So today is Advent Sunday. It's the first Sunday in the Church's Year, and, of course, the first in the four-week cycle that brings us up to Christmas. Christmas is definitely coming – if you go by what the supermarkets do, it's been going on since September!
It seems strange then, doesn't it, that the readings for this Sunday are about as un-Christmassy as you can get! This from the Gospel we've just heard:
“There will be strange things happening to the sun, the moon, and the stars. On earth whole countries will be in despair, afraid of the roar of the sea and the raging tides. People will faint from fear as they wait for what is coming over the whole earth, for the powers in space will be driven from their courses. Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in a cloud with great power and glory. When these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is near.”
It's all about the end of the world! The time when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, as we say in the Creed. Now, there are frequently scares that the end of the world is about to happen – some cult or other claims to have deciphered an ancient text that tells us that it might occur on any given date – I believe some people think that an ancient Mayan calendar proves it's going to end on 21 December this year. I do hope not – what a waste of all the Christmas presents we've been buying and making! However, it is only one of a very long line of end-of-the-world stories which people have believed. Sometimes they have even gone as far as to sell up all their possessions and to gather on a mountain-top, and at least two groups committed mass suicide to make it easier for them to be found, or something. I don't know exactly what.... And because some Christians believe that when it happens, they will be snatched away with no notice whatsoever, leaving their supper to burn in the oven, or their car to crash in the middle of the motorway, a group of non-believers even set up an organisation called After the Rapture which you can sign up to, and if and when it happens, they will look after your pets for you! They assume that, as they are not believers, they will be left behind.
But the point is, Jesus said we don't know when it's going to happen. Nobody knows. He didn't know. He assumed, I think, that it would be fairly soon after his death – did anybody expect the Church to go on for another two thousand years after that? Certainly his first followers expected His return any minute now.
What is clear from the Bible – and from our own knowledge, too – is that this world isn't designed to last forever; it's not meant to be permanent. Just ask the dinosaurs! We don't know how it will end. When I was a girl it was assumed it would end in the flames of a nuclear holocaust; that particular fear has lessened since 1989, although I don't think it's gone away completely. These days we think more in terms of runaway global warming, or global pandemics of some disease they can't find a cure for, or something, or a major asteroid strike. But what is clear is that one day humanity will cease to exist on this planet. We don't know how or when, but we do know that God is in charge and will cope when it happens.
Christmas is coming. Jesus said, of his coming again, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
No, we are still reading Jesus' words today. And just as we know summer is coming when the days get longer and the leaves start to shoot, so we know that Christmas is near when the shops start selling Christmas stuff! But Jesus goes on to give a warning: “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
Certainly we appear to celebrate Christmas with carousing and drunkenness, more often than not. And who isn't weighed down with thoughts of all the preparation for the big day that is going to be necessary? Whatever am I going to give this person, or that person? So-and-so wants to know what I should like – what should I like? Have I got all the turkey-pudding-mince pies-Christmas Cake-Brussels Sprouts and so on organised? Who have I not sent a card to, and won't they be offended? You know the scenario.
But what is Christmas really about? In much of the country it's been reduced to an extravaganza of turkey and booze and presents. And the Christians, like us, chunter and mutter about “Putting Christ back in Christmas!”, as if He was not there anyway. But even we tend to reduce Christmas to a baby in a manger. We render it all pretty-pretty, with cattle and donkeys surrounding the Holy Family, shepherds and kings, and so on. Which is fine when you're two years old, like my grandson, but for us adults? We forget the less-convenient bits of it – the fact that Mary could so easily have been left to make her living as best she could on the streets, the birth that came far from home – at least, in Luke's version of the story. Matthew's version says that they lived in Bethlehem anyway. We forget about the flight to Egypt that Matthew tells us about so dramatically, and the children whom Herod is alleged to have had killed in Bethlehem to try to avoid any rivalry by another King of the Jews. We forget that it was the outsiders, the outcasts – the shepherds, outcast in their own society, or the wise men from the East, not Jewish, not from around here – it was they who were the first to worship the new-born King.
But the point is, it's not just about that, is it? We'll teach the babies to sing “Away in a Manger”, and it's right and proper that we should. We kneel at the cradle in Bethlehem, yes – but we worship the Risen Lord.
We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem, but we also worship Jesus all year round, remembering not only his birth, but his teachings, his ministry, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we worship, not only as an abstract “Thing” – what was that song:
“I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history....” – it’s not just about worshipping a distant divinity, but about God with us. Emmanuel.
And that brings us full circle, for whether we are celebrating once again the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, or whether we are looking towards the end times, as we traditionally do today, what matters is God with us. Emmanuel. Jesus said “When these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is near.” We know that we will be saved, we have been saved, we are being saved – it's not a concept I can actually put into words, as it's not just about eternal life but about so much more than that. But “our salvation is near”. Dreadful things may or may not be going to happen – and they probably are going to happen, because Life is Like That – but God is still with us.
Talking about the end of the world like that is called “apocalyptic speech”, and very often, when people talked apocalyptically, they were addressing a local situation just as much as the end times. The prophets certainly were; they had no idea we would still be reading their words today. When Jeremiah said, as in our first reading, “The people of Judah and of Jerusalem will be rescued and will live in safety,” he was thinking of a fairly immediate happening – and, indeed, we know that the tribes of Judah did return after exile and live in Jerusalem again. But his words apply to the end times, too.
And the same with Jesus, I think. Much of the disasters he spoke of will have happened within a few years of his death – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, for one thing. Don't forget that he was in an occupied country at the time. And all down the centuries there have been plagues and wars and floods and famines and earthquakes and tsunamis and comets and things; every age, I think, has applied Jesus' words to itself.
So we are living in the end times no more and no less than any other age has been. And in our troubled world, we hold on to the one certainty we have: God with us. Emmanuel. Amen.