Advent is a between-times season – between Christ’s first coming (with all the prophecies before that in the First Testament) and Christ’s second coming (with all the prophecies for that in both First and Second Testaments). In Advent, we look forward to celebrating Christ’s first coming and also anticipate his second coming – which could be today or in a thousand years.
One part of us looks back in time and grabs hold of all the prophesies that were given about Jesus’ first coming, knowing that these were fulfilled. These fulfilled prophesies strengthen our faith to know that God is good on God’s word – what God says will be, will indeed be. And that nourishes and vitalises our faith. So, we have to read back into the past and clasp those promises made and fulfilled by God, because they nourish and enrich our faith in God.
And another part of us looks forward in time and reaches out to the fulfilment of the prophesies concerning Jesus’ second coming, with the hope that they will be fulfilled. Our hope is not blind, nor futile. Because we have the evidence of previously fulfilled prophesies. Thus our faith flames our hopes.
During this between-times, we are encouraged by Christ to “stand up and lift up your heads” (Luke 21:28). And so, in this very short homily, I act out (in a kind of ‘Advent yoga’) this reaching back and grasping the fulfilled promises of God, and stepping forward and reaching out towards the yet-to-be-fulfilled promises of God. And I get the congregation to stand up and join me in this.
During Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas) we have been preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ into this world – God in human form – Emmanuel – God with us. Today, that advent – ‘the arrival of a notable person or thing’ – has come to fruition. We are not waiting for God to come to us; God is here with us. Christ is born!
I’m sharing two messages today – one that I preached last night, based on John 1, and one that I preached this morning, based on Luke 2. Both are about the coming of God into the world, but from different perspectives:
John presents to us the grand narrative about the coming of Christ into this world:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … Through him all things were made … In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us … We have seen his glory!” (John 1:1-14)
Here we meet ‘The Word’ – the very Word of God, the thoughts of God, the knowledge of God, the power of God – who is the second person of the Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit). This Word is the foundation of the cosmos. He was there from before the beginning of time and space, working in partnership with Father and Spirit in the creation of everything that is. He is the very source of the fundamental elements of our existence: life and light – making all things possible.
And then, at a point in time and space, this Word transitioned from eternity, from infinity, from perfection, into this human world – the Word became flesh and “moved into our neighbourhood” (the Message). God became one of us, bringing life and light into our immediate vicinity. We could see him, touch him, speak with him.
God continues to live among us, in our neighbourhood. The Word made flesh. He makes his dwelling among us in this world.
And he makes his dwelling in you, in me, in every person who will allow him. Perhaps he has already set up his dwelling place – pitched his tent – in every person, and is just waiting for an invitation to move in. His space is there, ready and waiting, but just needing us to answer the knock on the door, the subtle invitation, the quiet whisper.
Luke presents to us a more domestic narrative about the coming of Christ into the world:
“Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlem to register with Mary who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (Luke 2:1-20)
Luke presents the coming of Christ as a family story, set against the political landscape. Rome – a colonial oppressor in Israel – required everyone to travel to their home town for a census. Mary – a teenager – pregnant and as-yet unwed – travels with Joseph. But they are unable to find a place to stay, and settle into what may have been a barn or cave or a corner of a house, with the animals. And there she gave birth to her son, Jesus. Such a simple way to tell us that God the Son had just entered this world – ‘and she gave birth to her firstborn’. No fanfare, no witnesses, no family support, not even a decent place to stay. In that place, God came into this world.
And then it is to the shepherds that God reveals this good news. They’re out looking after their sheep and the sky fills with angels who sing out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests”. It is these shepherds to go to visit Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. (The Maji appear in Matthew’s version and Mark and John don’t describe Jesus’ birth at all.)
We learn something of the humility of God from Luke’s narrative. It is mostly so underplayed. Only the shepherds see the angels, no-one else. In the first Testament, God is typically portrayed as great, awesome, powerful, the Creator of all. John’s narrative similarly presents us with ‘the Word’ – the cosmic Christ. But here we see God presented to us as a newborn – the most vulnerable and helpless of all humans, utterly dependent on his caregivers for his survival.
And we learn something of God’s willingness to work through the ordinary, and particularly through ‘the poor’ – those who are displaced, marginalised, labourers, homeless, hungry. We will see this again and again in Luke’s gospel particularly, but indeed in all the narratives about Jesus’ life and ministry. God leans towards those on the edges.
