With Christmas not so far away, many people are busy preparing for the perfect Christmas day. Shopping centres are reopening with the expected long lines at the checkouts with people trying to find the perfect gifts for loved ones; and of course, they’ll still be a last minute dash for something they’ve forgotten. They even have special names for shopping days during Advent: Black Friday, Panic Saturday, Cyber/Manic Monday! And now, with the imminent closure of Debenhams, we have wild Wednesday!
Some people have been preparing for Christmas for months. Shops had their decorations up at the end of October and, because of Lockdown #2, many people put up their Christmas trees earlier than ever before. Did you?
People often suggest that Lent is the season to do a bit of navel gazing – but we can do that at Advent as well. Some of you may suggest that we’ve been doing a lot of that this year with so little to do and so much time on our hands for reflection – both personal and spiritual.
Some see Advent as a time for a spiritual shake-up. And thinking about the end times often does that for many people. Thomas Cranmer obviously thought so when he wrote the Collect (prayer) for the Sunday before Advent (Christ the King) in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s one of those great prayers of the Church:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded.
It’s the day, traditionally, that people begin to prepare their Christmas puddings and use ‘stir up’ as the background for this. In fact, many recipe books refer to the above prayer when talking about Christmas cooking.
Sunday 29 November 2020 was the first Sunday in Advent – the word Advent is taken from the Latin word Adventus and simply means Arrival, Coming, or Appearance. Advent Sunday marks the beginning of a new church year; it’s the time, traditionally, when we look to, and plan for, the coming of Jesus, both as a child in a manger and as a returning King when: “People will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”
When I say prepare for the second coming, I don’t mean build a nuclear bunker in your garden and stockpile it with loo roll, pasta and flour and whatever else went missing from the shelves during lockdown #1 and #2.
At the end of Mark 13 Jesus says: “Be on guard, Be alert” before giving us a short parable about a master who leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, telling the doorkeeper to keep watch. God is the Master, and we are the servants tasked with keeping watch. He then goes on to say that we do not know when the master will return and that if he comes suddenly, we should not let him find us sleeping.
Jesus mentions four time periods, evening, midnight – when the rooster crows and dawn. These are all night-time watches; between 6.00 pm and 6.00 am. In the Roman army, a guard could be executed for falling asleep whilst on duty. As whilst the guard sleeps the enemy may approach and kill those that the guard was meant to protect.
Jesus is emphasising the consequences of not being ready and just how important is to be alert even when we least expect it. We’re not expected to live our life with chronic insomnia, it is to do with spiritual wakefulness, spiritual preparation and how we go about living our Christian life, that is how we prepare for Jesus’ return. For us falling asleep is a lack of spiritual preparation, failing to live our life how Christ showed us. So how do we prepare ourselves spiritually? I believe there are three ways we can do this:
1. Read the Bible
This is what will help strengthen all our other preparation work. We’ve been blessed with the whole Bible being translated into 670 languages, the new testament alone in over 1500. We don’t need to learn Latin or Hebrew, it’s readily available yet so many Christians don’t read it. A survey suggested that 68% of Anglicans don’t read the Bible from one week to the next. Is it any wonder the CofE is in a state of terminal decline?
In a time where people want everything in an instant, they are turning to the internet for their theology without even checking to see if it’s consistent with what the Bible teaches.
For example, numerous ‘evangelists’, usually American, have come forward with a prediction for when Jesus will return, telling us how they figured it out using some hidden number sequence in the Bible or working out the dates from Jesus’ birth. And people believe them.
Harold Camping is an American radio evangelist who predicted the end of the world, four times! Each time he got it wrong he claimed he had reinterpreted his prophecy and gave the new date. During this time, he attracted a global following and received millions of dollars in donations. Hmm! But Jesus teaches that no-one knows when this will take place – only the Father himself.
I received an email this morning with the title ‘The End Is Nigh’ and I wondered what it was about only to find out that an online shopping group was informing me that the Black Friday sale is coming to an end!
2. Watch and Pray
Some translations of Mark 13:33 have the words “Be on guard! Be alert and pray”. Advent is a time to remember that the church today is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the OT, in exile, waiting, hoping. They looked back at how God led them out of Egypt and were waiting in prayerful expectation for him to act on their behalf again. During Advent we can look back at Jesus’ birth in celebration and look forward eagerly to his return when he comes for his people.
Whilst we wait, Jesus tells us at the beginning of this chapter the signs that are to come, War, natural disasters, nations against nations families betraying one another. Yet he says these are just the beginning but in vs7 he says not to be alarmed that they must happen.
We only have to turn on the TV to see the news of war, famine and natural disasters and global pandemic. So we pray for those who are suffering in those situations. We pray they may find strength, courage, hope, love joy and peace.
Pray, too, that God will help you to grow in faith and strength, so when faced with difficult times ourselves, we are able to withstand the temptations and distractions that lead us away from God. This can lead to a spiritual draining, making it more difficult for us to be alert and awake.
By praying and spending time with God it allows us to be in closer relationship with Him which in turn will help us in our discernment of false prophets and to become more and more like Jesus.
3. Model our lives on Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul writes “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” Living life like Jesus is by no means an easy thing to accomplish and it is only through His grace and the Holy Spirit that we are able to do this. During his life Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the diseased, multiplied food. But perhaps more importantly, he loved whomever he met. Prostitutes and tax collectors were set free from their sin through one encounter with him and given a new life in Christ, He meets the needs of those around him.
In John 20:21 Jesus says: “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you”. We are charged with the task of loving our neighbour as ourselves, meeting the needs of those around us within in our communities and to be His hands and feet in a world that needs him.
That may seem a little daunting but as Mother Teresa said “None of us can do great things. But we can do small things with Great Love.” We don’t have to start with the big stuff, but start small; help a neighbour, do their shopping, support the foodbank and shelters or charities, listen to someone who may be hurting.
So, during this season of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas remember that we are called to be prepared for Christ’s return. We must not get distracted or fall asleep but be ever watching, praying, and living our lives like Jesus.
Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
May those who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
May those who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
May those who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
May those whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!” Amen.
This is a copy of my talk given at Saint Mary Magdalen, in Billericay High Street, on Wednesday 2 December 2020. The Bible reading was Mark 13:24-37.