Advent Sunday: the beginning of a new year in our church calendar and of the four Sundays which make up our preparation for Christmas. All that, of course, you know and don’t need me to tell you. But for all that, and despite the fact that we keep the season of Advent year by year, it seems to me always to be a mysterious and potentially frightening time. Its name, as you will know, comes from the Latin word adventus, which means a coming, an arrival. One of its uses in Latin is for the return of the emperor to Rome, which was celebrated with due pomp. This began with the return of the first emperor, Augustus, in 19 BC from his campaigns in Spain, when a new religious cult was set up to Fortuna Redux (the good fortune that brought the emperor home safely). But there is something else that seems to me significant for us about this word: in Latin the plural of adventus is adventus (the same word, at least to all appearances), because (at least in the Western church) this is the season in which we remember not one ‘arrival’, that of Jesus at Christmas, but two. The last two readings we have heard this morning are not about the birth of Jesus but about his second coming, about the Last Days and the Final Judgement, when ‘they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory’. And it is clearly this sort of ‘coming’ that the reading we heard from Isaiah is talking about.
What can we say about the second coming of Christ? What can we say about the Last Judgement? Well, you may be glad to hear, very little. To quote again from Jesus’ words in our gospel reading, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Under those circumstances, you can’t expect me to advise you. But the point of Jesus’ remark comes in the last verse of our reading: “But what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
But there is something else mysterious about the comings (adventus in the plural) of Jesus. A second coming implies a previous going. Now of course in one sense, Jesus left his disciples after his resurrection (that is what the stories about his ascension are telling us); but in another it has been the experience of Christians, from the time of the New Testament down to the present day, that he is still with us. He is not just a historical figure, like the emperor Augustus or the apostle Paul. Through the Holy Spirit, he is still here with us, when two or three are gathered together, when we come to his table to share his body and his blood or when we work together to carry on his work of love for his world. These too are his comings sometimes in judgement, sometimes in aid, always in love. So he is with us as here in St Columba’s we seek for ways to open ourselves, re-present ourselves, to the world on our doorstep by re-shaping our web-site or our building and bring others to join us in this community, which is the body of Christ. And to do this, to realise the work of God, who, as Zachary reminded us last week, makes all things new, we need to keep awake to the coming, the presence, of Our Lord, the God who comes.
I want to end by reading you a sermon (a brief one, I promise you) which puts some of this far better than I could. It was written by Austin Farrar, a theologian who in the 1950s and 1960s was chaplain at the college I attended in Oxford, for an Advent Sunday some 50 years ago:
Our journey sets out from God in our creation, and returns to God at the final judgement. As the bird rises from the earth to fly, and must some time return to the earth from which it rose, so God sends us forth to fly, and we must fall back into the hands of God at last. But God does not wait for the failure of our power and the expiry of our days to drop us back into his lap. He goes out to meet us and everywhere confronts us. Where is the countenance which we must finally look in the eyes, and not be able to turn away our head? It smiles up at Mary from the cradle, it calls Peter from the nets, it looks on him with grief when he has denied his master. Our judge meets us at every step of our way, with forgiveness on his lips and succour in his hands. He offers us these things while yet there is time. Every day opportunity shortens, our scope for learning our Redeemer’s love in narrowed by twenty-four hours, and we come nearer to the end of our journey, when we fall into the hands of the living God, and touch the heart of the devouring fire.
Austin Farrar, The Crown of the Year, 7