The first Sunday of Advent heralds for Christians the beginning of our new Christian liturgical year. We begin once again a new cycle of readings on Sundays and during the week, and we start again the rehearsing of our Christian story which will take us from the hopeful waiting for the coming of Jesus, through his birth, and ministry, and death and resurrection, and ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Church.
This is the journey that we make every year as we gather together as Christians for worship and teaching and fellowship; in order to be refreshed through each year by the story of Jesus, in the hope that our lives may become so twinned with his story that we too will live out the story of Jesus as the Church has done through the ages.
Now, many of us have been through this cycle many times before. And we may experience a sense of déjà vu as we begin the new Christian year again this morning at the beginning of Advent, and so the task for us each year is to somehow make this old and familiar experience new for ourselves, and attractive for others.
Advent is not just a period of time set aside for us to prepare for Christmas. For Christians through the ages, the season of Advent has been a space not only to remember and reflect upon what it was like to live in this world before Jesus had come here (expectantly hoping for a rumour of the coming of a saviour); it has also been a time which has been set aside to reflect upon the second coming of Christ, when Jesus will return again in great glory.
It is this second theme which will probably be uppermost in our minds having just heard Jesus’ teaching as it was remembered by the writers of the Gospel of Luke. This morning, as we celebrate the beginning of the new Christian year with brothers and sisters around the world, as we embark again on this journey of remembering which will take us through the seasons of the Christian year – the great stories and events in the life of Jesus in the twelve months ahead of us – it is probably a reasonable moment to ask where we are on our own Christian journeys.
The secular new year (the 1st of January) is, after all, a time that we often use to take stock of our lives, and to set some resolutions for the future. So it might be reasonable to suggest that the beginning of the Christian year, on this first Sunday in Advent, is a good time for us to do that taking stock as well.
Sometimes when I visit parishes I am intrigued by the fact that they appear to be on a Christian journey which involves doing exactly the same things which they had done in previous years. A basic definition of madness is ‘doing the same things over and over again, but expecting different results. Yet, when we recognise that we are on a journey (each one of us), a journey that will take a life time, both as individuals and as a community within the life of the Church, moments like the beginning of a new Christian year, provide the opportunity for us to stop and reflect on how things are changing and developing, that is what new year’s resolutions in the secular world are all about. I hope that as we look back at our own Christian journeys, over the last year, and the last many years, we will detect how we have changed, and grown as we faced challenges, and opportunities and as we have been prompted by God at work in us.
As we read the Gospels week by week, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t start by giving his disciples a manual which explains fully how everything needs to be done, and how it is going to turn out in the end. Instead, through a process rather like drip-feeding, Jesus draws the disciples into an ever increasing commitment and understanding about what the Kingdom of God is all about. So – whilst some of those first disciples had extraordinary moments of initial commitment to Jesus, that decision to follow him (or rather the decision of Jesus to invite them) wasn’t a one moment event, but an ongoing journey of being drawn more deeply into an understanding of Jesus’ life and purpose. And sometimes, as I read the Gospels, I wonder whether those first disciples would have been so eager to follow Jesus at the beginning, if they had known then, what they came to understand later.
Take Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel passage which we have heard today, for example. We didn’t hear, this morning, how the discussion between Jesus and his disciples began, but it all starts because some of the disciples start talking to Jesus about how wonderful the Temple is. (And from what we can work out it certainly was one of the most beautiful and imposing buildings in Jerusalem). And Jesus uses the opportunity of focusing on the Temple to teach his disciples that things are going to get worse before they get better. There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth the roaring of the seas and the waves will bring confusion and distress, says Jesus.
Imagine how the disciples feel as they hear Jesus mapping out what is to come. We can almost hear them saying to him, “this is not what I signed up for.” And in many ways that kind of response may be true for us as well.
When I went to theological college to train in preparation for ordination to the priesthood there wasn’t very much emphasis on my need to be able to lead a congregation of people in sharing their faith with others. In the seminary that I lived in, we were taught that the job of the Church was to be there for other people to come to us. The world view that we lived in presumed that when people were in need, or wanted to mark celebrations they would somehow gravitate towards the Church. And so in my seminary we spent much more time thinking about how we would look after people who were already in the Church, and much less time (in fact almost no time) thinking about how we would reach out to those people who had no connection with the Church at all.
Just like the disciples on their ongoing journey with Jesus, coming to understand more deeply the consequences of following him, each one of us, is having to re-learn what it means for us to be full members of the life of the Church, actively engaged in sharing the good news of Jesus with others. Across the Diocese this re-learning, and re-imaging what the full participation of everyone of us in the ministry of the Church will be like, is being expressed by our Diocesan vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission. Which in the simplest terms, is about every congregation (like us here) developing a ministry team of leaders to co-ordinate and support, and intentionally work towards the ministry of every one of us in our service of Christ.
We happen to be in a period of time in Australian society when active membership of the Church, as a sign of commitment and faithfulness to God has largely been forgotten. There are still glimmers of Christian culture and language in our wider society, but by and large, commitment to God, through active participation in the life and witness of the Church continues to be in decline. Our own Diocese, like many denominations in Australia has been in decline since the mid-1960s. It took us a long time to wake up to that fact, but in recent times it has been pretty clear, even if the Church at large, has (by and large) carried on as if nothing has changed. There was a time when we presumed that all Australians were Christians, and that all that we needed to do was to build churches and ring the bells and people would come. When new people stopped coming we largely carried on doing what we had done before, and simply concentrated on looking after the people who were gathering already. But just like those first disciples, confronted again and again by the teachings of Jesus, we are on a journey of discovery as well.
In this Diocese, we now have a much clearer idea than we have had for a long time, that every one of us in the life of the Church has been called to witness to God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom which is summed in the life and values and hope which we find in Jesus. We know that it is extremely unlikely that large numbers of people will flock to the Church (as they did in the past) unless we intentionally engage with them where they are, not where we would like them to be. It would be madness to carry on as if the world around us had not changed. It would be crazy for us to do next year simply the same things that we have done last year, and to expect a different result from them.
Mission begins in God, not in us; but God does use us to bring his mission to fulfillment. As we read the Gospels we are caught up in the ongoing journey of the disciples. Where they come to in the Gospel reading which we heard this morning, is not where they started. And for many of us, we may feel that we didn’t sign up to be in a Church like the one which I am describing, in which every one of us is called to use the gifts which God has given us, intentionally to participate in God’s mission in our local community. So we are very much like those first disciples – being challenged to move on another step in our understanding of our place in the life of his Church. And that’s what Ministering Communities in Mission is all about. It’s a framework which builds on the strong foundations which we already have here in this parish, in order to help us to be intentional about our ministry for the future. And in due course the Parish Council and then all of you will be given an opportunity to think through this further, if that is what you choose to do.
Advent Sunday is the beginning of the new Christian year. The worst possible thing that we could do, is to simply presume that this year will be the same as the last year. That was never true for the disciples as they journeyed with Jesus, and it should not be true for us as we journey with him now. One of the questions for us as we look to the year ahead, is whether our faithfulness to Christ, and our loving service in his name, will be better supported if we engage with the Diocesan vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission, or not. And I hope that that is a question which we will have the opportunity to explore together over the coming weeks and months.
Today we begin a new Christian year. Let’s be expectant this Advent about what God has in store for us.