Advent Sunday, November 27 2016
Isaiah 2.1-5; Psalm 122.1-9; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44
Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Welcome to Advent!
In this season we look back, remembering the coming of Christ at Christmas and all that this means for us. But on this Sunday – Advent Sunday – we look forward, reminding ourselves of the second coming of Christ.
All our readings this morning are about the future. Isaiah speaks of the days to come, Paul tells us that the day is near, Jesus says that no one knows about that day and hour, but only the Father. Even our psalm, in a sense, is about the future: for Jerusalem today is not at peace.
There is a certain tension between these readings, which is part of the fun of following a lectionary. But beneath and beyond the tension, they share a common assumption. They assume we live in a story-shaped universe: that our lives are going somewhere.
In certain moods or moments, we may be inclined to doubt this. On some mornings, we may wake up feeling that our life is just one damn thing after another.
In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as the eponymous hero is approaching the hour of his death, he captures that feeling in poetry:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time…
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
When we remember to be Christians, we deny that.
We know that we begin as children, just as Jesus did. But we know too that we are called to grow up: to grow up into Christ, to become mature adults. It’s a growth that is not complete when we are 18 or 21 or 64. This growth is lifelong, and not without its twists and turns, its difficulties and failures.
But it is, we believe, the meaning of our life. However mysterious it may remain to us, we believe that life has a meaning.
And what we believe about our own lives, we believe also about the life of the world. There are days when history seems to make no sense. Perhaps, for many of us, such a day came earlier this month, on Tuesday November 8. But when we remember to be Christians, we believe that, however full of sound and fury, history does not and cannot signify nothing.
It means something.
As Christians, we point to that meaning by overlaying the events of everyday life and everyday history with a story: the Christian story, which has a beginning, a middle and an end.
It begins when God chooses Abraham and charges him and his children after him to walk in God’s way by doing what is just and right, so that in and with and through the family of Abraham all the families of the earth may be blessed.
It reaches its middle when a child of Abraham is born in Bethlehem of Judea and wise men come from the east to pay him homage.
And it will find its end when God’s creation becomes fully and finally the new creation it has already begin to be: when the first heaven and the first earth become a new heaven and a new earth, and Jerusalem becomes the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down – as it must come down – from God.
This is our story, the story we tell and sing and carry in our flesh.
But easily we can fall into the temptation of thinking that we know more about this story than we do or can.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English Protestants began to read their Bibles in a prophetic mode. They read the major and minor prophets, they read Daniel, above all they read the book of Revelation as if these texts offered them the key to history – in particular, to the history through which they were living.
The four Church of Scotland ministers who came here in 1839 to begin the still-unfinished history of our long involvement here were in the same tradition. Alexander Black, Alexander Bonar, Alexander Keith, and Robert Murray McCheyne also read their Bibles in a prophetic mode. Caught up in a fantasy about the return of the Jews to Israel, the conversion of the Jews to Christ, and the imminent return of Christ to Jerusalem, they were incapable of seeing the inhabitants of this land, the land itself – or, for that matter, themselves – as they really were.
There are Christians today, there are Christians in this town, who still read their Bibles in this way; but for the most part the Church of Scotland no longer does. And this is, I think, a good thing.
I was sharing this story last month with a group of Scottish Jews, and one of them agreed with me.
It is, he said, uncomfortable for Jews when Christians insist on seeing them as playing a bit part in a Christian drama, reciting a Christian script, acting out a Christian fantasy.
We have a Christian story to tell, and we must tell it; but we must also allow people to be themselves; and we must not pretend to know more than in history – within history – we can know.
On Saturday December 10, just under a fortnight from now, St Andrew’s will host a concert for the benefit of Musicians without Borders – a movement that works in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, in Northern Ireland and the Netherlands, and right here in Israel/Palestine.
Musicians without Borders uses the power of music to bridge divides, connect communities, and heal the wounds of war.
It takes its inspiration from a line by the late Jimmy Hendrix: “If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.” And it adds a quote from the late Nelson Mandela: “You may be poor, you may only have a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope.”
Where war has raged, where conflict still persists, people need everything to return to life. But more than anything, people need hope. To reconcile, people need empathy. To heal, people need connection and community. Music creates empathy, builds connection and gives hope.
Here at home, Musicians without Borders offers uplifting, music-based activities to young people who lack social or cultural opportunities, works with hundreds of children in Aida and al-Azzeh refugee camps in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, and reaches thousands of the most marginalized children of the West Bank.
War divides, music connects, say Musicians without Borders.
We may add that walls divide, but justice and peace connect. And that brings me to the olive-wood wall standing on the pew in front of me and in front of you.
It comes from Bethlehem, a city surrounded now almost on four sides by a wall of separation. It refers us in the first instance to that wall but also beyond it to all the walls, real or symbolic, that divide humanity.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem to bring justice between nations and peoples and to break down all our walls of hostility. He was born to beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks and to create in himself one new humanity, reconciling us to God and one another.
As we go through Advent, in the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, we shall symbolize all of that by knocking down this wall, one panel at a time, while praying, as is our Advent wont, for hope, peace, love and joy.
In the opening song of the 1984 film Streets of Fire, Diane Lane sings:
Everybody’s going nowhere slowly
They’re only fighting for the chance to be last
There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere, baby
But we should be going nowhere fast
It’s a driving rock song in a film that is aptly billed as a rock-and-roll fable, but even as we are caught up in it, we can’t help feeling that there’s got to be a better option, that – whatever the speed – we’d like to be going somewhere.
The whole burden of Advent Sunday, the whole thrust of my sermon, is that there is and we are, but with the caution already noted.
We should not imagine, says Ben F Meyer, that any prophet ever had before his inner eye the kind of scenario that history, on cue and according to schedule, might literally follow. We shouldn’t even imagine, I may add, that Jesus had before his inner eye a timetable of how history would unfold. In our gospel reading, he tells us explicitly that he doesn’t.
The mystery of God is always unfolding its meaning in our world; but it remains always a mystery. In the end of time, God will bring everything, including our own stumbling lives, to fulfilment in Christ; but until then we walk by faith.
All that I have been trying to say this morning is summed up neatly in 10 words from the communion liturgy: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
That is all we need to know. And in that sufficient knowledge we can go forth, today and every day, to connect, to heal, and to bring hope.
O come, o come, Emmanuel (CH4 273)
Hope is a candle, once lit by the prophets (CH4 284, verse 1)
Pray that Jerusalem may have peace and felicity (CH4 82, Psalm 122)
Hark! What a sound, and too divine for hearing
He came down that we might have hope (CH4 359, verse 1)
O God of blessings, all praise to you! (CH4 177)
Lo, he comes with clouds descending (CH4 477)
 Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5
 Genesis 12.1-3, 18.17-19
 Matthew 2.1-2
 Isaiah 43.18-19; Romans 8.18-24; 2 Corinthians 5.17; Revelation 21.1-5
 Robert O Smith, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (Oxford & New York: OUP, 2013)
 Michael Marten, Attempting to Bring the Gospel Home: Scottish Missions to Palestine, 1839-1917 (London & New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2006)
 Ben F Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1979), 246