Advent Sunday - Reflection

‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence’. Isaiah 64:1

‘Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory[…] Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ Mark 13: 26,35-37

Brothers and sisters, today is the beginning of Advent. Some of us will be beginning our Advent devotionals, starting our Advent disciplines of prayer and fasting. Some of us will be opening our first Advent calendar window as we begin our waiting for Christmas. Today if you venture in to church you will see the church dressed in purple and the first Advent candle lit; and if we had a service we would have sung, or more likely listened to, the Advent hymn ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’. It’s a beautiful hymn and one which conveys much of what Advent is all about. The hymn opens with these words:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here

Back in the history of God’s people, Israel had been quite literally kidnapped. Dragged off to a foreign land; dragged off into exile. Kidnapping is always a terrible crime, made worse in a pre-modern era when there were no mobile phones, and so most likely any ransom demand would have taken months, even years, to be agreed. The hymn imagines the Israelites in exile crying out to God to come and save them, to come and ransom them, to buy them back, or to use the correct English word ‘redeem’ them. And whilst they sang, they watched and waited, and they prayed that, in the words of today’s Old Testament reading, God ‘would tear open the heavens and come down’. Then they wait to be ransomed; they wait to be redeemed.

What does any of this have to do with us? Well, the writers of the New Testament, reflecting on the words of Jesus Himself, ask all of us to wake up and see that we too have been kidnapped. Kidnapped by our desires, by our addictions, and by our preference to go our own way rather than God’s. The Scriptures tell us that it is not just that  we have wandered away from God - though we have done that - it’s also that we’ve been taken captive by a power alien to God’s purposes and alien to our happiness. All of us are addicted to sin, held captive by something which does NOT want our happiness. We too, therefore, need to be ransomed, we need to be bought back, we need to be redeemed. The words of the hymn, then, become ours too:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here

And so at Advent we look back to the time when God ‘came down’ as a small baby and was laid in a manger.  When Jesus - Emmanuel meaning God with us - arrived on the world stage to buy us back, in order to be our redeemer. Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah by coming to earth, and He lives, dies, and rises again so that we might be redeemed. However, at Advent we do not just look back, at Jesus’ command we also look forward. Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading that there will be time when we will see ‘“the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.’ God will again ‘come down’ and when He does He will finally end the situation in which humanity is captive to our sins. For now we watch and we wait. But while we wait, Jesus asks us not to doze off, not to fall asleep, but rather to be active in preparing ourselves for His return. Preparing by fighting against that which holds us captive through prayer and fasting. And whilst, as Christians, we are to always be preparing, Advent is a focussed time for such preparation. 

So as we mark the beginning of Advent today, let us begin again to battle that which holds us captive, and in so doing prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return. Let us spend more time in prayer, more time in the Scriptures, and more time asking for God’s help to make us ready. If we do that, then despite everything, this might be the best Christmas ever. Amen (from Rev. Mike).