Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Waiting in Readiness

First Sunday of Advent Year A

Today marks the beginning of Advent – a time of expectation, a time of anticipation, preparation and longing for Christ (both His birth and His Second Coming).  But before we come to that great feast of the Nativity of our Lord, the Church invites us to cast our vision into the future, to the very End. That’s the paradox of Advent, before we reexamine and consider how it all began, we need to consider how the whole story of humanity, in fact of the universe, would eventually end. You may have heard this advice before: sometimes things gets worse, in fact it has to hit rock bottom, before it gets any better.

The world in which we live is in a time of anticipation. A world where we are still searching and anticipating a cure to cancer, an antidote to war, a solution to the problem of evil and suffering. Despite years of technological advancement and research, social, economic and political experiments, successes and failures, we are nowhere near to finding a perfect solution to everything. Yes, our world is incomplete and it waits with eagerness for that completion, for that perfection, for that great closure to all the open ended issues we are still facing.   

For us Christians, we believe our human history did not begin with the Big Bang or the first spark of evolution, and neither will it end in global annihilation with every life snuffed out, either by nuclear holocaust or destruction wreaked by catastrophic climate change. No, we Christians, believe that both our beginning and ending is to be found in God. If we believe in a God whose creation is good; a God whose goal for the world is to usher in a new kingdom of peace – A kingdom where the lion lies next to the lamb, where weapons of death are remolded into instruments which will bring forth food from the earth.  Then we are right to expect something more; to wonder aloud “there has got to be more to life than this.” 

Today’s first reading from Isaiah speaks about this anticipation.  Like Isaiah, we live in an age and in a society where God’s priorities are irrelevant to most people: but Isaiah reminds us of the big picture – reminds us what God is doing in His creation, whether we acknowledge it or not. Our lifetime is just the blink of an eye in God’s eternity, and Isaiah invites us to look up, to see beyond our limited view of the world, to see God’s purpose and God’s action. Isaiah is given a prophecy concerning Jerusalem. Jerusalem was never the formidable city on a hill with secure walls, attracting pilgrims from all over the world.  Instead, Jerusalem and Mount Zion were physically unimpressive; the very symbol of insignificance on the world’s map.  Yet, God designates this insignificant place to be “established as the highest of the mountains”, its light provides an orientation point for all nations and it will become the epicentre of God’s instruction which would bring about peace on earth. All the nations of the world will stream to it, to worship God in His Temple, to know His ways and to walk in His paths. It will be a time of justice and peace, a time of total fulfilment for all. No swords, only ploughshares.

The power of Isaiah’s prophecy is that he reveals that God is on our side.  God is committed to bringing peace.  God is willing and able to use seemingly insignificant and unimpressive things to correct the course of the world.  Nothing embodies this message more than the Incarnation – God coming to earth in the form of a fully-human infant, born in a barn in an insignificant town, living a life of service to others, giving his life on our behalf and at our hands, yet remaining fully God. Indeed, the mountain of the Lord is not a place, or an object, or even the Temple made up of stones, but a person, our Lord Jesus Christ. For in Jesus Christ, the true “mountain of the Lord,” the One to whom we go up to, so that “He may teach us His ways,” the One who “will wield authority over the nations and adjudicate between many peoples.”

If in the Old Testament first reading, the prophet Isaiah gives us a message of anticipation, of hope and fulfilment, of peace and light, St Paul, in the second reading gives a reminder that seems stern and firm and just a little bit grim. And we haven’t even gotten to the gospel yet. There, our Lord’s message is positively doom-laden and threatening. But read together, both the New Testament epistle and the gospel which actually describes the situation just before the End, whereas it is the Old Testament that actually gives us a glimpse of how things would actually end. How do we understand this tension between the fabulous vision of hope and the sometimes depressing and challenging situation of our times? In a way, the readings remind us that the Kingdom established by Christ is “already” here, He established it 2000 years ago, but the completion of His project and mission will only be accomplished when He returns, and therefore the Kingdom is also a “not yet.” In Advent we remember the anticipation of Christ’s first coming, as well as His promised return. 

It is true that we live in a time of anticipation.  But it is also a time of active participation.  This is not a passive anticipation, but an active participation.  We are actively participating in the kingdom of God which is already here but not yet complete. Christian waiting, Advent waiting, does not mean that we just sit around, hapless, whilst doing nothing. We must allow our lives to be shaped by our Lord and His teaching.  What exactly does a life shaped by His teaching look like?  Well, we just read how the apostle Paul would answer that question.  He gives us a list of don’ts: “no drunken orgies, no promiscuity or licentiousness, no wrangling or jealousy.” Of course the list is not exhaustive. But more than just avoiding sin, St Paul is trying to tell us to live positively. He says, “let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ.” What St Paul is trying to tell us is that we should not just rely on ourselves to find the power and energy to faithfully live out God’s commands every minute of our lives. Righteous and virtuous living would never be possible without God’s grace – it is with Christ as our shield, our helmet, our armour, that we can face every battle with temptation and come out victorious. Apart from Him, we are sitting ducks, destined for failure.

As we live in this “in-between time” and anticipate Christ’s birth and return, we must constantly be vigilant, living prayerfully and righteously in anticipation for His return. Our Lord warns us to be ready for what He calls ‘the coming of the Son of Man’. This means not just an event in the future, but also His continual presence with us, even now, though we often fail to recognise Him. In the days of Noah, people went about their ordinary business unaware of the judgement hanging over them. They were quite unprepared for the flood, which came and swept them all away. In a similar way, the coming of the Son of Man is a crisis hanging over us, but a far more important one. Some will be ready for it, some will not. That’s the heart of it: being ready, prepared. You never know when the burglar will break in.

All the time the Son of Man is coming to us. He is present with us, and all the time we are being challenged to accept or reject Him. Advent is the time when we think about this especially, when we try to open our lives to His coming, to the inflowing of His love and forgiveness. It is a time when we strive to accept the good and reject the bad, so that we become more and more like the Son of Man and share in His life. For “the mountain of the Lord” to “wield authority over the nations”, it must have authority over us. Christ must be our king, and we must submit to Him. We must put away sin, allow Him to “teach us His ways, so that we may walk in His paths.”  “O House of Jacob, let us walk in the Light of the Lord.” 

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