Sermon on Advent Sunday 2018

The Revd Joel Love, Vicar of Rochester, 2 December 2018 at Lancaster Priory

Readings:            Jer. 33.14-16; 1 The. 3.9-end; Lk 21.25-36

Jesus said ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ (Lk 21.33)

In the + Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

In the film ‘Toy Story’ (1995), Buzz Lightyear and Woody get trapped in a device called the ‘Space Crane’. It is the kind of amusement you find in arcades, where the player must manipulate a claw in order to fish out a prize from inside of a glass tank. The claw usually slips and drops the prize at the last minute. In ‘Toy Story’, the ‘Space Crane’ game is populated by little aliens with three eyes. The problem is that these aliens actually worship the claw and get very excited whenever it picks one of them up, because they believe that that toy has been ‘chosen’.

I was reminded of this scene from ‘Toy Story’ when I read in today’s gospel that: ‘they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory’ like the Space Crane, and the words of Jesus: ‘when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ (Luke 21.28). There is a sense of being ‘chosen’ to be ‘lifted up’ to join Jesus in the sky. Later in the gospel, Jesus says that the last day will come ‘unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth’ (Luke 21.34-35). The prophecy of Jeremiah uses a similar image when it says that ‘In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up’ (Jer. 33.15), perhaps ‘springing up’ like a mouse-trap, or else a bear-trap with those big metal claws?

So far, so much like the ‘claw’ in ‘Toy Story’. Something surprising and a little bit threatening is going to happen. God’s kingdom is presented as something that will spring up suddenly and that might seem scary because it will be so foreign and unfamiliar to us. When Jesus called his first disciples, he told them to follow him and he will make them ‘fish’ for people (Mark 1.17), another image of being caught suddenly and dragged into a different dimension. This fits with the description of the coming kingdom of God as a ‘trap’ in which we will be caught.

The problem with this imagery is that it makes us quite passive, just hanging around and waiting for the hook or claw or trap in which we will eventually be caught and taken into the kingdom of God. In this case, all that we can be expected to do is to sit around and wait. And Advent has traditionally been a season of waiting. But there is more to it than this!

Jesus also tells us that ‘There will be signs’ (Luke 21.25) and that ‘when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near’ (Luke 21.31). So we are not totally passive. As well as waiting to be caught, we must also be watching. Watching implies being alert or attentive, and this requires more intelligence and critical thinking than the aliens in ‘Toy Story’ seem to be capable of.

If the world is full of ‘signs’, as Jesus says, then we also have a responsibility to interpret them. Jesus tells us to ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life’ (Luke 21.34) and to ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place’ (Luke 21.36). Similarly, our reading from 1 Thessalonians describes how ‘Night and day we pray most earnestly’ (1 The. 3.10) that God will ‘strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’ (1 The. 3.13).

All this fits well with the theme of Advent as a penitential season when people have traditionally fasted or repented, perhaps making their confessions to a priest or making amends for the wrongs we have done to others.

But I still that the use of the future tense in today’s readings is a bit of a red herring. Yes, we believe that the day of the Lord is coming, and that ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’, as Jesus says (Luke 21.33), and that ‘the Son of Man’ will come ‘in a cloud with power and great glory’ (Luke 21.27). This is the future-oriented aspect of Advent, which is all about hope and expectation. But Jesus also says that ‘the kingdom of God is near’ and even that his own generation would ‘not pass away until all things have taken place’ (Luke 21.32). So there is a present tense as well as a future tense in operation here. It is as if the claw has already taken hold of us, we have already been surprised or caught unawares — and are even now not yet fully aware of it.

So Advent should be a season of waiting and watching, and of growing in holiness. But it should also be the season of becoming aware. It has become fashionable to describe people as ‘woke’ when they show signs of awareness, for example about implicit bias, gender inequalities, racial discrimination, and homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia (etc.). We Christians are also called to be ‘woke’ to the kingdom of God.

Jesus gives us a clue when he says that ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’ We are already in the presence of something eternal, the living Word of God who is Jesus himself. If you have seen ‘The Good Place’ on Netflix, you may remember a scene in which the whole world disappears, brick by brick and stone by stone, until even the floorboards on which the characters are standing vanish one by one. They are standing alone, as it were, in an empty universe  or in eternity, outside of time. This, I think, is the effect that Jesus is going for. He doesn’t want us to be afraid of a claw coming down from the sky. He wants us to pay attention to eternity in the  present, in the midst of this transient heaven-and-earth that we inhabit. This is why he warns us about ‘worries of this life’ and directs our attention to the kingdom of God and to his words which will not pass away.

I even think it is possible for us to read the whole of Luke 21.36 as a statement about the present, and not the future: ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man’. Things will take place, and we must be alert to them, knowing how to interpret them and respond to them with strength. So we are not to be passive.

But we are also to ‘escape’ from them, and escaping can be a metaphor for retreat in the spiritual sense — to withdraw into an inner room, to pray. Because what Jesus finally desires for us is to ‘stand’ before him. To stand in the presence of the unknown takes courage. To be surprised is to find yourself standing in eternity, when you thought you were in a room made of bricks and floorboards. But the kingdom of God is near. We have already been surprised by God, even if we don’t know it yet.

So this Advent, let’s focus on becoming aware. On standing before Jesus as we are. And on escaping from the worries of this life into the timeless reality of God’s kingdom which is already here, just waiting for us to get woke.