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1st Sunday of Advent

25 November 2022

27 November: Isaiah 2.1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13.11-end; Matthew 24.36-44

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IN AD 386, in a garden in Milan, this New Testament reading changed a man’s life. He went on to change other lives by his example (how he lived his life from then on), and by his teaching (the fruits of study and reflection, passed on to others by writing and preaching).

His name was Augustine. He had travelled from north Africa to northern Italy, searching for answers to the question of life, the universe, everything. He heard a voice telling him to “pick up and read” — but what? So he took up a book and read the first words his eyes fell on: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Because he took the apostle Paul’s words in Romans with the utmost seriousness, Augustine let them change his life. For this is what our “glorious liberty” (Romans 8.21) consists in: the power to say “yes”, or “no”, to God.

Advent Sunday marks the beginning of the Church year, and new years are good times for making resolutions. We often do so on 1 January; so why not make a Christian resolution on Advent Sunday? A resolution is not a solemn vow. It does not commit us to the same degree. It is more a statement of intent, a measuring-stick that we can keep coming back to, as a check on how our good intentions are working out.

Sometimes, in worship, scripture readings fail to engage us, but not because the texts themselves are deficient. It may simply be that we are not yet ready to hear them properly. Sometimes, we are determined not to take to heart their message, dreading the upheaval and self-denial which may ensue. The reader exhorts us at the beginning, “Hear the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. . .” We can hear, but do nothing; or we can hear, and act on the voice that calls to us.

Taking the gospel seriously is not always the same as taking the gospel literally. Those who read Matthew 24 in a literal way may find themselves convinced that an event called “the Rapture” could happen at any moment. The Rapture is a belief, in certain churches, that the coming of the Son of Man will be exactly as Matthew’s gospel states: sudden, unexpected, and terrifying in its seeming arbitrariness. One will be taken, another left. The idea of a Rapture also draws on Paul’s expectation that “The Lord will come and not be slow”: 1 Thessalonians 4.17 is the key text.

This separation of sheep from goats (Matthew 25.31-46) must be a matter of God’s penetrating discernment. It cannot be mere caprice. Might it be that those selected for Rapture (the term comes from the Latin word for snatching something up), possess some quality of faith missing in those who are left behind?

Today’s Gospel confirms that God’s choice of whom to seize and whom to pass over is not arbitrary. Jesus insists that we have a choice, with an emphatic “Know this!” The householder can choose to react to the warning, by being ready. It sounds like hard work, to keep up the constant vigilance required. Surely there must be lapses at times, when the householder (who stands for us) nods off while on guard.

Most of the time we can nod off (i.e. fall back into sin) without serious repercussions. Temptations are not burglars awaiting their chance, at every door and window, to begin an assault on us and ours. They are more stealth predators than overt and active assailants.

In the garden in Milan, everything had come marvellously together to let Augustine embrace the faith he longed for. Conversely, it may take a hellish combination of many factors to draw us into sinning and falling short: being unobserved (“no one will know”); and having what passes in the world’s eyes as an excuse (“she’s been under such pressure!”); and the trivial nature of the individual steps into wrongdoing (“it was only one puff/sip/slice/pound”). Together, these factors fuse into a mighty force overcoming our resistance.

Augustine has much to teach us, but nothing is a better lesson than the life he lived in loving service of God and his people. All we really need, to make ourselves ready for that unexpected hour, is to love God, and our neighbour, and keep the faith.

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