Adapted from a sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent 2019.

I wonder how many of you can name the Roman god who is depicted in this picture:

The god is Janus. As you can see, he is depicted as having two faces and it was believed by the ancient Romans that he was a god who could look to the past as well as to the future. And as such, Janus was believed to be the god of time, of beginnings, of transitions. His image was often carved or painted on doorways and gates – marking those points when people would pass from one space to another.

The reason I have shown an image of Janus is that he came to mind when I was thinking about Advent. Because in the Season Advent, we acknowledge that we, as Christians, are, I believe, caught between two places, two extremes, so to speak. Like Janus, we are looking back into the past; but we are also, paradoxically, looking forward into the future.

On the one hand, we are waiting to remember and to celebrate an event which has already taken place – Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem. 

And on the other hand, we are anticipating and waiting to celebrate an event which is still to come – Jesus’ Second Coming as Lord and King at the End of Time; when God’s Kingdom will be fully realised.

We are in Advent, in a time of transition; a liminal time – caught between the past and the future. And as we find ourselves in this liminal time, in this time of transition, we are called to wait. To wait to celebrate, once more, the birth of Jesus; and to wait and to long for Christ’s second coming as King and the fulfilment of God’s reign here on earth.

The birth of Jesus, brought in the Kingdom of God; but although the Kingdom is present in our very midst, just as Jesus’ taught, it has still to be full realised…

And so as we journey through the Advent Season, we will be aligning ourselves with some of the significant figures in our Christian tradition who themselves waited for Jesus – the patriarchs and matriarchs – the ancestors of our faith like Abraham and Sarah; the prophets; John the Baptist; and Mary, Jesus’ Mother.

The Old Testament reading for this year’s First Sunday of Advent is a passage taken from the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 2: 1-5); but Isaiah is just one of the many prophets whose message we read in the Bible during the Advent season – there were also Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi – all who talked in some way, we believe as Christians, about Jesus – the coming King, the Messiah, the one that Israel had been waiting for. And the prophetic movement itself stretched over hundreds and hundreds of years – beginning 700 years before the birth of Jesus and continuing into Jesus’ own life-time with John the Baptist continuing the prophetic tradition many centuries later.

Now the prophets were not, I think, the easiest people to live with and to listen to – after all, a lot of their message was about speaking God’s judgement and calling God’s people to repentance.

But although they spoke harsh words at times, the prophets weren’t all gloom and doom. They also had a tremendous vision of the future – a future in which they believed that God’s purposes would be fulfilled and that God’s kingdom would be established on earth – a kingdom where justice and mercy would prevail; and a kingdom where God’s people would co-operate with God and shine as a light to the nations – a beacon of hope and of peace to all.

And over the hundreds of years, as the prophets spoke about this glorious future, so they became increasingly convinced that this future would ultimately be brought forth by the Messiah – God’s anointed King – who would be the one who would bring in God’s reign and rule – the one whom we Christians, believe was Jesus – God’s beloved Son…

That’s why in Isaiah chapter 2, we hear these words:

“In days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.”

Here we have a vision of God’s future kingdom – the city of Jerusalem standing as a beacon of justice and righteousness for all nations.

It is a wonderful vision – a vision of hope, security and peace. 

The issue though we have to live with, particularly as we enter into Advent, the issue we have to live with is that although Jesus was born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago – the one who was believed by Christians to be the Messiah, the one who was destined to bring in God’s Kingdom; the world, sadly, still hasn’t been sorted out; and we are still waiting for the second coming of Christ and for Isaiah’s vision to be fully brought about.

And that is why, alongside a vision of hope, we also have in our Bible readings for Advent 1, a vision of judgement. In Matthew’s Gospel (Mat. 24: 36-44), Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, coming in a cloud with power and with great glory to bring judgement at the End of Time; and he warns his disciples to keep watch and to be ready, to make sure they are prepared to face his judgement and that they are not found wanting:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 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. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what dayyour Lord is coming.”

These two Bible readings – the one from Isaiah and the one from Matthew point to another paradox that lies at the heart of the Advent season – the paradox between hope and judgement.

So in Advent, we are caught between not only the past and the future; we are also caught between hope and judgement – we are being pulled in two directions. And as we find ourselves caught like this, so we, I believe, are called to be like the patriarchs and matriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary to wait – to wait for God’s kingdom – the kingdom which was begun with the birth of Jesus and which is present in our midst today; but the kingdom which also is not yet fully present with us but will reach its ultimate fulfilment at the End of Time.

But this waiting for the future, for the fulfilment of God’s purposes, is, I believe, no passive waiting. For the visions of the End of Time are not there to encourage us to simply hang around, waiting for Jesus to come back, getting more and more depressed as the days go by about the state of the nation.

NO!! The vision that the prophets and then Jesus give us, are visions that are meant to inspire us in our waiting – visions that encourage us to be active and to seek out the signs and the glimmers of God’s kingdom that we can find in the present, in the world around us.

Because, if Jesus’ birth began the process of bringing in God’s kingdom; then even though the End of Time has not yet happened; nevertheless, we believe as Christians, that God’s kingdom is present and is growing in our midst – even if it seems very muted and almost secret at times.

Jesus – God’s King – has been born; and as we wait for him to come again; so Jesus calls each one of us to be inspired by the Spirit and to work now, in the present, to bring God’s kingdom nearer and closer at hand… 

Jesus calls us to look out for, and to celebrate, those times in our world when Isaiah’s vision becomes a little bit more of a reality: like when, for example, white South Africans finally began to try and recognise black South Africans as their sisters and brothers; when in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein and the Unionist Party agreed to try and share power; when a mother and father whose child was killed tried to forgive the killers rather than seeking revenge; when in your own life, you have tried to forgive someone who has hurt you rather than give vent to your anger.

These moments may not be 100% perfect but they are instances of God’s kingdom breaking into our world today…

So during this season of Advent, as we wait for Jesus’ coming as king; let us be willing and ready to wait, yes; but in that waiting let us also be led to seek to bring about God’s kingdom and to celebrate its presence in our midst; and in doing this, perhaps, to bring just a little bit closer the fulfilment of God’s purposes and the reign of God’s kingdom…

A reading of some words by the theologian H.J. Richards. Taken from part of a meditation he wrote about Advent which he entitled: “He comes again and again.”

“Why do the gospel readings repeatedly proclaim (is it a promise or a threat?) that the End is Nigh?

Could it be that we need reminding, at least once a year, that Christ comes not once, but again and again?

What Christians believe in is not a ‘second’ coming, but a constant coming of Christ into their lives.

Christ is not the goal towards which they are striving but the hub around which their lives revolve.

He ‘comes’ to establish the Kingdom of God, not in the future but now.

The Kingdom is not something we impotently yearn for.

Its coming is in our hands, and how near or far it is depends on the extent to which we are helping to bring it about…”

Revd. Helen Duckett, December 2019.

Comments are closed.