The horror of being confronted, whilst you are driving down a road, by a sign that says “wrong way, turn back” creates quite a different emotion in us (probably a response of sheer panic), compared to seeing a sign that says “welcome” and signals that we have safely reached our destination. We know the importance of the signs that we take for granted all around us when we are confronted by a sign that we do not understand.
I remember some years ago boarding a train in the Russian town of St Petersburg, armed with a piece of paper on which someone had kindly written down for me in English the station that I needed to get off the train, only to find that all of the station names on the wall chart were written in Russian script. When we see signs that we cannot understand we remember how important signs are for us.
Signs not only give us the instructions and the information that we need, they also, in a very subtle way tell us about the culture, the environment, the situation that we are in. When I arrived in the first Parish in which I was the Parish Priest I discovered that there were signs everywhere telling people not to do things. The kitchen in the Parish Hall was filled with signs that began “do not…” and even the verse from the Bible in the vestibule to the church which people saw as they entered read, “do not be afraid!”
Individually each of those signs made perfect sense, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a sign that says, “do not stack the chairs too high” or “do not leave the kitchen door open” but collectively they portrayed a whole culture that was defined by the things that we were not allowed to do. So quietly, I removed all of those “do not” signs one by one without the place falling into disarray. Signs that say, “welcome”, “be our guest”, “let us know how we can help you” point to a very different culture than signs that say “do not touch” or “keep out”. Signs are all around us.
Here is another sign, presented to us by Jesus in our Gospel reading on this first weekend of Advent. It simply reads “coming soon.” It is a sign that is filled with hope and expectation, but that also warns us to be responsible and prepared, ready for when the sign will be fulfilled.
On this first weekend of the new Christian year, the first weekend of Advent, we begin our cycle once again of following in the footsteps of Jesus and the Early Church, this year through the lense of the writers of Matthew’s Gospel. For the twelve months we have travelled through the stories of Luke’s Gospel, but today we begin a new journey, as we start our cycle all over again, this time with Matthew.
On this first weekend of the Christian year we are faced with a sign, a sign that reads “coming soon.” Over these next four weekends we live together through the season of Advent. The word ‘Advent’ means ‘coming’ and during this period at the start of our new year we celebrate together the various ways that Jesus comes amongst us. We prepare to celebrate again his first coming as the Incarnate Word of God on earth through his birth in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. We make ourselves ready for his Second Coming at the end of the world, when he will come as the merciful and loving judge of all. We give thanks for his coming to us in our Baptism, when we were joined with him in his eternal life, and his coming to us each time we gather here, when he meets us in Holy Communion through his body and blood.
This season of Advent is a gift given to us by the Church to help us to stop and take time to reflect on Christ amongst us. It is important to say that Christ’s coming amongst us in not just theoretical, it is not just beautiful poetry. Those of us who gather here in the name of Jesus believe that it is a tangible reality. We believe that Christ is already with us, he is already present in our hearts, by his Spirit of grace. Just as we prepare for guests who come to visit us here, so also during this season, we prepare in a special way to celebrate the first coming of Jesus at Christmas, and by doing so we also prepare ourselves for his final coming when all things will be gathered up in him in a way that we cannot possibly understand now, but will one day know.
Our readings today, at the beginning of Advent, urge us like a great advertising billboard that says “Coming Soon: Stay Awake’ and “Coming Soon: Be Prepared”. Jesus, in our Gospel reading is responding to a question from his disciples that we did not hear read to us. They have asked him, “tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” This is probably the most often asked and yearned for question in the Gospels. Again and again, as people have encountered Jesus they have asked for a sign, for a timetable of how the Kingdom will come in its fullness. Even when Jesus has shown them signs of God at work through miraculous healings and multiplication of food, they have been hungry for more signs as proof that what he says is true.
In response to their question, as we find it reflected on for us in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has given his disciples a long reply. He has warned them that many will come pretending to be in his name who should not necessarily be trusted. He has warned them about wars and earthquakes, that we will see signs in what is going on around us that the time is coming near. He has prepared them for their own fate, being handed over to those who will persecute them, he has foretold the destruction of the Temple. And now at the end of this dialogue, as we heard a few moments ago, he calls them to remain alert and to be ready for the signs of his return: “if you knew that your house was going to be broken into tonight,” he says, “ you would stay awake to protect yourself and your property.” So also we need to be ready for his return amongst us at an unexpected hour.
