Tag Archives: Advent

1 December – The coming God

View or print as a PDF

Advent 1
1/12/2019

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

 


In a sentence
The God who is coming is the one who has already come, and comes again in the same way

On the first Sunday of Advent each year we hear a gospel reading like that today, from the synoptic gospel of the liturgical year’s new cycle of readings. These texts are strange to modern ears. First century Palestinians expected the world to end in a way not unlike Jesus describes but we have great difficulty committing to that expectation.

The difficulty is largely in that these texts appear to us to be someone else’s ideas about the arrival of God. In fact, it is the force of the ‘someone else’ which makes them mere ideas, mere speculation in our hearing. Because we cannot find ourselves in them or – more to the point – because we can’t find these ideas naturally within ourselves they are mere ideas, and don’t seem to be very good ones at that.

But this ought not to trouble us too much if we understand how the Scriptures work. For not even Jesus’ own ‘ideas’ are to be found in the Scriptures. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is not that they are the ideas of Jesus which makes them important.

This is because, despite all appearances, such passages are not in the Scriptures simply as theories about the end of the world. They are, rather, part of the Scriptures of a community which believed they had something to do with that end of the world which has already been seen in the person of Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection. This is the true end of all things, around which all other Scriptural thoughts revolve.

And so, our text this morning is not speculation or even sure information about what will happen ‘next’. If Jesus ever said anything along the lines of our reading this morning – and he almost certainly did – the importance of what he said is not in his authority as teacher but in that he himself is the ‘Son of Man’ he describes. The ‘Son of Man’ is a complex figure in the New Testament, drawing on several Old Testament concepts in nuanced ways. Yet, in the end, we do justice to the concept by recognising that Jesus himself is this figure. This is because, in the end, Jesus is the reference point for everything which matters in the Scriptures.

Who he is, then, deeply affects what he speaks about in these sayings. Or – to put it more concretely – any approach of the Son of Man will be in accord with what we have already seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The God who is coming is the God who has already been in Jesus. That Jesus is Lord – that Jesus is the Son of Man – changes everything, even what seems to be Jesus’ own understanding of what is yet to come.

The effect of this is to introduce a deep irony into our hearing of Jesus’ words in today’s readings. For if Jesus himself is already come as the Son of Man, then the result has not been the radical shaking of the world in old-style apocalyptic terms. Amazingly, and in stark contrast with the expectation, the Son of Man comes and scarcely anyone notices, even after the resurrection.

But this hiddenness of the end of the world is not a weak thing. Remember that there is a resurrection from the dead at the heart of this story – the radical creation of something new from the nothingness of death.

For the New Testament asks the unexpected question: what is the end of the world if Jesus is Lord, if Jesus is the Son of Man, is the Christ, is judgement, is grace; what is the end of the world if Jesus is the economy, is the environment, is the significance of death? What is climate change or a terrorist attack or crushed protests in Hong Kong, if Jesus is Lord?

‘What is the end of the world if Jesus is Lord?’ is an important question  because our worlds are full of endings, full of public and personal ‘apocalyptic’ moments which come crashing down upon us: the news of serious illness, the death of one we love, lasting disability from an accident, road rage, divorce, the loss of employment or reputation. These are apocalyptic not only in the narrow sense of ‘thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening’ but also in the sense that they reveal who we are and who we think God is (‘apocalypse’ come from Greek words meaning ‘[bring] from hiddenness’). ‘Why did this happen to me?’ is not just the pathos-filled cry of the suddenly wounded; it speaks deeply of my sense of my own righteousness and of God’s obligations, both now under serious strain.

The same applies, of course, to the positive ‘apocalypses’ in our lives: falling in love, the birth of a child, the receipt of a much needed gift. We don’t usually ask ‘Why did this happen to me?’ on these occasions but even that is telling.

For despite our assumptions about how our worlds should end or continue, if God is part of the picture there is no real ‘why’ about what good or ill happens, because God is not properly part of any equation.

