Service on Remembrance Sunday, November 9.2008
Advent Sunday, November 9.2008

St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem sermon preached by The Rt Revd Dr Michael Jackson, bishop of Clogher
Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9; psalm 180:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; St Mark 13:24-37

Many of us, I imagine, could be a bit better organized than in fact we are. It may be that we are disorganized or untidy on purpose – of course not – but the sheer pace of life today is such that we are on to the next thing without always being able to make the time to tidy up the loose ends in what we have just completed. Maybe sometimes we look at a garage which really does need to be sorted through, or a desk full of papers, which looks more like an elegantly decaying still-life than work in progress, or a pile of clothes for ironing - and we imagine a better self for ourselves, someone who is now not going to happen, because we simply are now who we are.

Advent is not a call or a summons to us to be perfect, but it is a call to be prepared and to be urgent. The readings for the First Sunday of Advent pitch us right into this world of preparation and urgency. The Gospel from St Matthew comes out of the later part of the Gospel where Matthew piles illustration upon illustration of what the End Time will be like. One of the most important things to remember is the opening words which speak of a proper and faithful agnosticism about the ways of God: ‘About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son but only the Father.’ Too much of our quest in religion today is for certainty, something forced upon us by that acute sense of loss we all feel about not being able to control our environment and what is happening to us. But Advent teaches us that uncertainty is not only inescapable but it is creative and its primary concern is with spiritual growth in the face of what we do not and cannot understand. It surely was no accident that the Western Lectionary formerly set the Feast of St Thomas for December 21, right in the face of Christmas, that great season of God’s coming to earth in fragile humanity.

Advent first prepares us for the Four Last Things and in today’s society notions such as this are far from popular. We live now as if what we do will have no direct consequences at any future time. But perhaps it is by pushing the consequences in to the future that we are depriving ourselves of both responsibility and satisfaction in the present. The part of the New Testament which most clearly brings this out is St Matthew 25 where we are given in a way which is straightforward and unemotional a catalogue of things which we did or did not do. In fact, of most of them we simply were not aware. They still on Advent Sunday 2008 form a catalogue of issues relating to compassion and justice which remains open-ended and incomplete. But this should not really surprize us as the work of God on earth, when properly discerned, is about is about unfinished business: food and water for the hungry and thirsty; hospitality for the stranger; clothes for the naked; help for the ill and visitation for the prisoners.

For those of us who have come as pilgrims to the Land of the Holy One and to Jerusalem itself, we have brought with us our inadequacies as well as our hopes of living closer to God in the daily things of life. Somehow the proximity to the places which are holy for three major world religions has increased the sense of urgency and immediacy which our discipleship of Jesus Christ asks of us who come here as well as our respect for those who live life faithfully in other traditions of obedience to God. Globalization – from which we are all most happy to reap the benefits – ease of communication – every child aspires to having a mobile phone - bring tensions, problems and difficulties to which we are slow to own up deep within ourselves. There is now a sustained sense of international fragility, induced by a combination of terrorist activity and economic downturn. But fragility is not the worst thing and I give an illustration. Preaching at the 1988 Lambeth Conference, archbishop Robert Runcie took the picture of an architectural arch and described its beauty and its function as the combined strength of two weaknesses. Each arm of the arch could not hold itself up but together they fulfilled an essential function the life of the building. This sense of fragility must bring to the forefront of our minds the scandal of turning away from our neighbour when there is no possibility now of pretending that we know nothing of our neighbour. Future togetherness will come through a recognition and an acting upon shared weakness and turning such weakness into solidarity, partnership and strength.