And so God is waiting to work in you and in me, to be born in us today. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, how educated or illiterate you are, how gifted or ordinary you are, how powerful or weak you are, how well-adjusted or dysfunctional you are, how rich or poor you are. God wants to be born in you and to grow up in you.
And so, if you have been skirting the edges of a commitment to Jesus or if you have made a commitment to him but are iffy in how you live that out day-by-day, perhaps this Christmas is the time when you want to say YES to the Son of God, and to allow the Word to move into that tent that he has already pitched in your heart. Perhaps this Christmas is the moment when you say YES to the birth of Jesus in your heart, and when you say YES to nurturing him as he grows in you in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and people. Perhaps now is the time to say YES to God.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, a season in which we look forward to the coming of Christ into the world – historically 2,000 years ago (which we celebrate at Christmas), in this very moment (Christ is continually coming into the world) and one day in the near or distant future (when Christ comes again). Today we reflect on the last of these – Jesus’ second coming.
Our reading is Isaiah 64:1-9, which opens with these powerful words, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” While this sounds like a joyful call for Christ to return, the passage is filled with caution and a call for critical self-reflection.
Let me summarise the flow of thought. Initially, there is a call for Christ to come down, to make the mountains tremble, to set fire to the world, to cause the nations to quake and to make his name known to his enemies. This passage seems to work from the assumption that there are clear enemies of God, and implicitly that we are in the right:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. (Isaiah 64:1-3)
Second, there is a similarly smug and self-satisfied view that God is inevitably on our side – that we are right, and everyone else is wrong, because we wait for Christ, we gladly do right, and we remember his ways. There is a complacency that we are right and thus God is for us – a complacency that easy slides into arrogance – an arrogance that easily slides into hatred and judgement of everyone else:
Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. (Isaiah 64:4-5a)
But third, it seems that Isaiah pauses and reflects. He becomes self-critical, as he writes, “But…” That ‘but’ initiates a series of recognitions that there is little difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. He faces up to our continued sin, our uncleanness, that even the best we do is like filthy rags, that we are shrivelled like a leaf, that the wind of our sins will sweep us away, and that we neglect to call on God’s name or to strive towards him. Isaiah recognises that, as a result, God hides his face from us and gives us over to our sin. And so he says, “How then can we be saved?”:
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. (Isaiah 64:5b-7)
And then, out of this stepping down, stepping back, looking within, critically self-reflecting, challenging himself and his religious community, Isaiah comes to some important realisations. He starts the next passage with, “Yet”, signalling that he has recognised something new. He discovers afresh that God is our father and we all are his children. That God is the potter and we are but clay in his hands. That God is merciful and does not store up anger against his children. That God sees us as we pray. And that we all are God’s people, all the work of his hand.
This last line is perhaps the most the important of all – having started by dividing the world into right and wrong, good and bad, saved and lost; and then realising that we also are wrong, bad and lost – he realises that God is for everyone. God desires to save everyone. God longs to reconcile with all of us. And that we can be reconciled only through the work of Christ, not by us being ‘more right’ than anyone else:
Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins for ever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:8-9)
As much as we long for Christ to return – for the rending of the heavens and the coming down of Christ – let us recognise that we are little different from anyone else. We are as dependent on Christ for our salvation as anyone else, because we are as sinful as anyone else. That when we become smug about our salvation or about how spiritual or righteous we think we are, we are actually moving away from God, not towards him.
And so let us be cautious, humble, critically self-reflective and watchful. As Jesus says at the end of Mark 13:24-37,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).
These majestic words open the Gospel according to St John, and continue over 18 verses in one of the most majestic hymns to the Christ. On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of an infant, a little child who promised hope and new life. But he was, after all, just an infant. By contrast, John presents us with the pre-existent second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the Holy One. Magnificent, eternal, powerful, unfettered, transcendent.
We really cannot dissect and analyse such an image of Christ. Rather, we must merely apprehend it, gaze upon it, marvel at it. My own church tradition is low church, not high, but it is on days like today that I wish we had incense in my church, as its fragrance and appearance would serve to lift us up out of the intellectual to the mystical, and to merely and deeply appreciate the mystery of the Word.
This Word, who became flesh, and who made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). How amazing that God should became human, that God should shrink down to be merged with a single human cell at conception, and develop into a neonate, a son.
We, like John the Baptist, like John the beloved disciple, can only witness this gift of love, to see it and hear it and know it. And then to be witnesses to it, to proclaim it. The Word made flesh!