To find God in these things – to see God’s proper relation to the ups and downs of our lives – is a difficult and rare thing, because we prefer life to be an equation. That God does not fit into this preference makes it difficult to see God, present in God’s own strange way. It is rare, that is, to hold that the world is God’s natural habitat, that God could be with us in the midst of all this mess and still be God, still be calling us and enabling us to be more richly and deeply human.

To borrow from the imagery Jesus uses, we all experience the same world of gift and threat. In his example, two are working on preparing the same rows in the same field, or working together on the same meal in the same kitchen, but this is the work of God only for one of them. It is not so much, then, that one is taken and one is left behind. It is rather that one was not really, fully, there in the first place.

And this is the question put to us when God comes: are you really there in the midst of the swirling world? Do you know, in that storm, who you are and where God is? The answer for us all will be, at some time – most likely just now – that we do not know: that we have not heard, or that we have forgotten, or that we fear that God’s naming of us is not true. The question in Jesus’ vivid account of the end is not so much ‘will you be ready?’ but will you recognise God as the one who has brought you ‘safe thus far’, and who comes finally to ‘lead you home’?

Such recognition takes practice – eyes trained to distinguish between dots and blurs on the horizon, ears attuned to hear unexpected harmonies in life’s discord. For this we have the faith of the church, not that Jesus is Lord – mere information about God – but that the crucified Jesus is Lord: that God is shown to be present in our very midst, whether in the unbounded possibilities of gurgling life in a manger or in the hopeless last breath of a executed criminal.

God is already shown to be present to the height and length, the depth and breadth of our worlds.

This is to say that the Son of Man does come at an unexpected hour – this very hour, claiming us again as God’s own. Our end is in God’s beginning with us, which has already begun.

Now, then, St Paul reminds us, is the time to wake from sleep and walk in the Lord’s light.

Illuminating Faith: Advent Studies on the Song of Songs

What has this surprising biblical book got to do with the idea of God’s coming-to (‘ad-vent-ing’) us? The central themes of longing and desire in the Song of Solomon which connect the book with Advent.

It has been said that the Psalms are God’s Word to us in our words to God – our own songs and poems and prayers given back to us as God’s revelation of Godself. In thinking about Songs we ask after something comparable: in what way might our words to each other – for that is what love poetry is – become God’s Word to us?

The studies are concerned with what it is we desire, and how that desire works in us – in, for and against others and God. The issue is not whether we do or should desire, or not. Longing and desire – the beautiful and possessing it – are at the heart of Solomon’s Songs and at the heart of all that we do and say, whether or not we are conscious of it. We cannot but desire; the question is simply one of pressing towards the ‘appropriate’ object of desire, longing, yearning. Advent is a season for the training of desire.

The studies are designed for small group use in a ‘read and discuss’ format. Though originally conceived as a series for Advent, they could be used at any time.

llluminating Faith studies are occasionally edited for corrections and other minor adjustments. The version date is incorporated into the file name of the download – check that you’ve got the most recent version!

Worship Service Orders – Advent A

This is our first attempt at providing a series of worship orders which congregations might consider taking up more or less as given, for a liturgical season.

A worship order is provided for each Sunday in Advent, linked to the Revised Common Lectionary’s Year A readings for Advent (2019, 2022, 2025, 2028). The service structure is repeated each week, as are a number of the congregational responses

These service orders are provided as a ‘proof of concept’ experiment — with the question as to whether such things would be of use in the church. If you do use them and would be interested to see more such liturgical resources put together, please let us know via the feedback form and subscribe to the eList for updates on future additions.

A click on each button below will download a Word .docx version of each file:

2 December – Advent: risen to a new hope

View or print as a PDF

Advent 1
2/12/2018

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25
Luke 21:25-36


In a sentence:
Hope raises dry belief

Advent is the season the church devotes to reflection on the promised approach of God, an approach which is often depicted in the Scriptures as we heard of it today – in apocalyptic language.

Whatever we might make of that way of thinking, it is worth noting that the modern notion of ‘apocalypse’ has moved considerably from the biblical sense. The word itself means simply ‘revelation’; the book of Revelation is sometimes called ‘the Apocalypse’ for this reason. Around this anticipated end-time unveiling the Bible depicts a range of extraordinary and – frankly – terrifying events.

