Isaiah 2: 1-5, Matthew 24: 36-44
This Advent Sunday I am preaching at the closing service of a church, which had got down to its last two members. I am trying to preach hope in God's future...
Today is the start of Advent – though of course you don’t get to start opening your Advent calendar until December 1st. There are many kinds of Advent Calendars. When I was growing up we had a traditional card one with little windows, which we opened each morning. Because there were four of us in the family and only one calendar, we took it in turns to open a door. I’m the youngest so I got days 4,8,12,16,20 & 24 (Christmas Eve – the one with the baby in the crib behind it!). Over the years it became a very predictable advent calendar. These days you can get advent calendars with chocolates behind the doors – a sweet calendar; or ones linked to TV shows or celebrities – a starry, sparkly kind of calendar.
But if Advent is meant to get us ready for the coming of Christ at Christmas, especially as we also face the reality of the closure of this church, maybe we need something less predictable or sweet or sparkly – maybe we need something more visionary.
Rowan Williams, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, had his fair share of difficult Advents, I’m sure – times of hard decisions, great grief, deep unhappiness. He wrote this poem, which he called “Advent calendar”
He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
Here is a vision of the ways God will come to us – not easily, not predictably, not sweetly, but in reality and with purpose. In the midst of our sadness about the end of the life of a fellowship in this building, we need to be looking for where God is at work.
Isaiah shared a vision of God at work in his world – when the mountain of the Lord would be above all, considered most holy and most high and when people would beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Then there would be no more war.
Perhaps we think it is an impossible vision – a ridiculous dream of a world that will never be.
How could God do that?
Yet the vision is important enough to be found carved into a wall opposite the United Nations building in New York. When the delegates inside have finished talking for the day about the most recent atrocities in Aleppo or in Mosul or in Gaza they go out & face those words “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares”: that is the vision of peace for which they are striving and working.
That is the vision God promises – the world towards which God’s will is bending, the vision of what will be.
But we’re not there yet. God hasn’t finished with his world yet – we are still only on the way to God’s perfect vision. And in the meantime we have to do our best to be part of God’s project of perfection: we have to treat everything we are doing now as provisional – just for now – just until God’s perfect kingdom comes.
So this church has been part of God’s work in Charmouth, but now this chapter is finished. This church and its people have touched and changed lives, brought peace and joy, proclaimed love and hope…as part of the move towards God’s perfect world.
But the vision is still before us, and though we are sad to see all this go, we know that God will continue to work in new ways until finally the kingdom comes.
Yet we are human, so we want to know when and how and through whom this vision will come to be. Jesus says “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Even Jesus does not know the detail of when the Father’s vision of peace will finally come to be, and he warns us not to bother speculating. But just because we do not know the details of how God’s will is to finally, perfectly, come to be in our world, that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.
What Jesus says to his disciples may sound like a threat of terrible things to come – he likens the day of the Lord to the time of Noah and the coming of the flood and says how unexpected it will be. But what Jesus is doing is not threatening but promising – we do not when or how God’s will is to come to pass – but we know that it will happen. God will bring all things on earth to himself, he will come to visit us in his wholeness and there will be perfect peace.
And meanwhile – what are we to do?
Today we give thanks to God for all that this church has been, and prepare ourselves to live without it. I know this is only my third visit here and I can’t pretend to understand how hard it is to be here today.
But we also celebrate Advent Sunday – we remember that all human life and activity and time is in the hands of God and that God’s will is for perfection and peace for all.
And so we prepare ourselves to hear again the story of the coming of Christ into the world. We will not be here in this church, but we will hear the song of the angels somewhere, for Christ comes to all the world and there is nowhere where he is not present.
Wherever we celebrate Christmas, the message is the same “do not be afraid” “God is come to us” “the kingdom of God is near” “God is with us”.
I want to close with this Lutheran prayer for courage:
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.