me it’s a kind of riff on the tune of our next, wonderful Advent hymn, ‘Wake, O wake’. The organ piece begins with a slightly busy tune – and for me, that tune is me, my activity, the stuff I do (less elegantly than Bach). That goes on for a bit, with deep notes hidden beneath, but then in comes another theme below it: slower, more measured, strong. For me, that’s God – intermittently noticed but always there, if only we can be awake to him.
  • In the silence of the mind there are so many drums beating: noisy rhythms of self-conceit, of resentment, of lust, not to mention the busy intellect tapping out the various themes which amuse or which worry it; each of these rhythms competing for your attention, and setting you on to dance its peculiar tune. But you must push them aside and go deeper into the silence, until you can hear that rhythm which, though it may not be the loudest, is the firmest of all. You all in a certain sense know the voice of Christ [and] his sayings. But it is another thing to listen to them until you feel the power and the life of them; until your heart dances in harmony with them, and your hands itch to act them out. That is the control that liberates, and the release that controls; that is the profoundest happiness.                                         Austin Farrer
  • Don’t go to them all, but why not commit to one for December?
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