Contemporary talk of an apocalypse usually corresponds only to the apocalyptic events themselves to the terror – and not to the revelation. Thus we might speak of an ‘Apocalypse Now’ – a nuclear apocalypse or an ecological apocalypse, by which we designate scale and intensity and effect.

This is clear enough to us as we use the word in its common sense but what might be less clear is that the effect of an apocalypse – understood in this way – is silence. The bomb has gone off, the biosphere has collapsed, worlds have collided and suddenly there is neither voice to be heard nor ear to hear it. There is only darkness, smoke and dust.

Yet, though the scale and intensity of the imagery of scriptural apocalyptic is great, it doesn’t anticipate silence. Those events anticipate a word, an address, a showing-forth. The force of the imagery is not violent destruction in itself, not the fire or the storm or the earthquake, but rather pushes to the force of the word to be clearly spoken. This is a world-shaking word but nonetheless one which the speaker expects will be heard because there will be ears to hear it.

The question biblical apocalyptic poses, then, is not how can such things be in the Bible but what is the word to be heard through them? If God is coming, what are we to anticipate?

The answer to this is simply that we wait for the revealing of God’s ways, as our psalmist today put it (Psalm 25). This is the revelation of God and of ourselves as we are – properly – together.

Now this is correct so far as it goes but we have not yet said enough, because it could all quite easily have been said by a ‘Before Christ’ Jew, and we are ‘Anno Domini’ Christians. What Jesus does and what happens to Jesus changes talk about God and ourselves, and God’s coming to us.

And so the apocalyptic event of the New Testament is not what Jesus foretells in our text today but what finally happens to him himself: the resurrection (resurrection being an apocalyptic category). Resurrection was not then – as it is typically now – the mere idea that the dead might stop being dead. Talk of resurrection arose from particular needs and led to particular anticipations: resurrection talk had a particular purpose linked to the purpose of apocalyptic thinking. The apocalypse would reveal the ways of God but not just to those who are still standing when the time comes. We wonder whether the dead can be raised but for apocalyptic thinking they have to be raised in order that we all might see the ways of God with us: the book God has written out of our stories (to recall our thinking from last week). Resurrection – at least in the Bible – is about revelation.

Talk of a resurrection in this context, then, is talk of the beginning of the end. The resurrection of Jesus is not a one-off thing in itself, an abstracted curiosity. In that context it heralds the approach of God. In this way, the resurrection is an ‘Advent’ event.

And this brings us to a surprising recurrence in the gospel narratives. On the one hand, the resurrection of Jesus heralds the approaching reign of God – the end has begun.

Yet, on the other hand, this is precisely where Jesus’ public ministry began, when everything was getting going and neither cross nor resurrection were in sight: ‘the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near’ (Mark 1.14f; Luke puts this differently – cf. Luke 4.14-21) – the end has begun.

Jesus’ ministry begins with a heralding of the approach of the reign of God, and ends in the same way. Yet the kingdom doesn’t get nearer in the resurrection than it was in the early preaching, simply because a little more time has passed. Rather, that point is that, in being raised, the dead Jesus simply does what the living Jesus had done from the beginning: heralds the approach of God, the ‘kingdom come’ (-ing).

To push this a little further: for the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus on the one hand and, on the other hand, the preaching and ministry of Jesus (as the signs of the nearness of God) – these are the same thing. The New Testament’s answer to the question, Is God coming? is the same as its answer to the question, Is Jesus risen?

This is not a connection we often make, even as Christians. We find it easier to hold to the teaching of Jesus and to let the matter of the resurrection hang as an open question. Yet this is to miss the connection between them. Whatever the resurrection is, it does what the teachings do; whatever the teachings are they do what the resurrection does. What they each do is introduce hope into the world, a hope that God is yet coming, with ‘more’, with peace.

