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Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent: Looking forward, being ready

Advent Year A. Isaiah 2: 1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

Today is Advent Sunday and we can legitimately begin to start thinking that Christmas is only four weeks away. As if we didn’t know  having already seen this year’s batch of Christmas adverts since the beginning of November. Which is your favourite?
As usual the shops have been full of cards, gifts and posters urging us to buy for Christmas for some time now. The adverts brainwashing us into believing that we need all these “must haves”! Yet there is a special atmosphere at this time of year when the Salvation Army band is playing in the shopping centre, the Christmas decorations are up and Santa's in his grotto, the Gruffalo is wandering around Sanders and the ice rink is open at the Mall!
At Advent - we begin to look forward to the celebration of Jesus' birth at Christmas – the gifts, the cards the parties the decorations and all the other things that are so much part of our Christmas. But despite all this activity I think we tend to deny ourselves much of the season of Christmas because we start too early.
When I was teaching in Primary School, because we broke up often a week before Christmas, we felt we had to do the carol services, the parties and so on early. But actually it is useful to remember that the first day of Christmas is actually Christmas day. That is the day on which the season of Christmas begins. The Sunday after Christmas is known as “the first Sunday of Christmas” and the Sunday after that is the second Sunday of Christmas. Then comes Epiphany. So the season in which we should be holding our celebrations and carol services is between Christmas day and the Epiphany. I think we miss out because we tend to cut Advent short or even miss it altogether.
The four Sundays of Advent is a time of anticipation and looking forward. There is a sense of expectation and excitement as we go through Advent, especially around children. When we say that we are “looking forward” to something, we don't just mean that we know something is going to happen in the near future, usually are referring to something that will be a happy event. We look forward to a holiday, or a celebration we don’t normally say that we’re looking forward to going to the dentist or to a funeral. When we look forward we enjoy the anticipation. 
But we have to recognise that anticipation can also be negative and that for some people the anticipation of Christmas is not about looking forward with joy but with some anxiety and perhaps some sadness. Because for many Christmas is a time that brings back painful memories or it can be a time of loneliness. Part of our Advent preparations should perhaps be remembering this and doing what we can to look out for the needs of  people for whom this might be the case. Don’t assume that Christmas will be a happy time with family for everyone. We can all ask what our neighbour is doing on Christmas day. 
For those of us who are looking forward to the events of Christmas, what do we look forward to? As children we look forward to Father Christmas coming and we look forward to receiving presents, (well ok I still do!).  For children the christmas lights and the special displays make Christmas seem like a magical time. We might look forward to sharing time with family, to a break from work, to parties and an excuse to indulge ourselves. These are the customs that we have adopted as part of our celebration. But we are missing something important if we allow these things to become an end in themselves and forget about the real Advent message. 
In the Old Testament reading the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of Judah and Jerusalem when he says that in days to come the mountain of the Lord's house will be set over all other mountains. All nations will stream towards it for this will herald the time when God will act as an arbiter for the nations, their weapons will be transformed into farming tools and God's people will walk in the light of the Lord.
Isaiah makes this hopeful prediction that eventually all people will come to respect God, to live according to his law and word and that in doing so society will become a better, more peaceful and more just place and the world a better place to live. The promise of Advent is the promise of a new kingdom where God’s rule will take precedence, the time when Jesus Christ will come to reign in his kingdom. 
This time will also be a time for judgement, the “time of trial” as it is called in the Worship Book version of the Lord’s prayer. At this time people will be judged for the life they have led. Eternal life in this new kingdom is promised for those who have been faithful. 
But there is also the future within “the time of this mortal life” (Collect) to which Isaiah speaks – the time in which we should be making full use of the gifts and skills which God has given us to spread the gospel message, to teach others about Christ and his teaching and through this to make the world we live in a better place to be.
So as we begin Advent we look forward not just to celebrating the birth of a baby but to something much greater - the birth of the one who comes to us purely by God's grace and through whom we have the only means by which we can be put right with God. As John Wesley says in his sermon on Salvation by faith:
“How can human beings make amends for anything which they have done wrong? Clearly they cannot, since anything good that they do has come from God and they cannot take the credit for it... The whole human race stands before God without a word to say...So if it should be the case that we find favour with God, it is because of God's free grace “giving us one blessing after another” (Jn 1:16).
What we look forward to during  Advent is this gift of the greatest of God’s blessings to his undeserving people – this enormous demonstration of his love and grace. No wonder it has been called “the greatest story ever told”. Surely, that is something worth looking forward to!
But Advent reminds us that we must be making ready in another way as well. For Jesus has promised that he will come again at precisely the time we have been speaking of - the time of the coming of God’s kingdom in its true form.
The Apostle Paul urges us to wake up – to be alert for the time of Jesus’ coming could be much closer than we think. “It is far on in the night”, Paul says “day is near, so put on the armour of light. Let us behave with decency as befits the day: no drunken orgies, no debauchery, no quarrels or jealousies. Let Christ Jesus himself be the armour that you wear: give your unspiritual nature no opportunity to satisfy its desires”. 
We can take on board Paul’s words as we make our preparations. For example as we buy presents – perhaps we should consider carefully what our motives are.  A present should convey a message about love and care. A thoughtless present given out of a sense of duty can be hurtful. A good present is not the one with the highest price tag or the most exclusive label, but the one which says “I care”.
How do we prepare ourselves emotionally? I mentioned earlier that Christmas can be a difficult time emotionally for some people. I remember visiting an elderly lady who lives alone, and who will be alone on Christmas day. She never married and has no family to visit her.  What could we do to give such people something to look forward to on Christmas day? She reminded me of an elderly Great Aunt that I used to visit at Christmas with my family – she lived in a small bungalow on a sheltered housing estate and in those days still had a coal fire which fascinated me. She was in her 90’s when I was in my teens in the late 70’s. My parents always invited her to come and spend Christmas with us, but she always refused – she preferred her own company and found it stressful to be surrounded by too many people for too long.  It didn’t mean that she didn’t appreciate a knock on the door from a neighbour and a Christmas greeting on the day though.
Paul tells us to put aside quarrels and jealousies, no debaucheries or drunken orgies! Christmas can be a time when jealousies and quarrels rear their heads especially when we are caught in close confines with visiting relatives for several days. So perhaps part of our emotional preparation should be to consider how we will cope with having to be a bit more tolerant than we are used to or maybe to settle any outstanding differences before they have a chance to spoil the party.
And finally, we should prepare ourselves spiritually to meet the coming Christ. There are the special things that we do as part of our worship during Advent - lighting candles, special liturgies for example. What do these mean to us? How do they help us to focus on the special meaning of the season and prepare us for our encounter with Jesus? Sometimes there are special Advent groups or bible studies which might provide an opportunity for reflecting on the Advent season within a small group. 
So as we enter this period of Advent, let us look forward and make ready in all the ways we can. Let us fully prepare ourselves to meet with Jesus as we celebrate his coming into the world and let us do it in such a way that the world will see just how much Christmas means to us as Christians, because of what Jesus means to us - that we really have something to celebrate that is so far from  the empty celebrations of others that they will want to come and find out more, perhaps to join us in our celebrations, and in doing so open the door to a meeting with Jesus Christ for themselves. 

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