Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44
Imagine you’re waiting at a train station for someone arriving. You’re stood at the head of the platform looking down the concourse beside the recently arrived train with people streaming towards you. You crane your neck to peer above the on-coming crowd, scanning the faces to find the person you’re waiting for. The faces farthest away from you of course are smaller and less distinct, perhaps your eyesight is less good at distances. Once or twice you think you’ve seen your person – but no – it was just a similar hair colour, facial shape, or maybe someone else is wearing a jacket the person you’re waiting for normally wears and just for a moment you’re caught out. Finally you catch sight of them – but even then it take a little longer to see their expression clearly and to read their emotions: how has their journey been? Are they pleased to see you? It is only as they come towards you that clarity appears. It is in the coming towards that clarity appears.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent – Advent marks the 4-week period in which we prepare for the arrival Jesus. At the risk of sounding like the John Cleese’s Roman Centurion Latin master from The Life of Brian, I should point out that although ‘advent’ is sometimes translated simply as ‘the coming’’ this isn’t quite right. Strictly speaking the last part, from the word ‘venire’, does indeed mean ‘to come’; but the ‘ad’ part on the front indicates direction – ‘ad’ means ‘to’ or ‘towards’. Advent means God’s coming towards us, and as with my opening image of waiting for someone to come towards us at the train station, this introduces the possibility that the closer God comes to us, the more clearly we perceive God.
This week a young male student dropped into the University Chaplaincy. He wasn’t a Christian but had spent a lot of time reading about Christianity and he was interested. There were some things he seemed to like, but there were other things he found difficult. For example, he’d been reading from the Old Testament a passage in which God is described speaking and he pointed out how overbearing and simply arrogant this God sounded.
I think he expected me to defend this picture of God and he was rather taken aback when instead I agreed with him.
The Bible, I tried to explain, is the record of the long story, lasting several thousand years, of God’s coming towards us. Broadly speaking it is a story in which humans gradually come to see God more clearly. Older parts see God, as merely a local deity for Israel, one among many national gods. These parts of Scripture see God in the form of a warrior, a controller of storms, a provider of food and fertility.
There’s a sense in which these images are partly true in as much as they hint at how God is so much more powerful, more creative than we are; and yet they are also partly wrong – they are unclear: too indistinct.
As I suggested to the interested student, it’s only really in the Gospels, in the person, life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, that Christians ultimately claim to see God best and most clearly. This is what Christians mean by ‘progressive revelation’: as God comes towards humankind we see God more clearly. And so some of our first assumptions drop away: is God a stern warrior figure like a local warlord or the king of Babylon? Well, no.
You’ll have picked up from our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning however more than a hint of judgement. Somewhat oddly, you might think, the people who put together our readings have mapped onto our 4-week period of waiting for God’s coming at Christmas, readings about God’s Second Coming, God’s final advent in judgement: “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Whether we think about the second coming as what happens when we each die, or whether we think of it as what happens in the future, having to think about it at all during the soul-destroying process of Christmas shopping seems to me particularly unfair. Couldn’t we be a little more cheerful – it is Christmas, after all?
But one benefit of overlapping the stories of God’s first coming towards us in Jesus, and God’s second coming towards in judgement, is that we might begin to realise than that they are not unconnected. It is not the case that in God’s first advent we are shown one form of God (a Jesus-shaped God), but in the second Advent we experience a God who comes with a big stick… No.
This week I sat for an hour listening to someone who a month ago left their partner after a marriage of 20 years. All through the marriage their partner had been controlling, manipulative and bullying, and the children having got to a sufficiently mature age, the person decided to leave. Among many emotions, two dominant ones were relief and guilt.
As we talked I noticed in the person’s description a pattern that reminded me of the story of the Exodus – of how the Hebrews once left a place of captivity, to their great relief, and then entered a period of uncertainty: their wilderness wanderings in the desert of Sinai which included much looking back. It took the Hebrews forty years before they entered their new Promised Land. So, reflecting on this, I expressed my joy for the person’s freedom, sadness at what had passed, hope for their future.
The person I was speaking with expressed surprise at such affirmation – that I, a representative of God, might not judge them. I replied that judgment did have a role, but it was the judgment of trying (gradually and carefully) to tell the truth: to themselves about what had gone wrong, to the partner in as much as they would listen, and above all to the children about what had happened. Judgement is not condemnation – it is compassionate truth-telling.
God’s second advent, God’s coming to us in judgment, whenever that might happen, is surely best understood as the experience of truth being told to us compassionately: the truth about how we got it wrong; the truth about who we were when we trying to be someone else; and the truth about how God’s image was indeed in us all along…
Here in pictorial form is ‘the mirror of truth’ – the crack on the left-hand side is reflected in the image of a heart on the other side; which in turn reflects back to surround the crack: in judgement truth-telling is framed with compassion.
There is of course much more to say on judgment than I have time to do carefully here…
But how can be sure of any of this?
Well, perhaps because between the first advent and the second final advent, there is a third experience of God coming towards us. When is this? It is in the daily experience of God coming towards us when we pray…
What is it like to experience this third daily advent? Well, how do you find it when God comes towards you?
My personal experience is very close to a description found in a poem by RS Thomas. He describes God’s coming towards him as like sitting by a pool of water in a forest and waiting for a deer emerge from the trees:
to be abroad in.
There is nothing I can do
but fill myself with my own
silence, hoping it will approach
like a wild creature to drink
there, or perhaps like Narcissus
to linger a moment over its transparent face.
When I am still – perhaps when you are still – in moments of prayer, or in those moments in-between business, we can sometimes find God coming towards us. Of course whether God comes or not is up to God; but when God does come (again speaking personally) I find it is not with flashes and bangs, nor with cataclysmic condemnation for my many sins: no it is more like seeing clearly God’s image in me: ah, yes, there I see Christ and know God’s blessing, but ah – here the image is marred, distorted – I need to seek change…
The eleventh-century French medieval mystic and monk Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about this experience of a third advent like this:
The third coming is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.”
When God comes to us today God brings many things – but often I find it is rest and consolation.
Here is another train station picture. Marc Trautmann’s Welcome Home. It’s an unashamedly sentimental one: at the end of a retreat I was once asked to pick a picture of God – this one spoke to me – after a time of being distant from God, God comes towards us and meets us: yes there is regret, a desire to do better; but there is also pure enveloping love, like the father coming towards the prodigal son, like the rush of the baby coming at Christmas: like the coming of truth. First, second and third advents all share something of this quality.
God has come towards us clearly in Jesus
God will come towards us at our deaths in clarity of truth
And God comes towards us now to show us clearly who we are and who we can be. Amen