Here we are in Advent, the start of another year for the Christian church. We’ve traversed through a really difficult year, globally, locally, and for some of us personally. What challenges we’ve faced! And what will lie ahead?
Advent is about what’s coming. And of course the obvious thing that’s coming is Christmas, four weeks from now. Advent counts down the four Sundays to Christmas, with the candles that we light one by one symbolizing hope, peace, joy and love. And Advent is a season of preparation: not just preparing for Christmas as a celebratory family time, but preparing for the coming of God in Christ. We hear the words ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’ running through Advent.
We’re both looking back to the time of Jesus’ birth, preparing to celebrate it, and looking forward to the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth.
Today’s gospel reading has Jesus speaking to his disciples about terrible times to come; end times. And we know there was horrific suffering about 40 years after Jesus’ death, by the time the first gospels were being written, when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and its temple, crushing a rebellion and slaughtering thousands of Jews. The young Jewish sect known as Christians was also savagely persecuted, and many were martyred. It must have seemed like the end of the world to them.
Yet Jesus is telling them that God’s redemption is near, and people will see the Son of Man coming in power and glory. How does that make sense?
Perhaps every generation has its end times, its times of appalling suffering and catastrophe. Jesus says ‘It will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.’ We’re all going to experience end times. Certainly Jesus’ followers did. The invasion of Britain by the Vikings brought the darkness of end times to much of the Celtic world and its Christian communities. The two world wars seemed apocalyptic in the scale of death and destruction.
And in our own times the pandemic along with social upheavals and climate change disasters have had reporters and commentators reaching for words like ‘apocalyptic’, and ‘of Biblical proportions.’ Are we, in fact, the ones living in the end times? Will we see the Son of Man coming in power and glory?
These are critical times. The future of the planet as we know it depends on our global response. There may be tremendous loss and destruction to come, but Jesus said, ‘When you see these things taking place, stand up because your redemption is near… the kingdom of God is near.” The power and glory of God-with-us is already here.
There is no time and no place where God is not present. That is our faith, and that is our hope. We may have much to endure, and we may well witness and experience firsthand terrible times. But the power of God is at work, and from the struggle and suffering hope is born.
Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, has written a book called Scarred By Struggle, Transformed By Hope. And in it she says, “Hope rides on the decision… to believe that God stands on this dark road waiting to walk with us toward new light again…. Hope… knows that whatever happens God lives in it…. Hope is what sits by a window and waits for one more dawn, despite the fact that there isn’t an ounce of proof in tonight’s black, black sky that it can possibly come.”
Tertullian, who was a second-century Christian theologian, wrote that “Hope is patience with the lamp lit.” Patience is just waiting and waiting: hope waits with the light of faith, the light of trust in God. It’s so fitting that on this first Sunday of Advent we light the candle of hope. And in the collect for this Sunday we pray that we may “put on the armour of light.” Our spiritual armour isn’t bulletproof vests or heavy chainmail, it’s light – the light of Christ, the light of the glory of God, the light that shines in the darkness and cannot be extinguished.
These are difficult times. We face enormous challenges ahead, and it’s a time of reckoning on many fronts: with colonialism, racism, ecological destruction, economic injustice. There are moments when I want to pull the covers over my head and pray it all just goes way or God intervenes and I don’t have to deal with it. And then there are other times when I want passionately to do something, to be part of the solution, for the sake of the children who will grow up and live in this world, for the sake of the species we share this earth with.
And in the midst of all this, we are the church. We are followers of Jesus, who says “When you see these things happening, stand up and know that the kingdom of God is near.” We are here, now, and as people of faith we have work to do. Our hope, as Joan Chittister says, rides on the decision to believe that God is in this with us.
Let me close with words spoken by our diocesan bishop, Andrew Asbil, at the end of our diocesan synod meetings this weekend:
“God has called us to be the church in this time. So go into the future with confidence. There is nothing to be afraid of. God is with us.”