Isaiah 11. 1 – 10 Romans 15 : 4 – 13 Matthew 3 : 1 – 12
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what the word ‘Advent’ means – it’s Latin of course, and it literally means ‘To come towards’ or more simply in English ‘to arrive’. So Advent is ‘The Arrival’. Who is arriving? Jesus is arriving. Where is he arriving? On earth and – more personally – in your life and in mine. When does he arrive? There are three arrival times – past, present, and future.
His first arrival on the world stage was in Bethlehem. His exact date of birth? Unknown – but we celebrate his birthday on 25th December which is as good a date as any. The main thing is that we celebrate his birth for the right reasons and in an appropriate manner. The year of his birth? Well, the scholars tell us – on the basis of the biblical evidence (and even more importantly) references to Jesus in outside sources – that those who worked out the first calendar didn’t quite get it right. It was 4 BC or very close to that. The important thing is that we can place him in history with a great deal of certainty.
His second arrival is in the present. He comes to dwell in the lives of all who invite him in. Jesus doesn’t force himself upon anyone. Who you ask to come to stay with you is your prerogative. When your front door bell rings and you open the door slightly and peer out, who do you invite inside – and who do you politely send on their way to the next house and the one after that? That’s your decision. Jesus stands at the door and knocks. But Advent – his arrival – doesn’t truly come until you have opened the door widely and invited him in to stay. We call that invitation a ‘prayer’ but it’s really no more difficult than a conversation that starts with an invitation – ‘Come in, Lord Jesus, and stay with me’. Then it’s Advent. Jesus has arrived in your life.
His third arrival is in the future. When? No-one knows. It will be when God’s purpose for his world is complete.
C. S. Lewis has been much in the news recently as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of his death and laid a memorial plaque in the floor of Westminster Abbey on 22nd November. He became one of the best apologists for the Christian faith in the western world of the 20th century. But for very many years he was a convinced atheist. And one of the reasons for that was that, as a historical scholar of the highest standing, he knew very well that many ancient religions were based on the idea of the dying and rising God. If you understood that our main source of life comes from the sun, you could see very well that the sun appears to die as winter takes its icy hold, and then miraculously rises again in the spring, with the birth of new life. We celebrate the birth of Christ in December because Christianity simply came to supplant the ancient yuletide festivities.
But C. S. Lewis eventually came to believe that, without doubt, Christianity was true because it placed the death and resurrection of Jesus firmly in history. It was not just a way of explaining the cyclical nature of the seasons, which repeated year after year. It concerned a real person, whose birth, ministry, death and resurrection could be placed in real time and not in cyclical myth. Its critical basis is in history, and now (as we shall be singing later in this service), ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’, and when that purpose is complete, the final Advent will mark the fulfilment of his plan, a glimpse of which is mirrored in all our hearts and longings. The day of our dreams, when justice, truth and love finally triumph, God wipes away every tear from our eyes, and a new heaven and a new earth is born. Christianity has nothing to do with repeating cycles which never end. It has a beginning in time, and it works its way through time, to a final victorious climax when time finally comes to an end.
So Advent means that Jesus came; Jesus comes – to us in answer to our invitation; and, when the time is right in God’s sight, Jesus will come again.
We celebrate Advent in the four weeks leading us up to Christmas in order that we may examine ourselves and prepare ourselves for the arrival of Jesus. And the three readings we have heard – and have in front of us in our orders of service this morning - have three key themes to guide us.
1. Repent. Advent is always linked with John the Baptist and our Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 3 shows him in action. His mission was to prepare the way for the arrival of Jesus, and his call was to repentance.
Now you will know well from many past sermons that repentance is much more about looking forward than about looking backward. No doubt we all have regrets – things done that ought not to have been done, and things undone which ought to have been done – and whenever we take part in a service, we confess our misdeeds and ask for forgiveness. But we can’t change the past. What we can change is the future – our direction of travel. Repentance means a change of mind and will, which leads to a change of life and direction. The Christian faith is always leading us forwards in a positive direction, not a wallowing in negative self-abasement.
So Advent is about an honest self examination to see what needs to be changed in order that we may receive the light of Christ shining in full brightness and become happier, healthier, holier people. We await the arrival of Christ the King. We must make ourselves ready.
2. Receive. Our first reading from Isaiah chapter 11 contains amazing promises. It tells us that Jesus will be full of God’s Spirit – ‘the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.’
As Jesus arrives at our door and we invite him to enter and stay with us, these are the qualities he brings. And they can’t be bought at any price, or acquired by good deeds, or by trying ever harder. They are gifts – Christmas gifts from Jesus which he brings into our lives. He will give us wisdom to understand the things of God. He will counsel us in how to lead our lives. He will give us the power to live as – in our hearts – we truly want to live. He will fill us with the life, the breath, the love of God himself. He is the channel of God’s grace and truth. People ask us what we want for Christmas. What greater gifts could we possibly request? And Jesus is the one who comes to us bearing these precious and wonderful gifts. Don’t turn him away. Accept with huge thankfulness these wonderful gifts he brings.
3. Re-Focus. This will enable us to re-focus our lives as we face the future. Paul tells us here in our 2nd reading from Romans 15 that our God is a God of hope. There are many reasons why hope may be in rather short supply this Christmas and as we look forward to 2014. Perhaps even ‘looking forward’ is the wrong phrase if we only consider our outward circumstances, health, resources and circumstances. But Advent is, supremely, a time of hopeful looking forward because when Jesus comes into our lives as the greatest Christmas present of all, he brings hope beyond measure. Hope of a renewed relationship with God. Hope of a glorious future which dawns on the horizon. Hope which is not bounded by death. Hope which is eternal.
Repent. Receive. Re-Focus. If we can understand what it means this Advent to repent, to receive and to re-focus, then the love, the peace and hope in God becomes unbounded. And Paul’s prayer here at the end of our reading from Romans 15, will become true in your life and in mine. He prays for us: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
If you will follow these steps as God guides you, this Christmas will be very special indeed – you will be blessed by the birth of Jesus in your own soul, and the Christmas angels over St Michael’s will rejoice in the good news, and sing their praises to the glory of God, saying ‘Hallelujah’ Christ is born today in another soul here in this church.
1. Discuss how we can practically make time in these weeks before Christmas to reflect and pray and make ready to celebrate Christmas in the right spirit.
2. What first comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Repent’. Discuss its biblical meaning as a change of mind leading to a change of direction in life.
3. We hear about the need to ‘receive’ Jesus into our lives through ‘prayer’. Discuss what this means and how we can personally make such a prayer.