A reflection for the First Sunday of Advent

Bible Readings: 1 Corinthians 1.3-9          Mark 13.24-end

Waiting can be exciting. That feeling you get in the pit of your stomach, that quiver of anticipation, that tension that something is just about to happen.

Waiting can be boring. I’ve waited so long, and still nothing has happened. Nothing is going to happen for ages, so what’s the point? I might as well get on with something else.

Advent is here, but what is it we’re waiting for? That’s a really important question for Christians as we approach Christmas. Advent is a season which points in two directions. It points towards the first Christmas as we count down the weeks and days until we celebrate Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but it is also a season of waiting for the Second coming of Christ. His return in glory and judgement to wrap up our reality and usher in the rebirth of the whole of creation. But do we really wait in the season of Advent? The birth of Christ has already happened, and Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year – perhaps even more so than usual this year as we seek to find light in a particularly dark COVID-shaped winter. The return of Christ seems to be one of those things we wait for which never happens, so are we really waiting at all?

I want to encourage you today that this sense of waiting is incredibly important to our faith as Christians. It is important because of three things, acceptance of how things are, trust in God’s promises and hope for the future.

If we stop waiting for Christ’s return, then we are by implication, accepting our present reality as how it will always be. Now, there are lots of things about our present reality which are wonderful. Relationships which bring us joy, fellowship which brings us comfort and all manner of pleasures and beauty we find in the world. But on the flip side, there are lots of things which aren’t good. There is suffering in the world; pain, poverty and sickness. We cannot accept the good of how we live without also accepting that which is bad. This idea of waiting is held in the cry of lament, how long O Lord, how long!

That’s a cry I think we all want to utter with regards to the pandemic. How long, O Lord! How long must we distance from one another, stay in our homes and live this limited version of life? How long must people suffer with the illness and its impacts?

But we cannot leave that cry there. We must cry out ‘how long’ about poverty and injustice. We must cry out for victims of abuse and violence. We must cry out for the impact of climate injustice and persecution. When we start to lament and cry out in this voice, we begin to acknowledge the abhorrent nature of accepting this reality. There is so much wrong with our world which needs redeeming, so much that needs changing. As Christians waiting for the coming of Christ, we know that Jesus has come to bring redemption, but the fullness of that reality comes only with Christ’s return. We live only in the partial Kingdom of God and there is so much more to come.

That brings us to the second of our ideas, trust in God’s promises. When we read our Bibles, when we take God’s word seriously, we have to understand that Jesus promises to return in judgement. They are often the passages of scripture we find unsettling and disturbing, because the idea of judgement is deeply uncomfortable to us. That’s because there are parts of our lives which are sinful, things we know we need to change about ourselves. But change is hard for all of us. We struggle to shift the landscape of our lives, and can only do so in God’s strength by the power of the Holy Spirit. But we need to learn to trust in these promises, because we also need to trust that Jesus has already come.

The great arc of scripture is the creation of the world, its fall and need for a redeemer, the wait for a Messiah and his eventual birth at Bethlehem. We read of Jesus’ life and work, his death and resurrection and now we await his coming in glory to redeem the whole of creation. This narrative unfolded in our word, in history and is attested to outside of scripture. So, we can trust in the reality of Jesus walking this earth. The question then becomes, do we trust Jesus’ own claims about himself? Do we trust that Jesus really will come again? This is the question that must follow on from not accepting our present situation as the way things will always be and it leads us to our final idea, hope.

If we trust in Jesus’ promises that he will return in glory, if we trust that he will bring justice and redemption, then we can be people of hope. We can look at any situation and dare to dream of a better reality. We can hear an answer to all those prayers of lament, we can trust that the cry of ‘how long?’ will have an answer. It is this hope that empowers Christians to be a force for change in the world. We believe that Jesus will return in glory, but that he also sends us into the world to bring about the coming of his Kingdom today.

Hope should be a dynamic characteristic which empowers and drives our action, it is not just a wistful thought for the future. Hope brings light to the dark places of the world and our refusal to accept things which are not right flows from a knowledge and trust that Jesus came to bring something better into being. So, as you wait this advent, where can you carry hope? Where you shine that beacon for a better future? Christ calls us to the lost and the broken, the wounded and the afflicted, he calls us to bring hope to the hopeless and supports that hope with the promise of his return.

This advent, let us wait with expectation that the Christ who was born amongst us in Bethlehem will return to redeem the whole of creation and as we wait, let us play our part in bringing that new reality to birth.