This time of year we can be almost overwhelmed by sensory invaders. In Advent it is light – and we have made special efforts this year – this difficult year for the city of Salisbury – to enhance our environment with light in various forms to prepare for the light of the world coming into our lives. So a question we might ask is how do we interpret what we see and hear and read and feel? For example, I wonder what you thought when you came into the cathedral this morning and saw our great globe above the Spire crossing – what was your first reaction? It looks uncannily like the photograph of Mars taken from NASA’s ‘Insight’ lander as it approached the red planet just before landing on Monday.
In another sense, for some us of a certain age it is eerily reminiscent of ‘Rover’ in that TV series of the late 1960s entitled ‘The Prisoner’. For those of you who remember it, it has been described as ‘The most analysed TV series in the world’ – by any measure it is deeply enigmatic, and for most people it still is, after 50 years of puzzling and bafflement. Whatever we may think – positively or negatively, our lighting features are indeed Art. Art is an expression in which ever medium is meant to make us think – to challenge us, or perhaps to comfort us; to provide solace; to instruct or to intrigue us; to just make us reflect; to occasionally be exaggerative and perhaps even outrageous. Was that what Jesus had in mind, according to Luke in our gospel reading this morning? Is this dystopian view of what is to come really the context of the ‘Redeemer of the earth’ whom this weekend we begin our preparations to welcome him incarnationally amongst us?
It is important to remember that this focus on light in Advent is not unique to Christians – today at dusk our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukka with very similar use of candles and light in the darkness.
What were you thinking when you opened the first window of your Advent calendar this morning – or did it, as so many Advent calendars do these days, start yesterday the first of December. Was it with a sense of hope for our world; perhaps a sense of uncertainty or weariness about Brexit? Or maybe something more prosaic like ‘what shall we do about Christmas – whose turn is to visit whom, or maybe something like I’ve missed ‘Stir up Sunday’ again and I’ll fail to make the Christmas puddings and cake on time?’ If we are wondering what to make of Advent this New Church Year we might take encouragement from Martin Luther description of the three chapters that include our Old Testament text from the prophet Jeremiah – he called them ‘The Little Book of Comfort’. In just three verses it is all about God at work restoring and renewing his covenant, his promises to Israel and Judah and by extension to each one of us. Jeremiah was of course a prophet and in his time he saw not only the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem where God supposedly dwelt but also the exile of God’s people to Babylonia beyond the river Euphrates. So that’s good and indeed comforting to hear but only if you had considerable patience. Coming back to today and our Advent preparations for Christmas, what I suspect we didn’t imagine was the apocalyptic discourse that is our gospel reading from Luke today. I’ve generally considered Luke to be the Gospel writer who put domesticity to the fore; he writes about eating quite a bit and gives women more prominence than the others, and yet his text is forceful, radical and almost fearful in its strangeness. What it is not is ‘Be still and know that I am God’ as the psalmist has it, nor has it any sense of pre-Christmas sentimentality. Perhaps that’s a good thing – we might say we need a dose realism every now and then. But then maybe we need a sense of dualism where for Advent in Luke’s account gives us the realism of the ‘be prepared’ and the ‘wake-up’ call ahead of the warmth and balm of the manger in Bethlehem. But of course the two of them are linked. Advent has two faces – it is Janus like – it looks both ways: to the past; in the sense that it is a recapitulation of the longing with which men and women of faith living in the past anticipated the coming of God’s Messiah. On the other hand Advent looks to the future in an attitude of expectancy over what God has yet to do in the life of humankind. It has been said that Advent’s face towards the past is the one we more usually seek. How wonderful that a gracious God broke in upon the life of humanity through the birth of his own son. It’s comforting and just about graspable and understandable – it’s Christmas after all. But God coming again – an apocalyptic warning that we need to be on our guard and ready. – Luke’s language is anything but vague and in no sense comforting and certainly not comfortable. So, I suggest, that what we are considering this morning is quite simply two Advents - the ‘historical, and the yet to come’ and we are in this middle age; but: it is made very clear to us, very clear indeed that we need to prepare now for this ‘Second Advent’. It’s hard to take on board the cataclysmic events that are foretold so we tend to either dismiss them or perhaps seek to hide from reality, back under the duvet. So how should we prepare? What is it that God wants us to do? – Luke gives us Jesus’ description of the fig tree, that it’s fruiting tells us to be aware of the timeliness of the warning signs. To look only at things that seem to be close at hand is to miss the larger picture. And this what the beginning of Advent is all about. I think it is essentially two things – which are at the heart of the Christian faith and based on why God incarnate as the baby Christ came amongst us, and recognising that, we need to change, and that starts with being prepared to embark on this new course. Most of us don’t like embracing change especially as we all become older and more set in our ways. The theologian Beverly Gaventa says “if not all Christians are overcome by ‘dissipation and drunkenness’ as Luke has it, “most do find themselves threatened by the worries of this life.” Provisions for family; difficulties at work; concerns about the affairs of government – not to mention Brexit or the environment – clamouring after power and seeking or sustaining status. Things both worthy and trivial have a way of clouding our vision so that the impending kingdom of God remains somehow just out of sight. To look only at the things that seem to be close at hand – including assumed expectations to deliver the perfect Christmas is to miss the larger picture. And here is where the two Advents come together – Things are not what they seem: Normalcy and predictability have disappeared forever. The pregnancy of one more teenager is no longer an ordinary matter; indeed, the pregnancy of this particular teenager provides the overture to a cosmic event. In the birth of a helpless baby all the powers of the universe find that the days of their own power are numbered. From now on nothing will again be the same. And we have a part to play in this monumental opportunity to make God’s love known. Advent presents us with a choice; – are we prepared to play our part? Amen