Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, Advent Sunday, 29th November 2020
Gospel: Mark 13:33-37
If you are in a strange country you may well need to be alert. That is the case when visiting the Holy Land: you need to watch where you are going, I have seen pilgrims take a tumble down the steep Mount of Olives; you need to pay attention and not get lost or left behind, the crowded streets of old Jerusalem are like a labyrinth; and sometimes, unfortunately, you have to be alert to people who might rip you off, or even steal from you. It is no worse than many tourist destinations and the guides are vigilant and know who to watch out for. On one pilgrimage, our guide arranged a sign with us. If ever he said the words, ‘hot chocolate’ it meant ‘hold on to your handbags’ because there were pickpockets about. So he might say ‘there is the Dome of Rock built in the Seventh century and covered in HOT CHOCOLATE, beautiful golden tiles.’
It is always better to prevent a problem than have to solve one, better to prevent a theft not just because of the distress it would cause, but also because of the inconvenience and difficulty of replacing a stolen passport or credit cards.
Keeping awake and being watchful is a central theme of the season of Advent, which we begin today. Once the church is stripped of flowers, the purple robes and frontals are brought out it is a sign in the church that something wonderful is about to happen. As the purple of Lent is followed by the white of Easter, so the purple of Advent will be followed by the gold of Christmas; just as a purple sky precedes a glorious sunrise.
Advent comes like the bell of an alarm clock, a wake up call. Jesus says we should keep awake and be busy, like workers ready for the return at any minute of an absent boss. We are told to look for the signs of the coming of the kingdom. We can only really see all those signs if we are truly awake.
Sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on our mental and physical wellbeing. Not being able to sleep might be a sign that something is wrong, that we are anxious about something. Not getting enough sleep might lead to poor concentration and memory loss.
We can also suffer from a spiritual drowsiness, when we are not tuned in to what the Holy Spirit might be trying to say to us, when we fail to see warning signs that we need to curb or modify our behaviour. In the present time of restrictions it is easy to fall into a slough of despond, of gloom and self-pity.
The prophet Isaiah complains, in a rather immature way, that God allows the people of Israel to go astray and harden their hearts against God. Why does he let them misbehave, and not prevent them? God has given us free will to choose righteousness or sin. We can equally well choose either. Isaiah sees that we are like clay in the hands of God the potter. If we would allow him to guide us then we shall be moulded into the people he wants us to be. We will be his own special creation.
Isaiah lets out a great cry for God to rend the heavens and come down. But we Christians believe that has indeed happened, the veil of the temple was rent in twain at the death of Jesus, and that which separated us from God has been removed, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. In Advent we prepare to celebrate that wonderful realization at Christmas.
One thing I notice about taking pilgrim groups to the Holy Land is that as the week goes on the people become holier; the sense of the closeness of the encounter with the Lord makes them more attentive to each other. I remember once going into the Church of Ecce Homo at the end of walking the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa, the guide could tell that one of the pilgrims had had his pocket picked, because of the behavior of some youths in the street. The word went round the group that this pilgrim had been robbed, and they spontaneously organized a collection among themselves. At the end of the Mass we had to give the pilgrim bad news and good news. The bad news was that he had been robbed, but the good news was that his fellow pilgrims had collected more than had been stolen. He was quite overcome and gave the money to charity. It showed how spiritually alert and aware the pilgrims had become, they were ready to spring into action immediately. They had been moulded by the potter’s hands.
We look forward now to a certain date, the celebration of the day of Christ’s birth at Christmas, but beyond that we look to an unknown date, the day of Christ’s return.
The Lord puts us in a position of trust, to be about his business. Let us be alert and awake that we may see the work that needs doing and be active in carrying out the Lord’s business.