Sermon for Advent Sunday – Year C, 2018
1 Thess 3:9-13
‘A faith that keeps us standing . . . ?’
‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ Luke 18:8
If you’ve ever travelled to Europe and visit one of the many medieval cathedrals or churches, you may have noticed that around the walls of the nave, there are often stone benches, clearly carved to be part of the building. It is from these benches that the phrase ‘Gone to the wall’ comes from. For until the C17 in most places, the great body of the congregation would stand for the entirety of the liturgy – those who couldn’t ‘went to the wall’
Standing for the liturgy remains the practise of the Eastern Orthodox churches. There are no pews, or indeed cushioned seats . . . for why? Because we stand in the presence of God. God addresses us, and his address to us dignifies us as human beings.
When God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, he tells him to get up out of the dust – perhaps an echo of our creation from the dust of the earth – and prepare to face me! Several times in his letters, Paul speaks as one who ‘stands before God’
Jesus in our gospel for this Advent Sunday in which we begin our journey with Luke exhorts us ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
Our essential posture before God is to stand – it is the posture of our faith, of our life and of our prayer.
One of the Saints of the our Orthodox brothers and sisters, Theophan the Recluse – a C19 Russian monk speaks of prayer in this way. ‘To pray is to stand before God, with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before God to your last breath’ This is the posture of prayer, prayer is our life and it is our faith. Aside from prayer we are not – aside from faith we are not. And so we stand . . . or at least we used to.
As our lives have become more comfortable and less rigorous, less demanding, so has our prayer and with it our faith. Faith, Life and Prayer are of a whole. Looking at the history of our faith it is hard to escape this conclusion.
Take dogma, for example. Those teachings which are held to be at the core of our faith. The Virgin Birth and Incarnation, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the alarming teaching that this wandering Jewish Rabbi is the only begotten Son of God coming to us in flesh and blood, and in bread and wine.
Yet we live in an age when dogma, dogmatic, is an uncomfortable word. We are in our age apostles of Pilate, who has little time for hard realities of Truth, he has little need of Truth when after all we seem to be so in control of our own existence, even to deciding for ourselves about the very nature of reality . . . until of course we are not . . . until something unwanted crosses our path and crashes through the fog of our unconsciousness
Advent as a season is a case in point. As I have had cause to remind folk these past weeks its traditional uncomfortable focus and rigour has dissipated. So the theme of Advent Sundays even in my life time has turned to ‘Faith, Hope, Joy and Love’ as a preparation for an infantilised and somewhat saccharin version of the story of the Incarnation, one increasingly shorn of its jagged edges. Who after all will give time to consider the massacre of the Holy innocents this Christmas time? It is telling that there are few who remember the traditional Advent focus – on the Four Last things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.
Judgement, heaven and hell seem to have all but disappeared from the Christian lexicon. Well perhaps not heaven, but our ideas about it seem often to extend no further to playing rounds of golf for ever with old friends . . . And as for death?
Well, there is no avoiding it except we don’t give it much thought. Which is odd, because if there is one thing that is certain, it is our death. Despite the fact that every time we download or go to watch the latest Disney movie, we help Uncle Walt continue in his cryogenically preserved state, awaiting The Scientific breakthrough which will, pardon the pun, re-animate him . . . Death is something we cannot avoid yet give it little thought, until of course it intrudes into our existence. And that can wake us up.
A grown man stood weeping on my doorstep one day. A successful business man – Death had terrifyingly intruded on his plans for his own life. His son and nephew had died together in a road accident, and Mick told me how this tragedy had called into question his entire way of life up to that point. Why had he given himself to things that now seemed so unimportant, so ephemeral? No longer insulated and cosseted away from this most concrete fact, Life all of a sudden was thrown into its proper light. The Reality of death had been a light, a pitiless light and judgement on his life.