The difference between holding to Jesus’ teachings only and holding them in relation to the resurrection is the difference between belief and hope. Belief knows that there ‘is’ a God and knows some things about God. Belief can be greatly committed to godliness in thought and action. It can also be closed to God’s ‘more’.

Hope is repentant belief, belief which looks for yet more. The God of hope exceeds the God of belief; the God of hope is Spirit, which cannot be tied down. This is why Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry links the approach of God to repentance: the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news – a word to believers. This is why the risen Jesus sends the Spirit. And it is why, in our gospel reading this morning, the coming apocalypse is good news: ‘when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

That God’s redemption is drawing near is the meaning of every action of those in Christ, whose every action had just that meaning. We do not merely believe. We hope, we wait for yet more light and truth, and we shape our lives now – in words and actions – to be ready for when it comes and to show others what they too, might look for.

Jesus is risen, God is coming: Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

LitBit Commentary – James K A Smith on Advent 2

LitBits Logo - 2

LitBit: The future we hope for—a future when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream—hangs over our present and gives us a vision of what to work for in the here and now as we continue to pray, “Your kingdom come.” The temporality of Christian worship—macrocosmically expressed in the Christian year, microcosmically expressed in particular elements each Sunday—trains our imagination to be eschatological, looking forward not to the end of the world but to “the end of the world as we know it.” In worship, we taste “the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:5), which births in us a longing for that kingdom to come, because this taste is also a bit of a teaser: it gives us enough of a sense of what’s coming that we look around at our broken world and see all the ways that the kingdom has not yet arrived.

James K A Smith, Desiring the Kingdom

How to use LitBit Features and Commentaries.

17 December – The God who brings death and life

View or print as a PDF

Advent 3
17/12/2017

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
John 1:6-8, 19-28


Good news to the oppressed, binding up of the broken-hearted, proclamation of liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners; a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; the garments of salvation, a robe of righteousness, a garland, jewels…

The word of promise in this language is surely extraordinary in the ears of those who have lived through hell. Isaiah proclaims a great reversal, a turning upside-down of the experience of the people of God – the return of God to their midst as blessing.

But what about those for whom the world is not horrific, for whom life’s biggest challenge is along the lines of negotiating a shopping centre carpark a few days before Christmas or waiting out a kitchen renovation? What does Isaiah have to say to any whose life is largely devoid of oppression or ashes or unrighteousness? Because, for most of us – in and out of the church – life is mostly ok most of the time, and so Isaiah’s proclamation comes like icing on what was already a pretty good cake.

One way of hearing Isaiah under these circumstances is to imagine that he speaks not to us, but as us: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” or us. The word to us becomes our own word and, going further, we take it upon ourselves not simply to speak of the coming of God but to be those who realise God’s peace. We have received the Spirit, and we are to pay that forwards, for others.

Certainly, those who “have” are under a moral obligation to share and bless those who have not. But if this is all it’s about, then there is no possibility that God has anything more to say to us. Is there a word of the Lord – a blessing, heart-raising word – for the relaxed and mostly comfortable?

The question of our redemption is not pressing today, either in the church or in society more generally. Certainly we are constantly working towards something, and something better than we what we presently know but this kind of progress is not the business of Christian worship or faith. The heart of our confession is not the offer of a nudge from worse to bad, or bad to good, or good to better. We speak, rather, of life out death, of the creation of something out of nothing. Christian faith is, at heart, concerned with miracles, with the impossible. For when God comes, what he brings is not only the kind of healing we think we need but also revelation of the full extent of that need. In the breadth of Isaiah’s preaching God speaks such words of comfort as we read in worship this time of year, but also divine rage and accusation against the people for things about themselves they would scarcely recognise or be aware of.

When God comes, it is always as life out of death, as creation out of nothing. This means that when God comes it is always with bad news as well as with the good, the good revealing the bad. The broken-hearted may not know, or have acknowledged, that indeed their hopes have been dashed; the captives not know that they are imprisoned, the comfortable not know just how insecure they are.

We mark just this dynamic in our worship each week. We call on God, whether we are feeling we need God or not. We hear that we are forgiven, often of things we had not imagined we were guilty of. Perhaps quintessentially, we gather around a table at which is served a victim through whom salvation is somehow won.