What does all of this mean, two thousand years after Jesus’ first warning? It is a fair question to ask, there has been a lot of waiting in the life of the Church over the last 2,000 years. The coming of Jesus requires of us who are his disciples today, a decision and a commitment to remain watchful. Any day, any moment could be the final coming of the Lord. The Second Coming will be sudden and unexpected, like the flood in the time of Noah. Many people ignored the warnings, ridiculed Noah for building a big boat on dry land, far from the sea. How ridiculous! But the flood came and destroyed them, while Noah survived with his family and animals.
The same thing will happen to all who do not heed the words of the Lord. But God’s judgement is individual, not according to groups. “Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken and one will be left… Stay awake, therefore! You cannot know the day your Lord is coming.” The future coming of the Lord will slip quietly into the present, undetected—like a thief in the night. So we must always be ready for him. This means following Christ and living the Christian life seriously, according to the measure of God’s grace given to each one of us.
All of this echoes the great prayer and yearning of the Early Church, “Marantha! – come Lord Jesus.” Read the sign: it says, “Coming soon.” This is what we believe, what we proclaim every time we receive Holy Communion, that “Christ has died” (he was crucified for our sins). “Christ is risen” (that he has forgiven us, offered us a new life in him, and is alive among us). And that “Christ will come again”, that a day is coming when Christ will appear in glory.
In this Advent season we do not only look forwards, we look back through the history of our salvation as well. We give thanks for all those who, before the first coming of Jesus pointed the way, and held open the hope that he would come amongst us. As we remember their faithfulness we pray that we will be strengthened as we live in our own time of waiting for Christ to come again in glory. As we live through our own trials and difficulties, we remember that we are called to remain faithful as they were in their own time. This year our Advent wreath is not only a visible sign of all of this for us, but it has been published on the cover of the Encounter newspaper for the whole of the Diocese.
Each of the candles have a special meaning for us as we remember. This weekend we lit the first candle remembering the patriarchs, the first followers of God, who knew nothing about Jesus, but who hoped for a closer relationship with their creator. Next weekend we light a candle for the prophets, remembering all those who before the coming of Jesus looked for a time when a Messiah would come to inaugurate his Kingdom. Prophets like Isaiah, from whom we heard in our first reading at this Mass.
Then, on the third weekend in Advent we light a candle as we remember John the Baptist, the one who prepared a way in the wilderness, the last of the Prophets to announce that Christ was coming soon. On that third weekend we light a pink candle rather than a blue one, as a special reminder to us, a little celebration for us that whilst we are still waiting, the time is very near. And on the weekend before Christmas, the fourth weekend in this special season, we light a candle for the Blessed Virgin Mary, the one to whom the coming of the Messiah was announced, and the one who bore him in her womb. Then finally as we celebrate the first coming of Christ at Christmas together we light the white candle that symbolises for us the light of Christ in the world, a light that cannot be extinguished but that burns brightly forever.
In all of this we remember that this season is a time of waiting, and conversion and hope. Waiting for our annual celebration of his first coming at Christmas. Waiting for his coming again in glory. Conversion of life as we renew our commitment to serve him here and now, which is why we strip away some elements in our liturgy, we remove our altar frontals and simplify our time together as a reminder of our focus on getting back to the heart of our faith. Joyful hope, that our salvation has already been achieved, already sealed fully for us through Christ’s action and God’s grace.
It is said that the pastor and theologian Karl Barth had a medieval painting of the crucifixion of Jesus on the wall of his study. In the painting there is an image of John the Baptist, his extra long finger directing and pointing the onlooker to the cross of Jesus in the centre of the painting. Barth would talk with a visitor about his work, he would direct them to John the Baptist in the painting, and he would say, “I want to be that finger.” I want to be a sign pointing to Jesus.
This Advent we remember the sign that Jesus left us, it simply reads “Coming Soon,” and we pray that you and I, and all who gather in this church may be living signs, living fingers pointing to the hope that we have found in him.