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A sermon for the First Sunday in Advent

Advent Sunday: 30 November, 2014
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain

Advent is a time of waiting. We wait for the Christ child born in a stable and beyond this we wait, with varying degrees of patience for the second coming of Christ and the culmination of all things. It is also the beginning of a new Church year and we take leave of the Year of Matthew and move on to the next gospel in our three year cycle - the gospel of Mark. In our first encounter with this gospel for a new year we hear the Advent words of warning:

'But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.' (Mark 13:32)

I almost had the perfect sermon illustration for Advent. Almost! It would have been a real-life story of patience and persistence triumphing over adversity. It would have been a classic example of holy waiting in the face of the unknown. Almost! A couple of weeks ago I headed off to Lara to take church in prison. As soon as I made my way down the highway I was caught in a huge back-log of traffic. There had been a very bad accident on the Geelong Road and the traffic was crawling — worse than crawling it got up to a crawl and then stopped. And it stopped for ages. At first I was philosophical, even prayerful. I had time: I was in our comfortable car, being educated along the way by Radio National which I interspersed with bursts of 774.

After a couple of hours on the road I had had enough so I pulled off at the next exit and found myself in a place I had never been before. It turned out to be Altona Meadows. An update on the radio suggested the road would not be open until 2pm so I waited again until I could wait no longer and I decided to see if I could find a back way to Lara. And so it seems, did everyone else! I kept going in the hope that just around the next corner the traffic would evaporate and I would have a clear run. I had to get there to lead worship. I was sure that when I got to the prison people would appreciate my persistence and would think I was really dedicated. And not to mention the sermon illustration that would rival the persistence of the journeys of St Paul.

More stop-start crawling and when at 4pm I decided that I could not take it anymore. Reluctantly I called the prison. They were very gracious as other visitors had not been able to make it either. Disappointed and with that sinking feeling that if had only persisted a little more I might have made it — I turned for home. I was only at Werribee!

Just as there are temptations to give up on things so there is a strong desire to push on to see how the story ends. The early church thought they knew how the story would end. Many thought there would be a cataclysmic intervention of God separating the righteous and the unrighteous and that it would happen in their generation. They believed this because they thought the only thing that could happen following the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit was the return of Christ and the final judgement: the second coming of Christ, the Parousia.

Two things to note as we consider our response to Advent this year: first, Christ did not return coming down from the clouds in their life-time and second, the Church did not dissolve like so many religious movements throughout history when faced with disappointment. Some early Christian leaders discerned God's activity in creation differently from those expecting an impending cataclysm. They sought to encourage Christians to understand that we live in an age sometimes described as the 'now' and the 'not yet'. In Christ, God has indeed acted decisively and God would indeed bring all things to a culmination, but not yet and we simply do not know when. This watchful waiting is not new to God's people. The Old Testament witnesses to a people waiting for God to act in history. And not always waiting patiently! As Isaiah implores God (Isaiah 64:1-2):

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

The prophet also notes that God's people had not always been faithful in their waiting and so says plaintively in verse 9:

Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

This portion of Isaiah was written midway between the seminal rule of King David and the time when Jesus walked the earth — an approximate span of 1000 years. The people of God — with various degrees of success — must wait. And I think that all the people of God and perhaps Christians especially, wait with a sense of unease. Christians sometimes claim to know a lot, but we do know that we are yet incomplete, broken, unfulfilled and we yearn for the day when all things will be put right as I sense in my ministry in prisons and with the homeless. We see the beginnings of this being put right in the person of Jesus Christ. And yet we know that there is more to come.

Some years ago while a school chaplain I remember coming across some haunting words by the educator Paul Logiavist. With some trepidation I offered his words as a blessing to the year twelve students at their valedictory Eucharist:

May your heart's disquiet never vanish.
May you never be at peace.
May you never be reconciled to life, nor to death either.
May your path be unending.

It is in recognising the disquiet of our hearts and the dislocation of our lives that we make space for God and can wait, albeit with some unease, for the coming of Christ. St Paul wrote in the 1st Epistle to that rabble of a church in Corinth: 'He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.'

These words of encouragement come from a pastor concerned that his people wait with particular attitudes eliciting particular behaviours. The Church in Corinth had its own way of waiting. They were into party politics, spiritual one-upmanship and plain old immorality.

It is in this epistle that Paul encourages the church in Corinth to be unified in Christ and unified in a particular way. They are to develop their different gifts and offer them for building up the body of Christ, the Church. Perhaps waiting is not the right term to use to describe what we Christians are meant to be doing in this in-between time. In this time we worship, we engage in ministry and we encourage one another to develop our gifts in ways that we are all enriched. All undergirded as Paul reminds us in the 13th Chapter of 1 Corinthians, by love.

When we do this time takes on another meaning. There are two significant definitions of time. From the Greek there is chronos or the linear time that is measured by our watches and iphones. Then there is kairos, the significant moment, the right time or God's time. There is a world of difference between sitting around waiting according to chronos — ticking off the seconds, minutes and hours as if we were sitting in traffic or waiting for a train. There is a world of difference between this and living in the kairos moment — the significant time of God.

Awareness of the significant time of God is more than just our perception of how time passes. We might look at the seconds ticking past on our watches as we wait in traffic or public transport or we might wonder where the time went after lunch with good friends. For us there is the deeper sense of urgency as we move forward to the culmination of creation. And so, as I offered those words to those unsuspecting year twelve students I offer them again today on this Advent Sunday:

May your heart's disquiet never vanish.
May you never be at peace.
May you never be reconciled to life, nor to death either.
May your path be unending.


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