But the second thing about Advent is that we seek and find God through the Scriptures which we now refer to as the Old Testament but which to the first Christians, the children of Pentecost, as well as to God’s first children, the Jews, simply were: The Scriptures. Again, in every generation, we have to learn to approach the Scriptures with reverence, respecting them in their integrity and not, as Christian people, seeing them as no more than the slip-road to the core of our faith as Christians. We have seen to much anti-Semitism in the twentieth century to sanction this course and this route. And all of this too has been an important revelation to us who are here with you as pilgrims. As people of the Reformation and of the printing press along with being people of the Global North, hailing as we do from a Northern Hemisphere culture, we have insufficient understanding of our glaring inadequacies. And, therefore, again to the in ‘the very place where it all happened’ is a reviving experience and an energizing re-locating of ourselves within the totality of what is called: the tradition. The tradition as such is not ours to manipulate or to use to our own selfish ends but it there to provide a continuum and a source of life and diversity for present and future. For none of us who have come to be with you this morning, from our own diocese far away but claiming its place both in past history and in contemporary life, can things now be exactly the same - and that is not only refreshing, it is also life-giving. With all its complexities and all its painfulness, as well as its beauty, the love of its people and its richness of history, the land has been an inspiration to us.

I always feel the tingle – the only word I can really use – the tingle of prophecy in the Season of Advent. Sometimes it is destructive of what separates God’s creation from God; sometimes it is consoling and comforting; but it is always arresting. Today the prophecy of Isaiah leads us through the self-understanding of God’s people Israel: they ask that God will come down; they ask that God make God’s name known to God’s enemies. Too often do we want to keep God to and for ourselves, in a sort of goldfish bowl of our own churchiness. Here we have images and pictures in abundance from nature and from everyday life – tearing open the sky, mountains quaking, a roaring fire, a boiling kettle. But Israel is realistic enough to accept that she has made herself one of the enemies and adversaries of God. This is not only the goyim but includes God’s chosen people. And so we see that the argument in fact leads us to Israel’s pleading with God not to remember her iniquity for ever and never to forget that we are all God’s people.

St Paul gives us the courage and the confidence to continue in the struggle which is always there but need not overwhelm us. We are told three most important things: (1) we already have the fullness of God’s grace; (2) we do not lack any spiritual gift as we wait for the revealing, the unfolding of all that there is to know of our Lord Jesus Christ; (3) God will continue to strengthen us to the end. As we strike out into a new Christian Year, this assurance, in deed this re-assurance, is very important to us. In another letter, that to the Romans, St Paul dares to use the example of a Roman soldier clad in armour as a picture of an alert disciple. Urgency and preparation together mark out the attitude of the good soldier in the field of battle. The same characteristics will do the follower of Jesus Christ every good in the service of the Master by living to the full in God’s grace, waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ and being made stronger by God the closer we come to the end itself.

St Mark is the most urgent of the Gospel writers. In fact his Gospel contains no account of the Resurrection. Here we find Jesus, having called the four disciples whom he had once gathered in from the fishing co-operatives of the Sea of Galilee, Peter, James, John and Andrew, speaking to them of the things to come and in particular of the expectation that they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds. The fig tree carries the signs that this will happen soon if you know where to look for the signs: the softening of the branch heralds leaves and creates the expectation of summer. So, the disciples are told, will it be with what they are experiencing and with what they are to expect. But there is, at the very same time, no predictability about this: a man goes away, sets his servants work to do and puts the doorkeeper on the watch. Doorkeepers have no idea when their master is to return but they know full well that it is the end of them if they are asleep when it happens. So the tension remains. Preparation and urgency are the order of the day. It is highly unpredictable but there are signs and we need to sharpen our spiritual wits to look out for them. In the Western World we have spent rather too much time in turning Jesus into ‘the boy next door.’ Here we are brought face to face with a side of God with which we have become less familiar: the day and the hour which the Father alone knows. Neither the angels so vital to Judaism and to the birth of the Son nor the Son himself knows the hour.

Advent is very much alive; Advent is very rich in possibilities; Advent is very new every year. But Advent channels also the best of our often distracted energies as decent, disorganized people into a sense of urgency and an act of preparation. The Collect for today is very clear that we must do this: Now. Delaying simply leaves us open to being unknown to the God whose day and hour we simply cannot know.

1 Corinthians 1:8,9: God will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Date: 30 Nov 08