Advent: it’s a season of anticipation and expectation.
For children it’s a time when Advent calendars or candles mark the countdown of growing excitement as Christmas draws closer. For many adults, however, these weeks before Christmas seem to be a mad rush to do shopping, write cards, wrap presents and complete all sorts of other preparations for Christmas.
But truly – although Advent does look forward to Christmas and we remember the prophets, the forerunners and those who welcomed the good news of Christ’s birth, the incarnation, Advent also looks forward to another coming, the Second Coming, the triumphant return of Christ in glory.
Our readings today reflect that in. In Isaiah we have the glorious vision of the nations all streaming to the Mountain of the Lord, learning His ways and living in peace; and in Matthew we read the exhortation to be alert for no-one knows the date or time of Christ’s return.
Our collect (special prayer for today) and prayer after Communion also reflect these themes – calling us to live in the light of Christ, to live lives worthy of Christ and to remain faithful, watchful and vigilant that we may be found actively serving God and joyful in our praise of the Lord whenever He may return.
But what does it take seriously to lift our thoughts from the everyday pressures of the here and now to consider the end times?
Last week I read a newspaper article about an anaesthetist in California who was a successful man working in a major hospital. He had built up considerable wealth with a mansion sized home and a number of top of the range cars but along the way he had lost empathy for his patients, never having time to talk to them. He was also quite a severe father – following the pattern of his own father and grandfather before him – leading to a relationship with his son defined by anger and by his insistence that the boy go into medicine whether he wanted to or not.
Then the anaesthetist himself needed surgery and what should have been a fairly straightforward operation actually led to complications, more surgery and finally septic shock which saw him rushed into hospital for life or death surgery. During that surgery he had an out of body experience (such as he had always dismissed when any of his patients had tried to speak of such things). He saw himself in the operating theatre and the team doing the surgery and he also saw his mother and sisters in India.
The he had a terrifying vision of hell from which he was drawn away by the loving presence of his father and grandfather (so different from his experience of these men in life). He was drawn further and further into a place of profound love which he came to believe was the most important dynamic in life. Then 2 angels – Michael and Raphael – brought him to a place of light where he was given a new direction for his life – to offer healing to others through consciousness-based healing (mediation and other alternative therapies).
He came through the surgery and tried to tell his doctors of his experience but they were as dismissive as he would have been before. However, he went on to amaze his colleagues by giving up his hospital job and setting up a healing centre. He sold his expensive home and cars and began to live more modestly and he developed a more loving relationship with his son giving him the space to be the person he wanted to be, following his own choice of career in computing. As a Hindu he had never heard of angels Michael and Raphael but he discovered these were angels associated with healing and protecting people.
From being a hard headed, even hard hearted man driven by desire for materialistic rewards, for wealth, position and control he became much more empathic man with a modest lifestyle looking to live a life of love and healing. He aimed to break the cycle of anger that had dogged his family for generations.
Whatever happened to this man during his lifesaving surgery, it profoundly changed him, altered his perspective on life and on relationship and he changed direction, job, home and lifestyle. He came to see love as the undergirding dynamic of life. He felt his previous way of life had not been right and he had been given a new direction in life, a new chance.
Did he encounter Christ? We don’t know – and there is no indication that he stopped being a Hindu. He did encounter angels named in our Scriptures – Michael and Raphael and felt their influence.
The reason I wanted to tell that story is that we none of us know what is in store for us – in the next minutes, hours, days, years. We cannot predict accurately even such simple things as whether a lightbulb will fail or whether we will catch a cold. We certainly cannot predict or pinpoint the return of Jesus. But we are promised it will happen and we are warned and encourage to live as if we believe that so that we will not be caught off guard if it were to happen today or tomorrow.
Matthew tells of people going about their daily lives and being utterly surprised by what happens – like people caught out by a sudden earthquake or flash flood. We know the unexpected happens – cutting across people’s plans and lives – but do we ever prepare for it? People know they will die but so many never get round to writing a will …
In Advent we are reminded that Christ’s coming in glory – the final establishment of God’s Kingdom – could come at any time and we are exhorted to be vigilant, to live the ordinary routines of our lives but to live them well. To try to live as we would want Jesus to find us living.
The man whose story I have told had a profound and life changing experience and he responded and made big changes – more focused on love and healing and people. He broke cycles of anger and desire for materialistic rewards. What would it take for any of us to break our less good habits and attitudes and live the kind of live that we would be happy to be found engaged in if Jesus returned today or tomorrow? If Jesus returned today or tomorrow would we be able to welcome his gaze or would we look away, saying “I’m not really ready. My life’s a bit of a shambles. If I’d known it was today I’d have done all those things I’ve intended to but have always put off.”
Jesus knows our lives are sometimes difficult and that we struggle in many ways with current circumstances and pressures – but are we living surrounded by life-clutter that we know we should have sorted out long ago? Are we holding on to anger or resentments or cold-hearted attitudes or are we trying to live lives of love and mercy and grace?
Advent gives us time to reflect on God’s promises and the visions of peace and love from prophets like Isaiah. I heard a Bishop in a black-led Pentecostal church say “Don’t let your memories destroy your dreams”. Memories of rejection or hurt can get in the way of us going after or believe in our dreams. Don’t let the bad things of this world take your faith and hope in the promises of God.
We have seen again this week in our news how bad memories can dog people for years. As Christians we believe we can bring all these bad memories, hurts and damage to Jesus and let him love and enfold us and ultimately set us free us from their power. We all need to find a way to live with hope and faith, to live with joy and expectation and with mercy and love.
In our uncertain and sometimes cruel, hard and violent world we need to hold on to the vision and promise of God. We need to live lives as worthy of God as we can manage and to ask for the Holy Spirit to help us. We need to look forward to the time when God’s promises will be fulfilled. Jesus will come in glory.May we all be able to say with enthusiasm – Come Lord Jesus, may we welcome your Advent here.
Anne Grant – Reader