Looking backwards and forwards on Advent 1

Advent 1 – 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

Marian Free

 In the name of God who was and is and is to come, who has loved, does love and will love. Amen.

If you have ever had a medical procedure you will know that you will usually receive a list of instructions telling you what you must do to prepare. Some blood tests require you to fast before hand and others do not. A visit to an obstetrician will often require you to produce a urine sample. An appointment for a breast screen will come with instructions as to what to wear and the insistence that on that day you do not use talcum powder. A booking for surgery will come with pages of instructions – don’t drink alcohol, do not eat or drink for a specified period, do not bring valuables to the hospital with you but do bring your method of payment. And as for having a colonoscopy – let’s not even go there! (Those of us who have had the experience know what is involved and those of you yet to have the pleasure, will find out soon enough.)

The point is that there are many things in our life that require careful and thoughtful preparation – travel, meals, study, buying a house, getting married and so on. While some of these need more attention than others, they are all relatively easy in the sense that the guidelines are clear, others have done it before us and by and large we know what is expected or where to go for information or advice.

Preparing for eternity is a very different proposition from preparing for surgery, travel or a job interview. For a start, no one has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it is like or to give us specific instructions as to exactly how to get in. No one, that is, except Jesus and he did not give a straight forward, easy to follow list of directions or instructions. Instead he left his followers to make sense of his teachings and to put them together in ways that made sense to them.

Preparing for eternity or for the return of Jesus, is the most important thing that we will ever do with our lives, but it is easy to put it off because it seems so remote, so far into the future that we imagine that we have plenty of time to put our lives in order. Alternatively, it is possible to become complacent, to believe that we have already done all that is necessary to enter into eternal life.

I wonder how many of us put the same amount of effort into our preparation for eternity as we do for other aspects of our lives. Do we have a check list that we refer back to see how ready we are? Are we really clear as to what is required? Have we put some effort and research into the subject or do we think we already know all that there is to know?

Many of us were brought up with a Christian faith that taught us to be good, that entrance into heaven required sticking within some prescribed guidelines – most notably the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we have learned that Jesus does not want simple obedience to a set of rules. In life, he consistently chose those who did not conform to the societal view of what does or does not constitute “goodness”, he criticized those who placed weight on outward appearances, and he constantly revised the commandments in such a way as to make it clear that it was a person’s attitude to and relationship with God that was the key to eternal life. In other words, Jesus shifted the goal posts and cast us adrift from the safety of clear rules and codes of behavior and left us to find our own direction.

Jesus knew that it was possible to do the “right thing” but to do it for the wrong reasons. He exposed the hypocrisy and shallowness of those whose outward show of goodness hid a lack of love and compassion, a self-centredness and self-congratulatory attitude that blinded them to their own weakness and frailty. Jesus sought out those who knew their own sinfulness and who relied on God’s love rather than their own efforts.

If Jesus were to offer advice for living or guidelines for attaining eternity, he would probably encourage us to seek self-awareness rather than self-righteousness, to recognise our imperfection rather than aim for perfection and to understand that we are no better than the next person rather than striving to outdo them with our “goodness”.

In the final analysis, Jesus’ incarnation demonstrated that our salvation does not depend on anything that we do for ourselves, but on what God does for us. Salvation is entirely related to God’s love for us – love that entered into our existence, challenged our concepts of right and wrong, of power and weakness, of judgment and acceptance, love that endured the worst that we can throw at it, and which loves us still. Love, that on the cross overcame evil and death so that nothing might stand between ourselves and life eternal.

On this, the first Sunday of Advent, we are urged to both look backward to Jesus’ coming in love and forward to Jesus’ coming in judgement, to place our lives in the balance and to see how we measure up.

Are we living in such a way that demonstrates our awareness of God’s love and our inability to deserve that love? Have we thrown ourselves completely on God’s mercy or are we still holding something back – in other words do we completely and utterly trust in God’s unconditional love or does some part of us still believe that we have to do something to deserve it?

Christmas is a celebration of God’s incomprehensible yet unmistakable love for us. Advent is an opportunity to ask ourselves whether or not we trust that love and whether that love has translated into love for ourselves and love for others.

Perhaps, after all, we are better not to prepare, but instead to ensure that we fully accept all that God in Jesus has done for us, such that Jesus’ return will be time of rejoicing and not a time of fearfulness and that we will be truly ready to rest in God’s love for eternity.

 

 

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