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Advent 1, 28.11.04, All Saint’s. Stechford, re-work of
ASB of 1.12.96
Matt. 24.36-44 (1467-17=1450)
Summary: The Coming of the Jesus in the past in Palestine, in the future at the Consummation and in the present at the Eucharist meets us with demand, grace, judgement, promise and consummation.
Today is Advent Sunday, the beginning of the Advent Season. It is the season when traditionally preaching has been about what are called the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. And this kind of orientation of being ready for a final judgement is reflected in today's Collect and the readings from St Paul’s letter to the Romans and from St Matthew’s Gospel. But Advent, which of course means Coming, is about more than just these things, for it is the season of at least three comings.
As Christians we can speak of Jesus as coming in the past, that is: Jesus, born of Mary in first century Palestine, which we will celebrate on Christmas Day.
We can speak of the Lord's future coming at the end of time and creation.
And we can speak of his coming now in our lives, especially as we gather for the Eucharist.
If it is at the name of Jesus that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord and Christ to the glory of God the Father, then who is this Jesus whom we await? This is the Jesus who in the Gospel according to St Mark is in repeated opposition to the Jewish leaders and even his own disciples. And the conflicts often boil down to the issue of the boundaries of the community. The leaders complain about the company he keeps, like the taxgatherers and sinners, and they even complain about his disciples: the disciples do not fast the way they do, they eat with unclean hands, and they pluck a handful of grain on the Sabbath as they walk. In effect, the authorities want to know: whom can we keep out, whom can we kick out, and whom can we make to be just like ourselves? And Jesus' answer every time is, "No one." The disciples for their part jockey for pre-eminence of honour, and are told by Jesus in no uncertain terms that the only pre-eminence allowed is to be the servant of all. The followers of Jesus are to be an accepting and inclusive community, a community committed to service and open to new ways.
In a strongly patriarchal society where a male Jew would pray, "I thank you, Lord, that I was not born a woman" and only males were taught the scriptures, St Luke's Gospel witnesses that Jesus commended Mary for sitting at his feet as a learner over Martha doing merely the household chores.
St John's Gospel similarly tells of even the disciples' surprise that Jesus would converse on equal terms with a woman, and worse yet, a woman who was a Samaritan.
And again, Luke's Gospel tells how in the parable that Jesus told to a fellow-Jew, the good neighbour was the detested and even hated Samaritan, and elsewhere in Luke when Jesus heals a group of lepers it is only the Samaritan leper who returns to give thanks.
When we turn to Matthew's Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus rejects a passage that occurs three times in the heart of the scriptures, in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, namely, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", and he goes on say, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy,' but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven." It is Jesus who prays in Gethsemane according to Mark , and echoed in Matthew and Luke, "Abba, Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me, but not my will but yours be done." It is Jesus, according to John, who says, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me." This is the Jesus, Lord and Messiah, whose coming we celebrate.
But we need to ask ourselves what difference does it make when we confess that he has come, that he will come and that he comes now. What are we really trying to say?
I would suggest that we are using the language and images of "coming" to express demand, grace, judgement, promise and consummation.
Firstly, Demand. In Jesus of Nazareth we have encountered that fullness of humanity, that fullness of obedience to God's loving will and that fullness of dependence upon God that he wills for us. And so, in the words and way of Jesus, epitomised and summed up above all, in Jesus on the cross, we are faced with the demand of God's perfect love.
Secondly, Grace. As Jesus comes to us now, and especially in the Breaking of the Bread and the sharing of the Cup as we proclaim his death for us until he comes in our midst, so his coming into our lives anew brings us God's freely-given loving favour, his grace, whereby we, in Christ, are empowered to fulfil our Father's gracious will that we may become truly human and humane.
Thirdly, Judgement. And as we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes in our midst, both now and at the end, so we, the household of God, come under judgement, the judgement of how far we are still from lives that are fully Jesus-shaped.
Fourthly, Promise. And yet we have the promise of his final coming, a coming that is always a coming and yet a presence, the presence of the "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the ages" - a coming that steadies us to move on toward our God-intended goal.
Finally, Consummation . And the image of that final coming is the surety that God can and will bring all things to consummation, to fulfilment, to the embodiment of our Christian hope that our labours shall not have been in vain. This is the image held out to us by St John the Divine in the Book of Revelation, when, in the final consummation, all the wealth of the nations, all that has been good in history and creation, is brought into the heavenly city.
And above all, the shape of that demand, that grace, that judgement, that promise and that consummation is to be seen in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, echoing St Paul's words, let us awake from sleep, knowing that the night is far spent and the day is at hand, and let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, that in him, through him, and with him we may be freed to become weak, reviled fools, borne up only by the power and wisdom of God's love seen in Christ crucified, so that we may bear one another's burdens and thereby move toward the fullness of the coming of Christ's kingdom.
For in Christ we have God's pattern, presence and promise.
He is the pattern: Christ has died.
He is the presence: Christ has risen.
He is the promise: Christ will come again.
As we take up anew the theme of Advent, so let us remember, as we are gathered for the Eucharist, something of what St Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians. Repeatedly in the letter Paul speaks of eating, presence and judgement in combination with each other. And he especially highlights this concern when he writes of their coming together for the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist. And although he has written the letter in Greek, he ends it with an Aramaic phrase written in Greek letters. It can be read in two different ways, and in view of the fact that Paul throughout the letter has repeatedly combined the themes of eating, presence, and judgement, centred on the Eucharist, I am convinced that Paul meant it to be taken both ways. Run together the Aramaic is maranatha, but divided it can be either maran atha, the Lord is come, or marana tha, our Lord, come! So we have a Coming that is both a Now and a Not Yet: Our Lord, come! and The Lord is Come.
These are the words to us as we gather this Advent for the Eucharistic Feast, in which, Sunday by Sunday, we enter anew into the demand, the grace, the judgement, the promise and the hope of consummation that we meet in our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Son of God, who, as Emmanuel, God with us, is God's pattern, presence and promise.
So with hope filled with both joy and awe let us, with St Paul and St John the Divine, say,
Even so, the Lord is come; even so, come, Lord Jesus. Maranatha. Amen.