this is the text of the sermon previously described as 'ropey' - perhaps just reading it back makes me feel less confident about it's structure and style. Actually it is the expanded version, i chopped out all the stuff about cultural change when i preached it, but i quite liked that bit - it just didn't feel like the right thing to say at 8.30am this past Sunday morning...
The Urgency of Waiting
We've had a lot of weddings in this past year. And there is always a moment in a wedding, and yesterday was no exception when people go from ‘hanging about’ before the start of the service to ‘waiting’. It’s normally just a moment or two before the bride enters (depending on how late the bride has decided to be, of course). There is a sense of expectation, of anticipation – and, no matter how sure we are that there is no chance of the bride not arriving – there is still that feeling of ‘is she coming?’. Of course she is, her decision to be married was made, as was the bridegrooms, long before that day. Life is not a soap opera, and I have never been to or heard of a wedding where the bride ‘did a runner’ – just as I have never known or heard of a challenge at the moment when the Priest says ‘if anyone knows a reason why these two may not lawfully marry you are to declare it now….’ Though I did once have someone put an Alien mask on (very surreal) at that point in a service.
But the anticipation, the sense of waiting, is real. And Advent. the season of the Church’s year that begins today, is a season of waiting. The word ‘Advent’ means, as you probably know, ‘appearing’, ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’ – and so we are waiting for an arrival. We here, and the whole Church,, like that wedding congregation, are called to wait.
But wait for what?
Traditionally the Church has used the season of Advent for two purposes – firstly to prepare for the coming celebration of Christmas. It is a time of waiting for this great feast of the Church year – a time when we will celebrate the God who is with us, Emmanuel, the human one. Until that time our hymns and our readings are, in part, focussed around the promise in Scripture that comes true at Christmas-tide – the promise that God will be one of us, and by doing so will save us from the natural consequence of our sins – that is, to save us from death.
And because this promise is so wonderful, even though we know the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus Christ, we re-enact the story of waiting, of hoping for this coming of God.
But this has further resonance for the Christian Church – the fact that the promise has not only been fulfilled, that God is with us – but that we await the fulfillment of a further promise – the coming of Christ in glory. This is Saint Paul’s concern in the background to our reading today from 1 Thessalonians – to give a sense of urgency to that hope of Christ’s return – a return that the early church thought was a matter of hours, days away – not months or years.
Now many pages have been written about what this ‘second coming’ – also known as the ‘parousia’ means – and we as Christians do hold out in hope for the return of Jesus. But we must not concentrate on what may happen, but live in the life and the grace of what has happened.
In the more liberal end of the Church of England, a place which I have claimed to have inhabited at times, the thinking goes that Jesus coming again is realized for Christians in the coming of Christ’s Spirit at Pentecost. That the second coming is made real whenever anyone receives the Spirit of God at Baptism.
Now, I would say that this cannot be the whole of the story – but I think it helps us to think about the reality of Christ in the world in which we live. For we are the body of Christ, it is our task to proclaim and work towards the kingdom of God. We are called to be prophets, crying out in the wilderness that God is among us.
I would go further, and I live in hope and faith that at some time, in God’s good time, there will be a consummation of the Kingdom of God – when the fulness of God will be revealed and the earth live to praise the name of God – as it says in one of the new Eucharistic prayers in Common Worship. I believe that at some time, as Julian of Norwich, a great medieval saint once said ‘All Will be well and all manner of things shall be well’. I long for the fullness of God’s presence here in earth.
But when I pray ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven’ – I am praying for our world today, and I am going to do my best, even in my own little way, to try and make the kingdom, the reign, of God real in my life, and in the life of the world around me.
And so we wait – we re-enact the waiting for the promise of God in Christ and we wait in faith and hope for the coming of Christ again in glory. This has been the traditional view of Advent, and it is one that still holds today, even after hundreds of years of Church tradition. But our world is changing, and our society is waiting.
Not just the Church, not just Christians, but our whole world is engaged in a process of waiting.
