As the Guardian has Covid, this reflection is written by Christopher Belk who kindly took today’s service with his wife Ruth. Thanks to them as Advent and Year A begin – may both bring their blessings as well as their challenges.
Comment for ADVENT Sunday
Part 1 (Isaiah 2, 2-5)
The first purple candle is associated with the prophets, and there cannot be many greater than Isaiah. He is one of many whose prophecies would have been taken at that time (and probably still are by the Jews) to refer to the geographical city of Jerusalem, and to the restoration of Israel to that place after their captivity by Nebuchadnezzar. However they clearly extend far further than Jewish history alone can explain. It is true that many Jews still desire to go up to mount Zion (when the Arabs let them which largely they don’t) and that it is not unknown, though pretty rare, for Israel to mediate in disputes between nations, but certainly the nuclear missiles have not yet become plowshares or pruning hooks and Israel itself has plenty of disputes of its own to deal with. Indeed, Jews would agree that these prophecies will only be fulfilled when the Messiah comes.
Jesus knew these prophecies well, and continually identified himself with their fulfilment. That was the main reason why the Jewish authorities put him to death – they could not accept the possibility that the long expected Messiah might just have arrived.
This prophecy of Isaiah is an “in and out” prophecy – the nations will come in to seek the Word of the Lord and then the Word will go out. There is that rather strange moment recorded in Chap 12 of John’s gospel when some Greeks asked Jesus disciple Philip if they could see Jesus. Jesus reaction was not just to say “how nice to see you”, but it was to recognise this as the moment when Isaiah’s prophecy was going to start happening – other nations were beginning to seek the true Word of God, that is Jesus himself. He said “Now is the Son of Man glorified”, and that his hour had come, and that it was necessary for a seed to die in order to produce much fruit.
Another similar prophecy is in Ezekiel chap 47, where after very detailed visions of the design of a new temple (which was never physically built to that design) Ezekiel was shown a river coming out from that city which got deeper and deeper as it flowed through the lands and was lined with trees for the healing of the nations. Cut to John 7.37 where Jesus says “whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him”. So the company of believers, that includes you and me, have become the new temple from which the healing streams of the Spirit should flow to solve all the problems of the nations. Indeed I can see no solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem, or the Russia/Ukraine problem, or the Irish problem, or American politics, except Jesus.
The temptation, in Advent, is to remember the history of Jesus coming birth and the visions leading up to it, with all the trimmings from wreaths to Christmas cards, while forgetting His presence right now amid the rush of secular Christmas, poverty and world problems.
Part 2 (Matthew 24 36-44)
Of course, if we remember advent properly, we may take a momentary glance away from the Christmas cards to look forward to the second coming. The same prophets also look far ahead to “the last days”, and people have been trying ever since either to put a timetable on the subject or conveniently to forget it. I can’t remember seeing many greeting cards illustrating that event, and anyone who parades a placard announcing the end of the world is usually written off as a fool. Even
my dear mother, who was no fool, used to say she was sure Jesus would come back in her lifetime, which ended on earth in 1994 though she can now go on waiting in heaven.
So Matthew’s gospel leaves us in the tension of being sure that day will come (and it could be today which at least would save Wales from possible relegation in the world cup) but also being forbidden to put timings on it. The only option is to say correctly that the end of the world is at hand and to behave as though it may indeed be today, though remembering that “at hand” in God’s planning and timing can be millennia or moments.. Jesus’ picture of the sudden separation of friends and colleagues is unnerving to say the least, and should be a wake up call to make sure friends and colleagues know Jesus, as well as to ensure we know him well enough ourselves, which will ultimately be proved by what we do and how we live. And we shouldn’t wait for Christmas as the dating of that is a human invention anyway.
One thing we can do perhaps, particularly at this time of year, is to make sure we mean what we sing. I am as guilty as anyone in churning out the much loved Christmas carols largely because they have nice tunes. It has done me good to have to learn carols and other hymns in Welsh, giving me new opportunities to think what the words are saying. Many hymns are directly addressed to God, and we should remember whom we are addressing, how unworthy we are to address Him at all, and how amazing is His grace in inviting us to do so in reliance on the sacrifice of His Son.