All of this “works”, however, only to the extent that the bad comes with the good. If we speak of the coming of resurrection, we speak also about the coming of death. But we have to be careful here. The proclamation of resurrection is not for the dying but for the dead. We noted last week that we all know that we are dying. This knowledge, however – our mere mortality – is not the question answered by resurrection. Resurrection reveals death – a death we do not yet know – it does not merely nudge us through what we already know. Resurrection doesn’t answer our sense for death because we have not yet asked the question well enough, despite our mourning and ashes, as real as they are. The resurrection with which the church is concerned is that which identifies who is dead, including us dead who are still walking.

This is enacted also in the Eucharist. The Eucharist “works” only to the extent that we who receive the body and blood admit a culpability in its having been broken and spilt. There is no “nudge” here into a better life by taking a spiritual medicine which treats some disease in us, and so which could be substituted for a generic brand which is not called “body” and “blood”. The ritual kills in the accusation of our complicity in death, and raises in the creative grace of God. Death is but a means by which God can bless; the Eucharist is death and resurrection – Jesus’, and our own.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Isaiah proclaims, with the emphasis falling on the spirit, and not on the “me”. For it is the spirit of the Lord which creates and renews the face of the earth. This is the light John announced, which enlightens everyone (John 1.9), even those who do not yet know they are living in shadows. When God comes, the dark places appear and are flooded with light. And God is coming.

For this spirit, this light, all thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always. Amen.

LitBit Commentary – James K A Smith on Advent

LitBits Logo - 2

During Advent each year, the Christian year teaches us to once again become Israel, recognizing our sin and need, thus waiting, longing, hoping, calling, praying for the coming of the Messiah, the advent of justice, and the in-breaking of shalom. We go through the ritual of desiring the kingdom—a kind of holy impatience—by reenacting Israel’s longing for the coming of the King. The repetition of this year after year is a training in expectation (and it is replayed each week of the year in the celebration of the Eucharist, by which we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Thus Advent shakes us out of the presentist complacency that we can be lulled into. Instead, we are called and formed to be a people of expectancy—looking for the coming (again) of the Messiah.

James K A Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 157-158.

How to use LitBit Features and Commentaries.

10 December – God is coming. And it is the end of you.

View or print as a PDF

Advent 2
10/12/2017

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
Mark 1:1-8


To those looking for peace comes the cry,

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”

God is coming! Make the way straight! “Cry out!”

And what shall we cry?

“All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass…”

You’ve gotta love the Old Testament prophets for their capacity to punch, square in the face, any easy forgiveness or cheap attempts to leap out of the world as it is into sentimental notions of paradise on earth or of eternal life! Isaiah declares: God is coming. And No One. Gets Out. Alive. Comfort, O comfort my people…

How do we respond to this? Horror, revulsion or terror would make sense to any normal person who took it seriously. But what about the people gathered here today? Does this horrify, terrify us as well? Are we “normal”?

The abnormality to which we are called as conspirators with Isaiah and disciples of Jesus is that we not be horrified here. Rather, we are to find ourselves set free with the realisation that we are not divine. That we are grass, that we are mortal, is the mark of our creatureliness.

We need, of course, to speak carefully. There is here no exultation in our mortality. It is not a thing to celebrate; it is just “a thing.” “No one gets out alive” is the law. It is, simply, the case. The function of law is to limit: only drive this fast, only drink this much, keep your hands to yourself; that far and no further. The law constrains, which is precisely what Isaiah declares here: you are constrained. You are flowers and grass, and will wither and fade.

We all know this, of course. What matters is the impact we allow the fact of our mortality to have. If our mortality is fundamentally offensive to us, then we labour to keep it at bay, to preserve ourselves as long as possible, to hold death at a distance by whatever power or influence we have. Life understood in these finds Isaiah’s mortal realism horrifying, terrifying, or repulsive. Who needs – or wants – to be reminded of the enemy when the work of our lives is to keep us hidden from that enemy for as long as possible? We see this in ourselves and in others, and we might characterise it as a deathly mortality. It knows only the law and its limits.

