Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (8 December 2013) by Christina Rees, Senior Partner at Media Maxima

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Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (8 December 2013) by Christina Rees, Senior Partner at Media Maxima

Christina Rees speaks about the awkwardness of Advent and asks 'as we contemplate the Second Coming, for what am I still waiting and watching?

1 Kings 18:17 - 39; John 1: 19 – 28

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

Advent is an awkward season. It’s awkward because it comes in the last four weeks running up to Christmas, when, instead of having time to reflect on the things of God, our minds are crammed with thoughts about Christmas – what presents must I get, have I remembered to send cards to everyone, how much food will I need?

Advent is awkward because, marking the beginning of a new Christian year, it is intended, like Lent, to be a time of prayer and fasting, of holding back our celebrations as we wait for Christmas, and yet it is filled with endless parties.

Above all, Advent is awkward because, in a very real way, it presents us with two themes, both focused on the second person of the Trinity, that do not necessarily sit comfortably with one another.

The first, the main theme is about preparing for the Second Coming of Christ, and the second is preparing for the incarnation, the birth of Jesus. The one event looks into the future, the unknown: the other is about looking back two thousand years to the manger in the dimly lit stable, which, though none of us was there, can seem, at times, all too familiar.

Both of these themes call for us to adopt an attitude of watching and waiting, of anticipation and expectation. We are meant to be poised – waiting in readiness – listening for both the shouts of triumph for the return of Christ in Glory, while also at the same time preparing for the first breaths and cries of a newborn baby.

We are compelled to hold in our minds and consider together these different views of Jesus, that present us with some awkward, but inescapable questions:

Looking ahead, what isthe Second Coming? For what exactly are we supposed to be watching and waiting? Looking back, who was this Jesus, whom John the Baptist recognized and proclaimed as the Son of God?

For some people, it’s much easier to think about Jesus, born as one of us, who grew up to understand himself as one with God, who offered freedom from sin and fear, who healed the sick and touched the untouchable, who rebuked the pompous religious authorities for their hypocrisy and pride, who gave hope and comfort to those who were grieving or in despair and who, above all, preached the message of God’s unconditional love for us and all the world.

There are others, however, who are not so comfortable with the baby in the manger, who grew up as a flesh and blood man, experiencing life as we experience it, but who ended up dying a terrible death – and doing so for us, so that we would be free to live a new kind of life, in a new kind of relationship with God.

These people find the human Jesus and his seemingly passive acceptance of the cross too challenging, too unsettling, too embarrassing. They prefer to think about the Christ who is to come again, not as a weak and vulnerable mortal, but as an immortal king, shining, triumphant, powerful and glorious, inaugurating a new reign of justice and peace, and doing so in a way that no one could ever dismiss, ignore or misunderstand.

Looking more closely at the man Jesus, was it really his being passive or weak that took him to the cross? Was it really Jesus giving up or giving in? That’s not how John the Baptist saw him!

John saw in Jesus the very image of the Divine, God with us in a new way, revealing who God is in a new way, and instead of causing sacrificed bulls to burst into flames to prove his identity and power, we have a man who heals quietly, who forgives people’s sins, and who speaks of the reason and purpose for his actions as being to help us to understand that we live in God and God in us and that God loves us.

Instead of being passive or weak, the way Jesus lived his life, and in particular the way he faced the cross, revealed someone so sure of his calling, so certain of who he was, and above all, so confident of his relationship with the One he called Father, that for two thousand years he has been seen as the supreme example of inner strength, determination and clarity of purpose, and the inspiration for countless millions of people to persevere and endure in seemingly impossible circumstances.

But is that all? Can we leave it there – our view of Jesus as Saviour, teacher, even Son of God, sharing the divine nature with God?

A contemporary Christian writer and speaker, Jennifer Rees Larcombe, developed a condition that sapped her strength and robbed her of her ability to walk, and she ended up in a wheelchair for about fifteen years. She had to spend weeks at a time in hospital. At one point the pain was so intense that she shouted silently at Jesus that his suffering on the cross had only been for a few hours, while her suffering had been going on for years. The response she heard within astounded her.

‘My suffering will go on until the last of my children are safely home, because I live in each cell of your physical bodies. I feel all your pain as you feel it, I also feel the pain of your broken hearts and the distress of your deranged minds. Please don’t think I have separated myself from you.’

Jennifer was later healed in quite an amazing way and she remains strong and healthy, but her understanding of Jesus was transformed from that moment: ‘Please don’t think I have separated myself from you.’

Could it be that the Christ we look for to come again into our world to usher in and finally establish the Kingdom of Heaven is actually already here, with us, closer than we are to each other, as close as we are to ourselves?

Many of the Christian mystics thought so and tried to put into words and images the reality as they understood it of our life in God, and of God living with us and in us. In an early parable told by the desert fathers, Abba Lot goes to Abba Joseph and says to him, "Abba, as far as I can, I say my prayers, I fast a little, I meditate, I live in peace and I purify my thoughts as best as I can. What else can I do? The older man, Abba Joseph, stands up and stretches his hands towards heaven. His fingers become like ten lamps of fire and he says, "If you will, you can become all flame.”

Might it be possible for our lives to be such close and intimate fusions of God’s infinite love and our own finite earthly bodies, that we ‘become all flame’? Could this be what the incarnation is trying to show us, that God coming as Jesus, as one of us, is about God’s desire and purpose to include us in the eternal life of love that is at the heart of all creation?

Are we putting off living as we might live, and being what we might be by waiting for something else to happen, something that might make it easier and more straightforward for us to understand what God was after? Or has God’s coming as Jesus already shown and revealed to us all we need in order to become all that God intends us to be – nothing less than participants in the divine dance of love, nothing less than ‘all flame’?

Saint Paul thought so. Whatever happened to him on the road to Damascus, when he lost his physical sight for three days, revealed to him an inner vision of Jesus Christ that turned his life upside down. He wrote, "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.” In the same chapter in Romans Pauls asks, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” and goes on to announce that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from the love of Christ.

When he preached to the Athenians Paul stated that in God we live and move and have our being,” and he told the Christians at Philippi that they must have in them the same mind that was in Christ Jesus.” It is not enough to see Jesus as an example, a model of how we are to live, but we are to acquire his awareness, his consciousness.

Jesus himself, when speaking about the kingdom of Heaven tells his friends that the kingdom is within them, meaning that it is here and it is now, not for some time in the future. The American theologian Cynthia Bourgeault writes about the kingdom of heaven not as something we die into, but something we awaken into. The kingdom of heaven may not be explicit or external in the way we believe it one day will be, hence our looking for the second coming, but our awakening into it helps to make it visible.

As we remember Nelson Mandela this weekend we can see how he, in spite of great opposition and spending 27 years in prison, lived with a different awareness, a different consciousness from those who sought to break him, that gave him the desire and ability to forgive and to love. Did he not awaken into a new consciousness?

Advent is a time for preparing for the excitement and joy of Christmas, but it is also a time to reflect, in the midst of our busyness and outward activity, and to ask ourselves some awkward questions. As we contemplate the Second Coming, we might ask, for what am I still waiting and watching?

As we think about the baby born in the manger we might ask, who is Jesus Christ to me? Where is he now?