A sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries Advent Sunday Christ Church St Laurence – 27 November 2016 May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen. Today is Advent Sunday, and the start of a brand new liturgical year. Most of you would realise that each new liturgical year begins a journey through a different Gospel. During this past year, the Sunday Lectionary has mostly drawn upon Luke’s Gospel. Today, we begin a year-long journey through the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Matthew’s Gospel has been described as the Jewish Gospel. The writer of this Gospel is particularly aware of Jewish customs and traditions. Matthew’s Gospel acknowledges the significance of the Synagogue and the Jewish religious authorities. It is also described as the ‘ecclesiastical’ Gospel; it encouraged the early Christians to respect ecclesiastically authority and to be well-behaved members of the church—I encourage you all to read it. Every new liturgical year begins with the penitential season of Advent. The word ‘advent’ simply means ‘coming’. Although Advent may be a penitential season, we should never interpret it as just a shorter version of Lent. Lent is a time of sorrow and repentance, as we make the journey towards the shame and violence of the cross. Advent is a penitential season, but it is a season of urgent anticipation. The next event to happen will be the incarnation—God breaking into our world, not with aggression and violence, but rather as a vulnerable and innocent child. Scholars suggest that Matthew’s Gospel was composed sometime between 80 and 100 AD. The precise date of authorship is not really important. The important thing to acknowledge is that this Gospel first appeared at least 50 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord. We can be quite certain that the early Christian community were expecting Christ to return during their lifetime. By the year 80, anyone who had a personal encounter with Jesus of Nazareth would almost certainly have died. The ones who had expected to personally experience the Second Coming did not. By the time Matthew’s Gospel appeared, the early Christian community must have been losing some of its momentum and its sense of urgency. By the year 80, there must have many who were starting to doubt the all important promise of a second coming. Many who would have asked: “What or who are we waiting for?” From Matthew Chapter 24 we read: ‘Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ Today’s Gospel reading does have a certain ominous tone to it; the language speaks of the apocalypse or the end times. It tells of the very real catastrophes, which for the Jewish people, will culminate in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. This sense of anxiety or frightened urgency is not a common feature of Christ’s teaching in any of the Gospels. Why would Christ suddenly encourage fear and anxiety? As Christ urges his disciples to remain alert, he uses the most dramatic language: Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. He speaks of ordinary people going about their ordinary business. 2000 years of Christian experience makes it difficult to read this passage without an overwhelming sense of judgement and fear. Perhaps the opposite is true; perhaps Christ is encouraging his followers to abandon 1|Page
their fear and anxiety, as they look with eager anticipation for God breaking into their mundane existence. Marcus Aurelius, was not a friend of the early Christians. Under this Roman Emperor, who reigned from the year 161 to 180 AD, Christians experienced persecution and martyrdom. However, Marcus Aurelius was not simply an Emperor; he was also a very important philosopher. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius convey great insight into human nature. In reflecting on fear, this insightful Emperor wrote: ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live’. Although this Roman Emperor dished out his fair share of violence, his Meditations reflect on the crippling aspect of fear. Even a tyrannical Roman Emperor was able to see that fear limits life. In our own time, many political leaders are not discouraging fear and anxiety. Many political leaders are encouraging people to be frightened; many leaders are using fear to promote hatred and division. Matthew Chapter 24 comes near the end of the Gospel. Christ has now turned his face towards Jerusalem and begins the agonising and humiliating journey to the cross. He knows what his disciples will witness; he knows the persecution that they will be forced to endure. He knows how despondent they are destined to become. Knowing how they will suffer, he compels them to remain alert to God breaking into their world. He urges them to remain watchful for signs of hope, love and peace—particularly in the darkest times. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. We are living in unsettled times. Voices that encourage fear and anxiety are all around us, and seem to be gaining momentum. We can listen to angry voices; we can allow them to diminish our compassion and our fullness of life. We can be the one left in the field, or we can be watchful for signs of love, hope and peace. Advent calls us to remain alert and to open our hearts and minds to God’s presence in our world. One of the most troubling aspects of recent social and political trends is the number of Christians throughout the world who seem to be excited by words of hatred, judgment and exclusion. It is certainly possible to find passages of Scripture that paint a picture of an angry and threatening God. But is this the God we encounter in figure of Jesus of Nazareth? Can we read the Gospels and anticipate the coming of a God that encourages hatred among people? I suppose it’s possible that Christ may come again shouting angry and violent words of hatred and division. However, such a Second Coming seems rather unlikely given the manner in which Christ came the first time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.