"When ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand." (Luke 21.31)
Advent is a season of hope and solemn expectations. Thus, St. Paul, in today's Epistle lesson, speaks to us of the promises of God, and recalls Isaiah's prophecy:
There shall be a root of Jesse,
And he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles,
In him shall the Gentiles hope.
That is to say, there will rise from the house of David, Jesse's son, a Redeemer, in whose coming and whose kingdom all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed. St. Paul assures the Roman Christians, Gentiles as well as Jews, that they are heirs of those universal promises, "made unto the fathers," and confirmed in Jesus Christ, and he urges them to live together in the spirit of that common hope. "Now the God of hope," he says, "fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope in the power of the Holy Spirit."
The message of Advent is a message of hope: the hope of salvation. This is hope for deliverance from all the chains that bind us: deliverance from the bondage of our sins and manifold perversities, deliverance from the blindness and deafness of heart and mind which keep us from the truth of God. It is a message of hope for a kingdom of righteousness and peace, hope for a new and better life for ourselves and for all mankind. All that hope is focused in the coming of the Child of Bethlehem, in whom and through whom God's kingdom comes. Advent speaks to us of a new and better world, of the hopes of countless ages coming to fulfillment.
And lo, already on the hills
The flags of dawn appear;
Gird up your loins, ye prophet souls,
Proclaim the day is near:
The day in whose clear-shining light
All wrong shall stand revealed,
When justice shall be throned in might,
And every hurt be healed.
(From Hymn by F. L. Hosmer 1840-1929)
But the Gospel lesson immediately makes clear to us that this hope of ours is no matter of humanistic optimism or worldly expectation. This speech of Jesus from St. Luke's Gospel (also reported in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark) is not in fact very optimistic about worldly progress. It is, rather, a dramatic and frightening account of the ruination of the world - the end of the world as we know it:
Jesus said unto his disciples, There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.
According to this Gospel lesson, it is in the devastation of the world, in the destruction of all worldly hopes and expectations, that our salvation appears to us: "And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh."
This speech of Jesus is generally interpreted as a prophecy about the end of time, and all down the centuries there have been preachers who have sought to discern the signs of the end in their own day. After all, "this generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled." Well, it is, of course, a prophecy about the future, about the end of time; but I think it is a mistake to read it only in that way. It also has a reference to the present. It is a comment about the world in which we live, and about the way in which we live in it, here and now. It is in fact a supremely relevant and devastating criticism of our own worldliness, our worldly hopes and expectations.
The point is this: For all of us, and for each one of us individually, this world, and the things of this world must pass away, not just in some vague, remote and unimaginable future, but right now. They are passing things; that is their very nature. They are passing things, and they are passing away even as we grasp them in our hands. No cleverness, no wishful thinking, no advanced technology can make them anything other than transitory things. What folly it is to focus our hopes and expectations upon such things! What foolishness to set our hearts upon them!
I think we all know that; and yet, how seductive, and how subtle, are the claims of worldliness, and how easily, how thoughtlessly are we taken in. Worldliness confidently invades the very Church of God, urging us to conform to the methods, the ideals, the manners and the morals of the present age, lest we be irrelevant. The peril is that the worldly Church becomes irrelevant to heaven.
Today's Gospel lesson is telling us that worldliness is folly, and that only when we can see the folly of it can we lift up our heads and see our redemption drawing nigh.
Behold the fig-tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.
The signs are everywhere around us every day, if we have the eyes to see them.
The Advent hope is an other-worldly hope. It looks towards a Saviour who has no worldly power, no worldly recommendation of any sort. It finds in the poor and helpless Infant of Bethlehem the eternal Word of God. It is the contradiction of all worldly hopes and expectations. The heavens and the earth pass away, they are passing away at every moment, but the Word of God does not pass away, and, as today's Collect expresses it, in that Word we have the blessed hope of everlasting life. Amen.
Father Ed Bakker,
Priest and Missioner
Anglican Catholic Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne