Sermon for Advent 1.
Do you ever get a song or a piece of music on the brain? It is something that happens to me frequently ( to the irritation of other members of my family, as I go around the house singing it!)
At this time of year it is often a song from the musical West Side Story. The words go like this:
Could be, who knows.
There’s something due, any day
I will know, right away, soon as it shows.
I got a feeling there’s a miracle due,
Gonna come true, coming to me.
Could it be, yes it could.
Something’s coming, something good, if I can wait.
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
But it is gonna be great.
The air is humming
And something great is coming.
Now, it’s not a religious song, but it seems to me that it encapsulates what we Christians call “The Advent Hope”. The feeling that we express in lighting Advent candles, opening Advent Calendars, buying presents, preparing food, practising carols and nativity plays. The anticipation, the expectation, the excitement of preparing for a special occasion and the confidence that, when it comes, it will be marvellous.
But this year another piece of music has been running through my mind (perhaps because I heard it last week at a Choral Eucharist at church) It is the ‘Libera me, Domine’ from Fauré’s Requiem. The words say ( in English translation)
‘Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death
on that dreadful day
when heaven and earth are moved,
when you come to judge the world by fire.
I tremble and am afraid,
I fear the trial and the wrath to come”.
That music typifies the other aspect of Advent – a season of the Church’s year that has a sort of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character. It is the aspect which runs through the Gospel reading – part of the ‘Little Apocalypse’ that we find in all the synoptic Gospels. It reflects the traditional themes of Advent – The Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, and the liturgical traditions which say we don’t have flowers in church, and use purple hangings during this season. It expresses the anxiety, perhaps even the terror, as we await the second coming of Christ, bringing with it the end of life as we know it, and judgement.
The dual faces of Advent show themselves also in the hymns we sing during the season – some hopeful like ‘Hark a thrilling voice is calling’ and ‘Wake O Wake’, and ‘The advent of our King’, others with a mixture of anticipation and terror, like ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending.’ Though no-one, I think, will countenance singing the hymn I found in a very old version of The Methodist Hymnal, one verse of which goes:
The ungodly, filled with guilty fears
Behold his wrath prevailing.
For they shall rise, and find their tears
And sighs are unavailing.
The day of grace is past and gone,
trembling they stand before his throne,
All unprepared to meet him.
Both these faces of Advent have their place in the Christian tradition. Advent as a penitential season has its roots in the days when baptisms took place at Christmas and Epiphany, so there needed to be a season of fasting and discipline in the weeks preceding them to allow the candidates to prepare to receive the sacraments.
All the indications are that nowadays, we’re much more at ease with the ‘Something’s coming, something good’ Advent, than the ‘Prepare to meet thy doom’ Advent. But our hymns and readings face us with both themes; and since the secular world places all the emphasis on anticipation, we Christians really do need to pay some attention to the theme of judgement.
As the old hymn I quoted shows, previous generations seemed to be much more comfortable with thoughts of judgement. Many of the Old Testament writers seem quite happy to speak of a God who unleashed his wrath against those who broke his laws, and everyone associated with them, however innocent. The Messianic age to which many of the prophets look forward is conceived of as a time when justice – seen in terms of the punishment of the wicked in an eternity apart from God – will be done. This is God being ‘fair’ in purely human terms – dealing out retribution to the unjust and goodies to the righteous.
But modern Christians tend, on the whole, to have more tender consciences. We expect God to behave in a more ethical way. We expect punishment to be reformative, rather than retributive. We find difficulty in reconciling the idea of a God who decrees eternal punishment for some with the idea of a God of love.
People try to avoid the problem of these conflicting ideas in various ways. Some reject the Old Testament picture of a vengeful God, and say it is mistaken. Some avoid thinking about the Second Coming and judgement at all. (Isn’t this what the great majority of nominal Christians are doing when they avoid coming to church in Advent and Lent, but turn up in droves when the Church gets back into celebratory mood at Christmas and Easter? And isn’t their God a celestial version of the kindly grandfather who turns up at weekends and holidays dishing out fivers and sweeties, but is never around to make demands or to exert discipline at any other time?)
Other people split God into compartments and only think about one aspect at a time: The Creator God when they read Genesis; Baby Jesus at Christmas; Jesus, Friend of Sinners most of the time; and the ‘Judge Eternal, throned in splendour’ only when their thoughts turn – as rarely as possible – to their own death and the end of the world.
Yet, if we are to be honest in our faith, and faithful to the tradition, we need to try to live with these contradictions, difficult though that may be. We have to hold in tension God as Judge and God as Saviour. Whether we hold the traditional picture of the second coming as a time of judgement, or believe we face judgement at death, or believe we face judgement every time we make a decision which involves moral choices and act, we need to present the secular world with the uncomfortable truth that actions have consequences and we cannot simply do as we like, because we are all answerable to divine judgement.
It is difficult to keep to the traditional solemnity of Advent, when the world around has been preparing for Christmas since the end of October. In the Church Times a few years ago a sister from a religious order suggested we should move Advent to November to cope with the reality that the secular world celebrates Christmas from the beginning of December. But I think the Church has an important role in teaching the world about the importance of waiting for what is valuable, and the need to prepare properly for the coming of Christ. And it has an important function in providing a place of respite from the frenetic activity of the weeks before Christmas, a quiet space in which we can prepare spiritually.
We need to learn to cope with an Advent Season which is both joyful and penitential – and to be able to explain to the world why we keep Advent in the way we do.
From time to time we may discover a thought or a story that enables us to rest, even if only for a short time, in some sort of equilibrium. I offer you one such thought now – one of Rabbi Lionel Blue’s ‘Bolts from the Blue’. (Hodder and Stoughton 1986)
“In case the Last Judgement terrifies you, I give you this forecast of it, given to me by my teacher. “All that will happen”, he said, “is that God will sit you on his knee, so to speak, and explain to you what your life was really all about. Then you will see it all without illusion – and that will be your heaven and your hell”.
Love and judgement.
May we prepare ourselves this Advent to receive both. Amen