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Sunday 27th Nov 2016; Advent 1
Romans 13: 9-14;
If you’re looking for achievements of the last 100 years, it’s hard to look past the near doubling of life expectancy in the Western world.
Famine is no longer the great killer it was. We’re now more likely to die from obesity than malnutrition. We’ve gone from a situation in which most families knew ‘first hand’ the trauma of infant death, it’s now very rare. In the developed world, only about 1% of babies die before adulthood.
In fact, death can seem so far away as to be not worth bothering about. And some people think they’ll never need to. Google has launched a subsidiary company called Calico, whose mission is to ‘solve death.’
In the last week you might have seen in the news that a court granted permission for a 14 year old British girl who had died of cancer to be cryogenically frozen, in the hope that some day, medical advances could see her cured, thawed, and living a normal life. It sometimes feels as though we’re getting close to the point where the only certainly left is taxes.
On the other hand, so much of our time and energy is spent on the assumption that our time is limited. The extra years we’ve gained are spent desperately trying to work through our bucket list – a list created on the assumption that time is a scarce and diminishing commodity. Despite all the good news, the overall mortality rate hasn’t changed – it continues to hover at around the 100% mark.
So we’re caught between two contradictory beliefs about time.
One: that it will never end – or at least, that it won’t end any time soon. And two: that the grim reaper is right behind us, ready to interrupt our happiness at any moment.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, ‘God has put eternity in our hearts.’ But the same writer reminds us, ‘death comes to all, equally.’ We long for permanence. But we are faced with death.
Advent is a time to think about time, and to remember that Christians have a particular approach to time.
The first clue about this approach comes in the very shape of the Bible. Have you noticed, the Bible isn’t a theology textbook? It’s a story. A story of the formation of a people. Of God’s promises to them and their journey towards fulfilment.
It’s a story we continue even today. And is one of the reasons our worship is so visibly connected to the past. We honour the past because we recognize we are part of a large and ancient story that is far bigger than this moment.
But this story also has a future – where the real action is. And this is the chief focus of Advent. For the Christian life is not just a journey upwards to heaven but a journey forwards, from promise to fulfilment. From the failed kingdoms of this age, to a future perfect Kingdom over which Jesus reigns.
The surprising twist, though, is that this future has already visited us. In Jesus, we saw the Kingdom of God. A new day arrived and for a while the darkness dissipated. And we believe that day will shine again with a brilliance and perfection not even seen in Christ’s first appearing.
If Christianity were a novel, this moment we’re in would be in the start of the final chapter. The climax has already happened. The crime has been solved. But the details just need to be worked out. The bad guys will soon be arrested and the hero will inherit a vast sum of wealth.
It may yet prove to be a long chapter. But there’s no real doubt about the ultimate ending. And therefore we are a people of hope. We are aware of what God has done for us in the past and aware that God is with us now. But we are keenly aware that God’s greatest delights for us are in the future.
We are a people who are defined by the fact that we are waiting. And we are therefore called by Jesus to be watchful. To live like prisoners, constantly scanning the horizon, knowing our liberator may be coming any moment.
The people of God did not finish waiting when Jesus came as a baby, nor when he died for our sins. We believe that he will come again, and bring to fulfilment at his second coming what he achieved at his first.
But where this gets very practical is in the realisation that there are different ways to wait. Just because we’re waiting, doesn’t mean we’re doing it right.
In the past fortnight, I’ve had to wait for my internet connection to arrive. I’ve got to say, I haven’t always been a model of patience and grace. And I suspect that’s because we don’t need to wait for very much anymore. We demand fast internet. Fast food. Fast everything. And we usually get it.
Jesus knows we are fickle and easily frustrated and distracted from the goal. He knows we easily lose sight of the future he’s promised, and that we can forget how to wait. And so he warns us to be watchful, so we won’t be caught unprepared.
The book of Romans gives us further instructions on what this should look like. It essentially calls us to live lives in which our future hope is integrated into our present experience.
The night is far gone; the day is near. (13:12)
We are no longer in complete darkness, for Christ, the light of the world, has come. Yet we are not yet in perfect light, for it is still only dawn.
So how do we live? Do we go back to sleep, and act as if it’s not happening?
Not if this dawn is bringing the day of salvation. Not if the dawning day is bringing a stronger and truer and firmer reality than the night that is ending. Not if this coming day requires us to be ready. And not if this future salvation is reaching back into the present to transform us.
For the Christian, waiting is not the same thing as drifting. It is, to put it bluntly, hard work, with serious life implications for us now.
St Paul identifies some of them here.
People living for the light, who are living for the new day that is about to dawn, will put aside the works of darkness. And he names some of the obvious areas which need to be shaped by the age to come. And his list here is essentially the first century equivalent of sex, drugs, rock’n roll.
But he also adds other ingredients too: quarrelling and jealousy. Because we’re not just called to be respectable citizens. The bar is higher than that.
We’re called to be at peace with others, not consumed by the things of this world, and to keep our eyes are straining forwards, looking to a day yet to come.
Our future hope is to shape our lives in the present. Not just our individual lives, as we seek God’s help to conform to his plan for us. But also our life as a Christian community.
Because although we can’t see the future clearly, the family of the church—if it’s living in light of its future hope—will give a glimpse of the kingdom yet to come. It will do this by being a community with an appropriate moral seriousness and rigour. But also by being a place of love, peace, joy and contentedness.
So the end is not infinitely far off. For this age is like a night that is fading. And yet, our time is not limited. It is just beginning. Because what lies ahead of us is not just the end of a chapter. It’s the resolution of the story that started in Genesis, continued through Israel’s long history, and culminated in God’s entry into the world, in Jesus Christ. And this story that will not end, but will blend into the dawn of a joyful, eternally new day.
May God fill our minds and hearts with this hope, and help us to live lives of expectant, joyful watchfulness.