john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Isaiah 2 / Matthew 24 - Don't get carried away; prepare to be generous

    Good Shepherd Advent Sunday Communion 2/12/2007

    Isaiah 2.1-5, Matthew 24.36-44

    Advent Sunday - the first Sunday in the church year (new calendar 'lectionary' / clergy: new diary...)

    What does Advent mean? or What is Advent for?

    - time of preparation for the festival of Christmas:
    - therefore a time of fasting:
    From Advent Sunday, the fourth before the Nativity, [the people] had been enjoined to limit their diet. For the wealthy, this apparently meant having soups, stews, and fish instead of roasts or pies. The poorer, however, could find the reduction a misery. In the fifteenth century James Ryman complained of eating 'no puddings nor sauce, but stinking fish not worth a louse'. Christmas Eve was kept as a strict fast, meat, cheese and eggs all being forbidden. [1]
    - but also a time of preparing for a feast:
    The feasting upon the Day was thus something of an emotional release, and also an occasion for generosity. All household accounts surviving from the Middle Ages and Tudor period record the purchase of abnormal quantities of foodstuffs for it and the following days. [1]
    - so people have always gone overboard in Advent, shopping for excessive amounts of food, and other things towards the celebrations: because an important part of Christmas is the chance to be generous towards others.

    Over many centuries we seem to have learned two things about Advent: that we shouldn't get carried away - but we should prepare to be generous.

    As far as the Christian celebrations go, in reality, bits of Christmas 'happen' in Advent - eg school carol services which take place before the end of term, Christingles which have no fixed date so move around as each church decides when best to have theirs. [2]

    Advent Calendars - help us think about a character or aspect of the Christmas story each day of the 24 leading to Christmas.

    Advent Candles - help us think about a character or aspect of the Christmas story each Sunday of the four leading to Christmas.

    The readings for Advent tell us that Advent is a time for preparing for the coming Christ. The last two weeks of Advent look forward to the coming of the baby Jesus; the first two weeks of Advent are about the second coming of Christ as the judge of the world.

    And so today we hear the words of Isaiah anticipating the day when
    the mountain of the Lord's house
    shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be raised above the hills;
    all the nations shall stream to it.
    Isaiah sees the Lord as a teacher, instructing the people, and a judge, arbitrating for many peoples; and the consequence of the Lord's coming is that the people learn to live together in peace:
    they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
    and their spears into pruning-hooks;
    nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more.
    Isaiah's words anticipate the meaning of Advent: Don't get carried away, but prepare to be generous. The people don't get carried away with themselves, but listen and learn from the teacher, and accept his wise judgements on their lives. The people prepare to be generous by putting an end to their violence and aggression towards each other and learning peace.
    O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord!
    - wrote Isaiah. Something to remember as we sit by the light of our Advent Candles this month, as we walk in the light of the decorations on people's houses and in the shopping centres of our town. Walk in the light of the Lord: don't get carried away, but prepare to be generous.

    Don't get carried away puts a very important slant on the gospel reading which we've heard, one which has been misunderstood by many people, not least in recent years. No one knows the hour when the Son of Man will come, says Jesus, the angels of heaven don't know, the Son himself doesn't know, but only the Father:
    Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. ... you ... must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
    Now a series of books called Left Behind, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins has been very popular recently [3], and their popularity is due to the way they interpret these verses in Matthew. The two in the field; one taken and one left behind - the way they see that, it is the godly people, the righteous, who are taken away and the ungodly, the corrupt, who are left behind. If you hear anyone mention 'the Rapture' this is what they are talking about. And popular Christian songs about the Rapture tell us, 'don't get left behind'.

    But I want to suggest that the reality is the other way around. All through this talk I've been saying that a meaning of Advent is don't get carried away. Or, if you like, do get left behind. And I say that because Jesus himself didn't get carried away. He got left behind.

    The Christmas story tells us that Jesus got left behind on earth, the Son of God translated into the body of a vulnerable little child; so that God could be one of us and as he grew up, could introduce his Kingdom to us, here on earth.

    The Easter story tells us that Jesus got left behind on the cross, the Son of God allowing himself to be the most vulnerable of all, the victim of all our violence; so that God's Kingdom - a Kingdom of love and grace - could come. In the events that led up to the crucifixion humankind got carried away with ourselves in 'a flood of collective violence [which] swept up everyone in its path'; but Jesus braced himself and prepared to be generous [Paul Nuechterlein]:
    [This flood of violence] washed over him, and he did drown in it. But was the tomb also his ark? He remained sheltered for three days and then left it behind empty. He has arisen as the Forgiving Victim of all those others who were swept up in the flood. There was no Rapture that saved him from the cross, but the Resurrection did pull him from the clutches of death. [4]
    The good news which we reflect on at Advent is that we are baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ. And that means that we needn't get carried away, but can instead prepare to be generous, just as Jesus was generous in his life and death and resurrection. This is what he means by preparing ourselves, being ready for his coming.

    Because Jesus did get left behind we understand that he knows about the things we know about, in our everyday lives, that he cares about the things we care about. That he's with us in all of them.

    And this means that we can carry on shopping, carry on preparing, and - if we work in shops or post offices or schools or other places where extra demands are put on us in Advent - we can carry on working in good faith, knowing that Jesus is with us here, encouraging us to walk in his light, telling us gently: don't be anxious, don't get caught up in the madness and competitiveness and violence of the season; this Advent don't get carried away, but prepare to be generous.

    [1] Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
    [2] Michael Perham, Celebrate the Christian Story: An Introduction to the New Lectionary and Calendar helped me prepare this section
    [3] Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, The Left Behind Book Series
    [4] Paul Nuechterlein,