But Isaiah’s proclamation does not call us to this but, rather, to a lively mortality. This is a mortality – a creatureliness – which knows the limit and exults not in it but in the freedom which comes with it. This is the freedom not to have to survive, the freedom of not being necessary. The gospel in Isaiah’s proclamation is not simply that Israel’s “sins are taken away”. The content of those sins was the drive to make ourselves necessary, the denial of death’s final claim on us and of the possibility that we might cease to be. Isaiah’s gospel is that when God comes that kind of striving and anxiety is no longer required.

A deathly mortality is reflected in the corresponding deathly life: a life lived at heart in fear of – or revulsion at – the God who defines us as creatures, as grass. This is a life which finds it insufficient to be in the form or image of God and grasps at more (Genesis 3; Philippians 2).

A lively mortality is one which would live life to its fullest. A lively mortality celebrates the approach of God because it is when God comes as Creator above, and beyond, and yet for, us that we come to ourselves.

Here the law finds its end – its purpose: God being God, creature being creature, in the same moment. (This is, of course, what we say is the meaning of Christmas: the coincidence of God and the world, Christ as the end of the law, not only in his death but in his birth.)

In neither the lively nor the deathly experience of our death is that death any less real. All that matters is which way death’s shadow falls.

If it falls towards us, on this side of our inevitable definition in death, then our life is lived in a valley of death’s shadow. We live and die in a twilight; aware of the hint of more but not able to do much more than light candles and fires against the encroaching gloom.

But if death’s shadow falls away from us, on the other side of death, this means that death is obscure, that we cannot see what is beyond it, what it holds for us. This is to say that death is incomprehensible. And this is to say that we – who are mortal – do not yet now what we are. What it finally means to be a creature is still hidden from us, even if we walk now in the light. But we need no longer be jumping at the shadows.

This is the death – and the life – to which we are called, in all its incomprehensibility. And the word about all this is given in Isaiah for our comfort: when God comes, we become as we are created to be.

In the church, of course, we also hear rumours of resurrection, of death overcome and of life without end. At heart, this way of speaking is to say the same thing with a different emphasis or accent. Resurrection does not deny our death but only changes it; the “only”, however, is momentous: freedom from fear, life along straight and level pathways.

The gospel is that God is coming. And this will be the end of you. And a new beginning.

God comes that we might know that we are not God, that we are not necessary and do not need to try to be. More than merely necessary, we are loved, desired, by the God who created us in order that he might come to us, and we to him.

And God will come, and come, and come, and come… until we are his.

Now and always, all praise and glory be to the God who creates, sustains and sets us free. Amen.

LitBit Feature – Advent and Christmas

LitBits Logo - 2Advent and Christmas. The word “advent” comes from a Latin root meaning “coming” or “arrival”. The length of the season has varied at different times, but is now generally observed over the period of the four Sundays prior to Christmas and has been considered the beginning of the liturgical year since the 9th century. Advent was originally developed as a preparation for the celebrations of Christmas – the arrival or coming of Christ. The season, however, has also come to be a period of reflection on the church’s expectation of a “parousia”, or “second coming”, of Christ. Like all seasons of the Christian year, Advent and Christmas are caught between Easter and (the following) Good Friday. It is in the brilliant light of Easter that Christmas takes on its hopeful significance, and it is the journey from Christmas to Good Friday which fills out our understanding of the one who has come, who will be lost, and who we will meet again. Being seasons of Easter, Advent and Christmas are gospel-seasons of unexpected life out of death. Christian hope arises not out of our desperate need and waiting, nor from the natural potential of a newborn baby, but when both need and potential are flouted by a God who saves us by subverting our understanding of what we need and might become. Advent is not hopeless, nor Christmas optimistic, but are seasons for remembering a future we could not otherwise envision but towards which God draws us, sometimes in spite of ourselves, but always to our benefit and to his glory.

Click here for a copy-able image of this text for your pew sheet.

How to use LitBit Features and Commentaries.