2nd Sunday of Advent 2016

Brian Reader

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Ps 72: 1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Some 10 days ago someone asked me “Why don’t we have flowers in Church during Advent?” I gave an answer but it raised other issues, and it set me thinking.

What is Advent, and what do we know about it?

Advent is so much more than a delicious chocolate calendar counting down the days until Christmas. In fact, the Advent calendar gives a wrong idea about Advent, as it assumes that Advent starts on the 1st December, when we all know that this year it started last Sunday on 27th November, and next year it will start on the 3rd December.  I therefore decided to speak this morning about Advent and I make no apology for using some of an article by Justin Holcomb which I found on Christianity.com.

For some of us there may be some confusion surrounding the meaning of the Advent season. The word “Advent” just means “coming”. So it is reasonable to assume that the Advent season focuses on expectation and to think that it serves as an anticipation of Christ’s birth in the season leading up to Christmas. This is part of the story, but as Anne explained last Sunday there’s more to Advent than just that.

We should also understand that Christmas, the “Christ Mass”, was not celebrated until 350 to 400 AD. Scholars believe that during the 4th and 5th centuries in Spain and Gaul, Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians at the January feast of Epiphany, the celebration of God’s incarnation represented by the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. During this season of preparation, Christians would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for their baptism; in a similar way that some new Christians today use Lent as a time of preparation for their baptism at Easter.

So originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas. By the 6th century, however, Roman Christians had tied Advent to the coming of Christ. But the “coming” they had in mind was not Christ’s first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but his second coming in the clouds in Glory as the judge of the world. So Advent was a season that focused on waiting.

It was not until the Middle Ages that the Advent season was also explicitly linked to Christ’s first coming at Christmas.

Advent is now the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and each Sunday is commemorated by the lighting of one of four coloured candles in the Advent wreath, with a fifth white candle being lit on Christmas day. Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days”, that we read about in Acts and Hebrews: as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom.

The church is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration, while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people.

In this light, the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” perfectly represents the church’s cry during the Advent season. While Israel would have sung the song in expectation of Christ’s first coming, the church now sings the song in commemoration of that first coming and in expectation of the second coming in the future.

But the world we live in seems to take an Advent-free leap straight from All Saints Day to Christmas Eve? WHY?

Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be a time to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting is considered a waste of time in a materialistic world.

In the Western religious setting, new believers seek to use Jesus to provide them with their most convenient lives in the here and now, and Advent is a particularly awkward intrusion.

Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but who passed away long before his arrival. In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting.

Even on this side of Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, there is brokenness in our world that no shopping trolley full of Christmas bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of Christmas pudding and brandy butter can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch.

As the apostle Paul declared, “The whole of creation, has been groaning together for redemption.” In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the failings of the present moment but as an expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now.

In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.

Advent was intended to be a season much like Lent, a time of fasting, and reflection and there are a variety of ways that this time of mourning works itself out in the season. That is the reason that traditionally we have no flowers in Church during Advent, and why some Churches delay their carol services until after Christmas.

Today it is difficult to keep in mind the true meaning of Advent in the midst of parties, shopping, lights and decorations that we see all around us. Some may view Advent like the season of Lent, where you can celebrate it or skip it, waiting instead for the big holidays like Christmas or Easter. I can’t help but feel, that when we skip over these waiting periods in anticipation of the real meaning of the holiday, we come up a little empty when the big day arrives.

So what should we do?

Reflection on the violence and evil in the world cause us to cry out to God to make things right -to put death’s dark shadows to flight. One catechism describes the spirituality of Advent beautifully:

“When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

It is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas can be fully understood and appreciated; and it is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense.

We are between the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of his second coming. It is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation.

Faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. The promise for Israel and the promise for the church is Jesus Christ; He has come, and He will come again.

So Advent reminds us to listen for the message that God is speaking, even in the waiting. This is the essence of Advent.

Are you listening for God speaking to you, through the Bible, or prayer or quiet meditation? Are you giving yourself space to hear what God is saying to you in this busy world?

What better time to start than this Advent?

Advent Sunday 2016

Ann Coomes

Isaiah 2: 1-5 ; Romans 13: 11 – end;  Matthew 24: 36 – 44

You’ll never guess who I ran into last night. Michael Fox, our former curate, and his wife Ginny. I was up at the Royal Northern College of Music, where Ginny, who is a member of the St George’s Singers, was singing the wonderful Brahms Requiem.

brahmsrequiemBrahms’ requiem is a magnificent affirmation of faith and hope in Jesus Christ, and of an eternal future in the comfort of his presence,  and so it reminded me of our readings this morning – the longing which St Paul had for the second coming of Jesus, and his joy and utter confidence in Christ’s eventual return.

There is a line in the requiem which quotes Jesus from the gospel of John. It runs:

‘You now have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you.’
I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice. 

What a wonderful promise!  And of course, that is what Advent is all about – the coming of Jesus. Or the ‘adventus’ of Jesus, if you want the Latin.

So it is little wonder, then, that Advent is the season of Christian anticipation and hope.

For as we look back to that First Coming of Jesus, born so humbly in a manger in Bethlehem, so we look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus, when He will come in power and authority.

Our readings this morning look forward to that Second Coming of Jesus, at the end of time. Together, the readings spell out several things the Bible urges us to remember.

Firstly, we are reminded that as Christians, we are citizens of two countries. We belong both to this present age on earth, with its pain and evil, and also to the age that is to come, when Christ shall reign in power. We live our lives at the intersection of these two ages.   Hence the ambiguity of Christian experience. We are not what we were, but equally, we are not yet what we shall become.