Today is the first Sunday in Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas – during which time we reflect on our preparation for Christ’s comings into the world – his first coming some two thousand years ago, and his second coming some time in the future.
Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 21:25-36, presents part of Jesus’ prophecy about the future, specifically, the Day of the Lord, or the day on which he will return, aka the ‘second coming’. He opens this passage with the words, “There will be signs…”
We all look for signs – signs about our past, to explain where we come from; signs about the future, so we know where we’re going; and signs about the present, to help us make sense of our current situations. In this passage, Jesus gives us insights into all of these.
Advent is a time of going back more than 2000 years, so we can look forward to the birth of Christ, whose birthday we will celebrate in a few weeks. In those days, people were looking for signs of the long-awaited Messiah. Now, today, we are looking forward to his second coming, and looking at the signs that foretell this.
Jesus’ teaching in Luke raises both the light and dark of Jesus’ second coming, some time in the future. He cautions us about the dangers and risks of that time. And he also encourages us to be faithful during these times.
Drawing on Christ’s teaching, I suggest that he calls us – in our faith, and also in our private and public lives – to cast one eye on the future and the other on the present. I explain why he says this and why it is a useful approach for contemporary living. I argue that we should live in the present, with roots in our past and looking forward to the future.
‘Advent’ means ‘coming’ and is the time we remember God’s first coming into the world in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as well as look forward to God’s second coming into the world when Christ returns to bring cosmic history to fulfillment (the second coming). Often, we think of Advent as a season in the Christian calendar – the four Sundays before Christmas. But let us rather think of it as a type of ministry or mission, which we see most fully expressed in the work of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).
This Advent Mission is particularly important in a world that seems to have gone made this year: in South Africa we experience profound loss of confidence in the integrity and ethics of our presidency; Trump was elected President of the USA, giving platform for racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and the exploitation of women; the Middle East continues to explode, with profound devastation in Aleppo, Syria; the president of the Philippines is promoting the unregulated execution of anyone involved in drugs; the president of South Korea has been impeached; the UK exited the EU; Europe is seeing a dramatic rise in right wing politics; HIV continues to threaten human development; and women continue to experience profound violence and degradation at the hands of patriarchal men. We live in an increasingly hate-filled world. More than ever, we are in need of Advent.
An Advent Mission means two main things:
First, we cultivate a vision for the cosmos that God envisaged at the time of creation and still envisages for one day in the future. This vision is expressed in wonderful poetry in Isaiah 35 and Psalm 146, and is shown in the life and ministry of Jesus in the Gospels. The Isaiah passage in particular contrasts the ecology of Israel (similar to the Karroo – beautiful but rather desolate) with that of Lebanon (similar to the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal coastlines – lush and verdant).
Second, we root ourselves in the present world, living out our faith in ways that contribute to the building of the Kingdom of God, while we wait for God’s return. James 5 points to three key things we should do while wait:
We should be patientand persevere, continuing to journey forward, living out our faith, being faithful, and putting one foot in front of the other as we journey through life with God.
We should not grumble against others. That is, we should be kind, considerate and caring, particularly towards those who are different from us, especially in a world characterised increasingly by hatred and intolerance for those who are ‘other’.
We should be hopeful, that God will do what God has said, that he will return, that he will restore, that he will reconcile the whole cosmos together in union under the headship of Christ.
Today we study the passage from Matthew 2: 13-23 which reports on the flight of Joseph and his family from Bethlehem to Egypt and his later return to Nazareth in Galilee. It will be helpful if you have a copy of the passage in front of you before you listen to the recording. If you can’t lay your hands on one quickly, here is a link to an online Bible.
Sometimes, when we read this and similar passages, we get caught up in the events of the narrative and lose sight of the theological meaning that Matthew wove into the text. We read the scripture from our own, Gentile perspective, rather than from the perspective of Matthew’s audience – Jewish Christians, steeped in the Old Testament narrative and theology. In this sermon we peel back the layers to uncover some of the deeper messages that the original readers would have understood.
What we get from this is a deeper insight into Jesus as saviour and redeemer. At one level, the story is about the infant Jesus deliveredfrom a paranoid and violent ruler (Herod). At a deeper level, the story is about Jesus as the deliverer of humanity, the new Moses inaugurating a new Exodus, embodying the new and true Israel.
May Christ rise in your heart as you reflect further on the great miracle of God coming into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the long awaited Messiah.