Sebastian Junger, a Journalist who went to war with US forces in Iraq spoke of the effect it had on those who fought around him. He spoke of PTSD – Post traumatic stress disorder – but of two types. One we may have expected. There were those who had lived comfortable lives before encountering a war zone found that experience traumatising.
But there were others, another form of PTSD he noted. Those who had lived in hard and difficult circumstances before joining the army found the return to civilian life hard, because it was so shallow, so insignificant. Faced with the Last Things – well three of them in Death, Judgement and the Hell of war – they had found deep significance in their existence – it had as it were made them more fully alive. Every moment was freighted with significance – It had wakened in them a quality of seriousness of existence – which evaporated upon their return to the comforts and conveniences of the modern world where so much came easily, where you depended on no one and no one depended on you. Where life was not something demanding to be negotiated on a moment by moment basis.
Coming back from a situation where Death faced them with the significance of life, to be faced by lives of apparent insignificance was too much for them and they broke down under the strain.
These things – these realities which we work so hard to keep out of our consciousness are those things which face us with the Seriousness of the business of our lives. And thus for us, the Seriousness of Prayer. The Seriousness of Faith.
Jesus as he speaks of the Last Things says this
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.
These words shake us – call us to Wake up. Given that such language was part and parcel of much of the language of the time of Jesus, and age unlike our own when folk felt very much as powerless against so much that happened around them in the world. Do we sense we have so conquered existence that these words no longer have such power. Has our own sense of matter of our own lives led us to believe ‘this will never happen to us?’ And if they did??
Jesus’ counsel Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near. Our temptation may well be not to stand up, and raise our heads, but to duck! Unless of course this is what we have always faced?
In many regards what Jesus speaks of here is The Cross. Much of what he speaks of here, he also speaks of with regard to his Crucifixion and the fall of Jerusalem with which he associates it. The Cross working its way in and through the entire created order. Death and Judgement combined in one place and yet ever present if we are awake.
It is this that gives our lives as Christians an deep moral seriousness. I don’t mean that we are moralists, but the How of our lives takes on tremendous urgency confronted with the Cross of Jesus. Our lives are given us, that they might bear witness to The Truth, to Christ himself.
A simple example of how that seems to have deserted us is in a conversation I once had about a married priest who had, to use the vernacular, ‘run off with’ a member of his congregation’. I was speaking with another ordained minister who said, ‘well, the timing wasn;t ideal, he could at least have waited until he’d left the parish – but then you can’t help who you fall in love with’, as if that were the last word on the matter. Vows? The abandoned wife and children now having to come to terms with a broken home? No, you can’t help falling in love . . . How we might ask does that bear witness to the Truth? What ‘god’ looks benignly down on that smiling gently at ‘falling in love’? . . .
Stanley Hauerwas, a provocative Christian writer and thinker says – ‘The reason our age has produced no truly challenging atheists [and it hasn’t], is that the ‘god’ of the mainline churches has become so uninteresting’ Put it another way, in may respects, our faith now speaks of a ‘god’ who is not worth the effort of belief . . . and if you disagree, perhaps you might care to consider the question, ‘what compelling reason if any can we give to others to share in faith with us?’
Yes Advent does us in our preparation for the feast of the Incarnation, but it is This Jesus who comes to us, the One whose presence in the world is for judgement, is for the Last Things. It is the Incarnation, the coming to us in the Flesh of the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of all things. Yet it is so easy to be lulled to sleep,and as we all know the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes to wake us
Yet the Jesus who comes to us in Word and Sacrament, This Jesus calls us to alertness.
‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
In the Light of Christ Jesus, Crucified, Risen and Ascended and coming in Glory, Life takes on a seriousness which we have lost sight of. These Realities when we remain alert, held onto, hold us in place. Standing before Him.
Jesus calls us to Stand in the Presence of God, predominantly as His people in Worship, but also in private prayer and to be so disposed in each moment of our existence.
. . . and to go on standing, before God with our mind in our heart, to our last breath . . . that at the last we might stand before the Son of Man at his appearing.