Advent Sunday Sermon
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars; and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.’ (21:25)
‘There will be signs …’
Well the signs are there for those who can see that Christmas 2021 is upon us. The Christmas lights are on around Northumberland Square each evening. The Fenwick’s Christmas windows have been revealed, and this year it’s a Shaun the Sheep Christmas. On TV, the John Lewis and M&S Christmas adverts, with their alien girls and their happy families, appear on our screens … again and again and again … The perfume adverts, which you may have heard me ranting about in the past, are everywhere, and are as daft as ever. And have you noticed how many of the supermarket adverts claim to tell us the meaning of Christmas – kindness, friendship, shared social occasions – and then identify purchasing their products with that particular value. Christmas? Bah humbug!
To be fair, though, does today’s excerpt from Luke’s Gospel strike you as a cheery Christmas message? Isn’t that what Advent’s supposed to be about? Preparing for Christmas. ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars; and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”.’ (21:25-27) And it doesn’t sound like he’s coming to wish us a merry M&S Christmas, does it?
These verses from Luke’s Gospel follow on immediately after ones in which Jesus predicted (accurately) the destruction of Jerusalem by surrounding armies (21:20). But in today’s verses Jesus spoke in wider terms than the destruction of one city. He’s talking about the upheaval of everything. And by ‘everything’ I mean, creation itself. In fact when you look closer at what Jesus says, the imagery that he uses is a reversal of that which was used in the OT Book of Genesis concerning the beginning of creation.
Then, God put the sun, moon and stars into their places. Now, Jesus talks about signs in the sun and moon and stars that things are changing. Then, God set the boundaries between sea and land, creating calm out of chaos. Now, Jesus talks about distress and confusion because the roaring seas and waves seem out of control. Then, God saw the earth and heavens were good and took enjoyment in them. Now, says Jesus, the heavens will be shaken. And then Jesus draws on more OT imagery, this time from the Book of Daniel. There God was pictured coming in glory on the clouds (7:13) to intervene to save God’s people. Now, says Jesus, in the context of all creation, it’s the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory to put things right.
Jesus’s message is that the God of creation is the God of re-creation; the God of the beginning of all things, as we know them, is the God of the end of all things, as we know them. God is, to quote the Book of Revelation (the Bible’s concluding book just as Genesis is the book which commences it) ‘the Alpha and the Omega … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’ (1:8)
You know, we’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about Christmas in the coming weeks. Actually, I’m sure many or all of us have already started thinking about it. Living in post-Christendom society, heavily influenced by commercial interests, there are competing stories around what Christmas is about, and the Christian version is just one of them. It’s no wonder, then, that a local primary school teacher reports that, when asked, only one third of the children in their class connects Christmas with the birth of Jesus Christ. And I’m much too busy to spend time to lamenting how things were better a few decades ago, and try to drag our entire culture back some golden age of widespread Christian knowledge and belief. We are where we are, and it’s better to go forward from than to attempt the impossible of going back, even if we wanted to do so.
Instead, with the aid of today’s Bible readings, we would do better to look forwards, and to think about how we today can most clearly articulate the significance of Christmas from a Christian perspective. And the purpose of Advent Sunday – today – is to draw our attention to God’s big picture before we plunge into the detailed, small-scale story of the birth of a baby in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago.
Today’s readings remind us that we always need to see the Bethlehem birth as a vital moment in the story of God’s intention to make everything right. In this vision in Luke’s Gospel everything gets remade – heavens and earth; sun, moon, stars, and planets (including ours); the lands and the seas; the government and the nations; everything is remade in order to be made right.
No wonder it comes across as so frightening. The great, great majority of us are not comfortable with major change. Why do we do things the way we do in church? Because we’ve always done them that way! So when Jesus comes up with a vision of a change of reality itself, it’s alarming. And on top of that, we don’t know the timing of it. Jesus is very clear that the timing is unclear! As soon as the trees sprout leaves, he says, you ‘know that summer is already near.’ (21:30) Well, yes, but it’s hardly a precise date on the calendar, is it? When we see these things we will ‘know that the kingdom of God is near’ (21:31), he declares, but on what date will it arrive?
It’s unsettling when you don’t know when something is going to happen. It’s alarming when it’s described in terms of radical change, even if the description is couched in terms that seem surreal, or which deploy fantastic imagery. Certainly, there’s no point in wasting time by trying to derive a precise timetable from what Jesus has to say. And his words can only be indicators of the radical nature of the change when God brings all things together for good; they’re not some quasi-scientific account of what to expect down the line.
What we are expected to do, however, is to keep hold of that insight that God is at work on the big stage; that God is working to put everything right; something that goes far beyond even the personal, individual salvation of each one of us. Yes, God does care about each one of us. God does reach out in love to each one of us. And yes, God is at work through the birth of one human individual being, Jesus Christ; a righteous one ‘who shall execute justice and righteousness in the land’, as the prophet Jeremiah would put it. (33:15) Something frighteningly good is coming for the benefit of the whole of creation, and this Christmas birth at Bethlehem is a pivotal point in God’s making it so.
So, praise be to God, the creator and re-creator of all this is. Praise be to God, who is putting all things right in heaven and earth through the birth and life of Jesus Christ. Amen.