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Sermon: Advent Sunday

Sunday 2nd December 2012
Cathedral Eucharist
Jeremiah 33.14-16
Luke 21.25-36

My alarm clock goes off at 6.30 am every weekday, later than many people (those travelling to work, up early with children, or those being cared for), and earlier than some (not to disparage the students I spend time with!) but it means I am ready to be in the Cathedral for Morning Prayer at 7.30. And recently, in common with many people, no doubt, I have been opening the curtains onto some pretty bleak and dreary scenes: rain lashing down, trees swaying in the howling wind, wet leaves being hurled around and general darkness and gloom. Of course the light does come; and with the coming light even foul weather doesn’t ever seem quite-that-bad.

How different it is when we open the curtains, in any season of the year, to a bright clear vista. To be able to look out and see, as it were, the fig tree sprouting and be able to say, ‘warmth and light and growth is coming’. To be able to unveil the beauty of the day and its possibilities is a joyful thing. ‘This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it’ as the psalmist says. Every day is of course a gift of God, as the opening prayer at Morning Prayer puts it,

As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O Lord,
set our hearts on fire with love for you
now and always.

I want though to return to the thought of drawing open the curtains; and this cathedral is blessed with lots of curtains. They might reflect a 1960s aesthetic sensibility, but they serve to illustrate an interesting point that we’ll come back to. There is great anticipation in unveiling, for instance the unveiling of a special plaque or statue. And what a powerful image it is in the gospels when a curtain is not simply unveiled but torn in two, tearing down the barrier between God and humanity.

The gospel reading is about an unveiling, for that is the literal meaning of the word apocalyptic. And the gospel today brings home the dramatic and urgent character of the coming of the Son of Man and the proximity of the Kingdom of God. Even when we see scenes of destruction around us, something is being unveiled.

The character of this Advent Sunday gospel is apocalyptic. Apocalyptic doesn’t mean weird, incomprehensible, unlikely or plain mad. Apocalyptic unveils something of the world that we cannot see.

So what is it that we cannot see? Well, on one level we cannot possibly know. If I can’t see it then it can’t be there. That is how many dismiss faith. In a Cathedral Church dedicated, as we are, to the Holy Spirit, then we really should beg to differ. The unseen spirit has very visible effects. As the unseen breath of wind moves and cajoles leaves and flags, our neat hair-dos and umbrellas, so the Spirit moves, guides and prompts: sometimes gently and sometimes quite overwhelmingly. The Spirit blows away the veil; the Spirit is apocalyptic, unveiling a bright and vivid world. This is captured by the Latvian writer and pastor Juris Rubenis who says,

The thought that “this is just the way the world is” brings sadness. The thought that “the world just is” brings joy. (Finding God in a Tangled World. 56)

Apocalyptic is that sense that things seem to belong to another world other than this world. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it, ‘there is another world, the same as this one’. The task for us, as witnesses to what Christ has already accomplished, is to learn to see the world in which we live as the very world that the Father created and the Son redeemed. We learn to see through the grace of the Holy Spirit: in the great hymn to the Holy Spirit, ‘Veni, creator Spiritus’ we sing,

Enable with perpetual light
The dullness of our blinded sight:
Veni, creator Spiritus

And something is unveiled in what we are doing now, in the Eucharist. The words of today’s gospel come, in St Luke’s gospel, just before the plot to kill Jesus emerges and preceded by the preparation for the Passover. The hinge to this new world is the Lord’s Supper, and Luke tells us, ‘when the hour came’ (Luke 22.14) Jesus speaks of his urgent desire to eat the supper with his disciples. That act is apocalyptic, it unveils a truer world. Apocalyptic, Advent, unveils a generous world where we are invited to sit and eat with Christ at the hour of his coming. Every celebration of the Eucharist is an unveiling and the breaking in of that world shaped by the generosity of God.

What we are doing here brings that as yet unfamiliar world into sharper relief, the curtain is drawn away and we see a new world. This isn’t the world of the Wizard of Oz tucked behind a curtain that is pulled away revealing no great god, but a mortal pulling levers in an increasingly desperate way; Eucharist is the unveiling of the world that already is, the world of the Kingdom: more real than the world we know now, more generous, expansive and vivacious.

The great refrain of Advent is ‘Amen. Lord Jesus, come’ rendered in Aramaic, ‘Maranatha’. In the Nicene Creed we yearn and plead for ‘the life of the world to come’. Advent is a time of now and not yet: all is fulfilled, and yet the Kingdom is to come. ‘The days are surely coming’ the LORD says through Jeremiah, but that is not quite good enough for us. ‘Enough waiting!’ we declare. Enough waiting for the peace of Jerusalem, for the healing of creation, for women Bishops, for what? Advent is a time of gestation, a time of perseverance and patience.

So returning to our curtains here in the Cathedral: it’s no accident, surely, that the altar in this Cathedral stands on the visible side of our curtain that soars some forty or fifty feet up the east wall. What that tells us is that the expansive vision of God, is available not simply to glimpse, but here to be seen by us and by all, not as spectators but as participants, patiently, attentively open, living ‘the life of the world to come’ in this unfamiliar and strange world.