What are we waiting for?
Our society is undergoing great shifts in the way it thinks, in how it acts, in the zeitgeist the spirit of the age. More learned types than me have talked about ‘a Paradigm shift’ – meaning that the very fabric of our society is undergoing massive changes.
It’s no longer just being able to say ‘it’s not like it used to be’. That’s been the cry from generation to generation as people grow older and see the way things have indeed changed –as they do. No, our society is moving from a certain way of thinking, of being, to another way.
There have been great cultural shifts before in our history – from Hellenism (Greek culture) to the world of Rome, from the dark ages to the age of enlightenment, in the Church in England we have gone from Celtic to Catholic, from Catholic to Reformed, from division to ecumenism. And now, at the start of a new Millennium we see our society undergoing some major changes.
For as long as any of us can remember our culture has had in a post-Enlightenment, rationally based world-view. Central to this was the idea that progress was inevitable, that the world could only get better as we discovered more and more through science and as we invented better and better things. The industrial revolution was the epitome of this idea – that if we could build bigger and better machines then the quality of life for all would improve.
This ‘myth of progress’ has been proved false. After two world wars and countless battles and conflicts that have carried throughout the last century. After the gap between rich and poor has widened in our country and all over the world. After the failures of science to tackle many of the issues of human need and everyday existence there is a lack of faith in the rational, the scientific, the industrial machine.
Alongside this institutions – Government and the Church foremost amongst them – no longer command the respect of previous eras. People are more likely to challenge authority, to be skeptical about our leaders.
Our communities are changing, people (on the whole) have less time for neighbours – because they are mobile, and in touch through telephone, fax, e-mails, many – especially in urban and sub-urban centres are creating communities of interest groups, rather than with those who they live next to.
As well as this there is a burgeoning interest in a wide variety of spirituality – the New Age philosophies, eastern philosophies, Celtic spirituality, meditation, high Church ritual.
And commentators state that the reason for all of this is that we are moving from the modern age, the post-enlightenment world view – to a new epoch. What we see now, say many writers and philosophers, are the signs of an emerging culture, of something new. We find ourselves in a time of transition, a time which some have called ‘post modernity’
We are waiting for something new.
But why has the Vicar decided to talk on this now?
Well this comes from our Gospel reading on interpreting the signs of the age, looking at the fig tree and seeing what is going to happen. If we are aware of what is happening in our world, we have the chance to shape the world in which we live through our prayers, our activities, our worship and our rôle as lights to the world.
And this Advent it is worth us thinking of how we as the Church are going to respond to this. Waiting does not mean sitting doing nothing, lamenting what has passed, it can be a time of preparation, of great excitement.
This is a time of waiting, when we have our chance to work with the cultural shifts and to even be counter-cultural in places, offering a challenge to the assumptions that have been made and are being made. The Church has lived through many cultural changes and will continue to do so through whatever comes, though its form and structures may change it is through God’s grace that we carry on as Christ’s body here on earth.
So what does this mean for us here today? It might be all very well to consider philosophically, but what about the everyday in the life of this village and of myself as a follower of Christ?
Firstly we can offer a genuine welcoming faith that is open to those who want to come and explore, and to make it real in our community of the Church.
Next we can call on the rich heritage and spirituality of the Church, to build a faith that holds fast to the best and is willing to take risks for the gospel. Alongside this we must apply our hearts and our minds to truly being willing to consider how we can move forward to meet the needs of our communities and welcome new people to our Churches.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we can hold fast to the truth of the Gospel – an eternal truth of God’s love for all people. Lives of faith are the best advertisement for the Church. In our lives of prayer, in our worship we meet with a God who is faithful, who meets the needs of those who turn to him and who is changeless amongst the ‘changes and chances of this mortal life.
During this Advent Season let us rededicate ourselves to service of God and his world, to lives of prayer and faithfulness and, above all else let us wait upon God and listen for God’s voice and his guidance. Amen.