So, if you like, the two ‘ages’ of history overlap. With the birth of Jesus, the kingdom of God has come, but not in completeness.  Paul likens a Christian to a child who one day will come into a great inheritance. We Christians are waiting for that – for the Second Coming of Jesus, when the present age will finally disappear, and the new age of God’s kingdom will be consummated.

So Advent is a time to remember that world history is not just a tale of on-going gloom and doom. It has a story line. In a sense, world history is His story. God’s story. He made this world. He came and lived in it. He calls us to follow him. At the end – the second Advent – He will return and wind up history. That is the great Christian hope which we remember this morning. That history is moving steadily towards that amazing day of Jesus’ return.

And this time it won’t be in an obscure manger in Bethlehem. When Jesus comes back, this Second Coming will be the most public event in all history. It will come like a bolt from the blue, and be like sheet lightning, from one side of the sky to the other.

The return of Christ will be the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
It will be a time of judgement, a time of restoration

As our reading in Isaiah put it:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

It will be a time of new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, where God will once more live among his people.

Of course, just as in the time of Noah, most people do not believe that anything big is coming. They think that the present age will go on forever. Many people say that Paul got it wrong, because he tells his readers that they are living in the last days, and of course 2000 years has gone by, and Jesus has still not returned.

But when Paul uses the term ‘last days’, he is not referring to the length of time between when he was writing and when he expected Jesus to return. Rather, he was saying that there is now nothing more on God’s calendar when it comes to his dealings with mankind. The Messiah has come, has died for his people, he has risen again, and now reigns in heaven with a name that is above every name. There only remains now for his return – when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is indeed Lord.

In that regard, these last two thousand years are indeed the ‘last days’. There is no other age of human history after this age. Everything between God and man has been accomplished, the stage is set. And at just the right moment, known only to God the Father, Jesus Christ will return.

Meanwhile, our Christian calling is to behave in the continuing night as if the day had dawned. We are to live lives of self-control and goodness,  showing that we are citizens of a different kingdom. In that regard, we are the light of the world.

This Advent can for each one of us become a spiritual journey. We begin by remembering birth of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem. We look then to the Scriptures that reaffirm that He is present, through his spirit, in the world today. We then remember the scriptures which tell us that he will come again in glory. Finally, we look forward to our final destination, which is to be in his presence forever!

Which, of course, brings me right back to the Royal Northern College of Music last night, and that magnificent line which runs:

‘You now have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice.

As it says in Revelation, even so, Come Lord Jesus.

Amen!

Christingle 2016

Another brilliant Christingle Service yesterday – thanks to Dean Valley School Orchestra and Bollington Cross School Carol Singers – and to Beverley Nixon and the team for preparing the Christingles beforehand and launching the Messy Nativity Sheep Trail around Bollington!

Looking forward to the flock being gathered in again on Christmas Eve at our Crib Service at 4.00pm!

Vicar’s Letter – November 2016

vicars letter003

“Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way…
For the Lord God is both sun and shield;
he will give grace and glory…”
(verses from Psalm 84)

 

With not a little help from my friends (including Malcolm and Julie who lent me a walking stick and Christine who lent me a rucksack) I managed to walk most of the St Cuthbert’s Way again from Melrose to Lindisfarne during the first week of October! The weather was just right for trekking up and down the hills (or “undulations” as our esteemed leader Canon Taffy Davies kept calling them!) – not too hot, some bits of blustery wind but hardly any rain. We stayed at a place called Akeld Manor, near Wooler, and progressed along the pilgrim’s route by travelling out in our mini-bus each day to a different starting point which was where the group had left off the previous day. With fifteen or so good companions (both ordained and lay), we enjoyed much laughter together, times of reflection, great home-cooked food, lovely scenery, varied conversations, a reasonable amount of alcohol, optional prayers morning and night, and helping hands over the stiles and across rocky paths. Some of us took time out for the odd day, enabling our blisters to heal and aching limbs to ease! By the end of the week, we all felt a sense of achievement and clearly had all enjoyed the time to think and reflect back individually and with others about our different life journeys and also to explore in anticipation the paths that might lie ahead for each of us.

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As the season of Advent comes round once again at the end of November, we recognise the signposts along the way, leading us towards the light and joy of Christmas there in the distance, travelling in our imagination with Joseph, Mary and the donkey across the hills to Bethlehem. As the nights draw in at this time of year too, we naturally bring to mind those good and faithful companions we once knew and who travelled alongside us for a while, but who now have already reached our longed-for home in heaven, way ahead of us. We look to Christ, the light of the world, to illuminate our path as we continue our journeying, grateful that Jesus is willing to shoulder our burdens for us when we stumble or grow weary along the way. We pray for grace and humility to accept help from others in times of need, and for the energy and perceptiveness to offer an outstretched arm or a shoulder to cry on, to those who may need that from us, from time to time.

Just as our motley little group of St Cuthbert’s Way pilgrims last month encouraged one another to persevere, so may the congregation here in Bollington journey towards Christmas together with fresh energy, undeterred by the uncomfortable blisters that inevitably appear when “the feet that bring good news” rub up against hard-heartedness, cynicism or consumerism. May we honour the memories of saints and loved ones who have gone before us, and may we continue to be a people of generous hospitality, of positive compassion and of loving concern for anyone (whether among us or beyond our circle) who may need an encouraging word or a helping hand, walking together in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Every blessing,

Veronica