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Sunday, 1 December 2013

Getting ready

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:

“For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

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 –
Last year, some people thought that an ancient Mayan calendar “proved” that the world was going to end on 21 December.
As you can see, it didn't!
And that was 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.
The people behind the website, I mean, not the pets!
People who believe in what they call the Rapture take it from this very reading, where it says that two people will be in the field and one will be taken and the other not.... but we don't know how much notice we get, if any!
It sounds to me rather more like the sort of pogroms where the dictator's army swoops down and takes people, chosen at random or not, away to imprisonment.
God is not like that, of course, but such things have happened throughout history.

Actually, the second coming/the end of the world is a very difficult thing to think about
because it hasn’t happened yet!
The Bible shows us most clearly that the early church was convinced that it was something that would happen any minute now,
certainly in their lifetimes.
But here we are, two thousand years later,
and nothing has happened.
So most of us don’t really believe it will,
or if we do believe it, it isn’t a belief that’s in the forefront of our minds.
It doesn’t really affect the way we live.

But maybe it should.
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.

Whatever is going to happen, whenever it happens, we need to be ready.
Our readings today all reflect that.
Our Gospel reading sounds a bit disjointed, almost as though Matthew has collected odd bits of Jesus’ sayings.
But it still has a clear theme –
be ready, because you never know!

Some years ago there was an ad put out by the police, I think, saying that leaving your doors and windows open was absolutely inviting burglars to come in.
I don’t think Jesus could have seen that ad,
but the end of the gospel reading reminded me of it:
If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.
So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Okay, so we need to be ready.
Fair enough, but how?
How do you get ready,
how do you stay ready,
and above all, how do you go on being ready when nothing seems to happen?

I think the answer is also in the parallel with the thief in the night.
We make it a habit, don’t we,
of checking that our doors and windows are locked before we go out,
even on a short trip to Lidl or Tesco.
If we have our car, it’s automatic to check that we haven’t left anything visible, and that it is locked, before we leave it.
And we have insurance to cover us in case the worst happens anyway,
no matter how careful we’ve been.

Well, it’s the same, I think, in our Christian lives.
We can build good habits of prayer, of reading the Bible,
of fellowship and of coming to the Sacrament regularly.
These are what John Wesley called “The means of grace”,
and they are the building blocks of our Christian life.
They are as essential to our Christian life as food and drink are to our physical life.
But they are also habits that one can acquire or break.
You’re in the habit of locking your front door whenever you leave the house –
are you in the habit of contacting God every day, too?
You make sure you’ve shut your windows –
are you sure you take the Sacrament?
And so it goes on.

Parallels only work so far, of course,
especially because it’s not all down to us.
I know we sometimes talk as though it is,
and, of course, we are always free to say “No” to God –
though I do very much hope we won’t choose to do that.
But God has far more invested in the relationship than we do –
either that, or God is so far above us that he’s totally uninterested in us as individuals.
And we know that’s not true!
So it must be true that God is numbering every hair on our head,
and being far more interested in maintaining a relationship with us than we are with him.
We don’t have to do all the hard work.

Nevertheless, good habits are good habits,
and we need to acquire them!
And with God’s help, we can.
We don’t have to do it alone, because God indwells us,
through the Holy Spirit,
and enables us to actually want to read the Bible and pray, and worship, and take Communion, and so on.

We don’t often think about the end of times and the Last Judgement,
and that’s probably as it should be.
If we thought about it too much, we’d never get on with our lives,
and we’d end up being so heavenly-minded we’d be of no earthly use.
But we do need this annual reminder,
because we don’t want to end up living as if this life were all there is, either.
Obviously we don’t absolutely know that when we die,
we’ll go on with Jesus somewhere else.
It might just be wishful thinking on our part.
But that’s what faith is all about!
We can’t know, not really, but we can choose to believe it,
and to live accordingly.
And to work together with God to become the best we can possibly be.

And then, if, or perhaps when the unthinkable happens,
then we’ll be ready.
Are you ready?

Oh, one loose end –
in my parallel with burglar-proofing our houses,
I mentioned insurance.
Do we have insurance?
As Christians, yes, we do.
We have Jesus’ promise in John’s gospel:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Those who believe in him are not condemned;
but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Says it all, doesn’t it!