Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-end, Matthew 24:36-44
We begin a new liturgical year today, as Advent Sunday, this Sunday, is the beginning of the Church’s year. Advent is the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and the traditional themes of this period are Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell – cheerful themes for this time of year. These traditional themes are ones which are part of life and part of the Gospel – as the Christian Gospel is not always like a light and frothy coffee. But I’d like to distil those traditional themes into two areas which I understand as themes coming out of them – faithfulness and preparation.
We heard Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew talking of his understanding of the end times and speaking about Noah and the flood. Friends of mine moved to live by a river in the West Country this year, and this last week were flooded when the river broke its banks and they were marooned in their house. Being unable to get to hospital because of the water, my friend then inconveniently gave birth in an upstairs room, husband by her side, water in the sitting room below. Mother and son are both healthy. And they called the boy – Noah. Noah is used in the Old Testament as an archetype of both faithfulness and preparation. Noah is faithful to God because he listens to him, and Noah is the one prepared because he makes preparations for the deluge. As you know, in the Old Testament, the forces of chaos are often symbolised by the unrestricted waters of the flood. The primeval watery chaos of Genesis is described using the Hebrew term Toho ve Bohu. This is the destructive power of the elements, as anyone who has lived through flooding will know. Much of our flooding is, of course man made, and it was interesting in this last week to hear the Prime Minster of Fiji invite President elect Trump to Fiji to see the reality of global warming and the rise in sea levels. But we can prepare, and Noah as the archetype of faithfulness and preparation is not a bad theme for us as we enter another year in the Church’s calendar on this Advent Sunday. So it is faithfulness and preparation about which I want to speak.
Faithfulness. All Churches are required to be faithful. This may take many forms, and it certainly has different manifestations. Faithfulness may be demonstrated in our keeping faith with the wellsprings of faith. For example, I believe it would be impossible to continue as a Parish Priest without the daily offering of regular, disciplined, sustained prayer. Good days, bad days, up days, down days, Prayer is there at the root of the tree. If the roots are not nourished, the whole tree dies. So it is with us. We need to remain faithful to our roots through regular prayer. That’s why coming together week by week to be nourished by the sacrament matters more than we can easily explain. We are often told that without vision the people perish. So it is in this matter of faithfulness. As a Church, we must remain vision driven to be faithful to our origins. We know that Churches which slip into maintenance mode, delude themselves, and are probably in all reality in decline. The same is true with our bodies. If we don’t look after them, they go into decline- which they will do quickly enough anyway, without any help from us. In this process of faithfulness, we therefore need each other, because there are times when I can lend support and help to my neighbour, and times when I need that help and support from them. These are all aspects of faithfulness. There are other manifestations. You could also argue that the income of a church is a manifestation of its faithfulness. When churches are seen to be giving, generous, active, and vision led, then the income will follow. This is as night and day. To take one example – when we started our restoration work, we had literally not one penny in the bank, but through faithfulness and being vision led, we have raised nearly £1.5million and completely changed our building to be more effective in service to God and neighbour. So in terms of faithfulness and our income, what has happened in the Parish this year? Some areas of our work are high performers and are ahead of their targets – music and the Filipino Chaplaincy are just two of them. One aspect, however, lags behind, and that’s our regular committed stewardship giving to support the work of the Church throughout London – so this Advent, if you’re in a position to help, please consider a thanksgiving offering to help us reach our Diocesan Common Fund target of £78,000. For me, this form of giving is always about thankfulness and doesn’t represent at all grim duty. I give, because I am thank ful, and because I am thankful I am joyful. That’s how it works.
Now, Preparation. Advent, which begins the Christian liturgical year, is a time of preparation. Spiritually, we go back to our roots to prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This is a coming like no other, because it will have an effect on all our lives. Advent helps us to get the spiritual balance right. Traditionally, the time of Advent is a time for reflecting on the things, which we would actually rather push away to the back of our minds. Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell. The last things, the end of time. All our religious tradition teaches us that to live in a state of preparedness represents being spiritually awake. That’s certainly true. The Gospel set for today reminds us that, mercifully, we are spared any knowledge about the end of things. We don’t know. The Christian tradition is, in this sense, the opposite of that most widely read woman in England, Mystic Meg. Hear this, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” My grandmother told me that we should always change our underwear, for we never knew if we might be involved in an accident. Preparation, keeping awake, being ready. There are many ways in which the life of a church will demonstrate this, and one manifestation will be a church’s expenditure. How we spend our money will not only demonstrate our priorities, but also our preparedness for the future. So what has happened in 2016? We have kept our expenditure down by controlling costs, and spent where we have to. In addition to the Common Fund payment, there are all the regular bills- utilities, keeping the church open, insurance, running the office and paying those who work for us, which is the bare minimum to function. At the same time, the level of our activities increases daily – from the beginning to the end of this year there has been a dramatic increase in the range of different community groups using this church. Improving our facilities and being ahead of the game is also a manifestation of being prepared and ready- not just for the now, but for the future.
So as we enter this season of Advent may it be a time for all us of faithfulness and preparation. It’s also true to say that with this in mind, much of the physical preparation for Christmas, which we make as a Church and community, as families, and as individuals becomes less stressful. These twin towers of faithfulness and preparation will encourage us as we start another year. It’s pretty simple. It isn’t rocket science, but if we are able to live it, it will transform our lives. Paul can often be a stern and gloomy moralist, but today he encourages us in this final word from his letter to the Romans, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. The night is far gone, the day is near.” In faithfulness and preparation, may all of know God’s blessing this Advent, as we prepare to welcome Jesus the Christ into our lives.