Advent Sunday 2018: Watch and Pray

We are grateful to Rt Revd Robert Innes, our diocesan bishop, for being willing to inaugurate this lectionary blog, with his contribution for Advent Sunday 2018. The lectionary readings for Advent Sunday are Jeremiah 33.14-16; 1 Thess. 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36. In his reflection below Bishop Robert focuses on the Gospel reading from Luke.

Robert_250pxI am writing these words from an office in Westminster. Around the corner, PrimeMinister May is addressing the House of Commons on the Brexit withdrawal treaty. Two cabinet ministers and several other ministers have resigned and the talk is of a no-confidence motion. The British political situation is as uncertain and frankly scary as anything I have known in my lifetime. The press is full of apocalyptic language: ‘meltdown’, ‘collapse’, ‘judgement day’. That is just the UK scene, but you might get a similar sense of quaking foundations in other European countries and globally. How very consonant with the biblical imagery of Advent!

Luke’s gospel seems to be set in about AD 60 (AD 58 according to Tom Wright). Nero is emperor. We can only imagine the tension in Jerusalem. Some would be longing to take back control from Roman rule and re-establish their own sovereignty. Others would be looking to make the best deal possible with Rome under the circumstances. A good number no doubt sense impending disaster.

Jesus predicts a double calamity: the fall of Jerusalem and beyond that a final catastrophe. Yet, counter-intuitively, he tells his faithful disciples that these things are signs of hope. The kingdom of God is near. Their redemption is at hand. Jesus conveys what one author has called ‘the terrible yet joyous expectation of time’s imminent end’[1].

The truth is that the gospel is not linked to any political or social order. And the message of Jesus is far more than a tidy set of moral exhortations or social principles. It is disruptive and demanding. It is endlessly challenging. It is always calling us on to something beyond who we are and what we have established. Perhaps 1000 years or more of Christendom lulled us into a false sense of security. But that has gone, and the liberal political order to which it gave birth is now feeling the strain too. The times are a-changing.

The advice of Jesus in the face of worrying uncertainty is not to surrender to an impending sense of gloom. Rather we are to ‘watch and pray’. Followers of Jesus are not to be tempted to lose heart or lose faith. Neither for us the attitude ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’! We are instead to ‘lift up our heads’ and trust with confidence in the outworking of God’s purposes and providence.

Perhaps in the diocese in Europe we have an advantage. We are used to provisionality. We borrow buildings. Our congregations change. We know all about fragility. We rarely have the luxury of adopting a ‘business as usual’ attitude. Nonetheless, living away from our home countries, as most of us do, makes us especially vulnerable to changing circumstances. It is tempting either to stick our heads in the sand or to become fearful and defensive. Can we instead cultivate a positive and even joyful sense of being alert and watchful?

The gospel was born in an atmosphere of apocalyptic ferment. We can identify with that feeling today. So I encourage us to pray, in the words of one of our Advent prayers:

O Lord our God,
make us watchful and keep us faithful
as we await the coming of your Son our Lord;
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] David Bentley Hart in ‘No enduring city’, www.firstthings.com/article/2013/08/no-enduring-city.

If you would be interested in contributing to this blog, please contact Clare Amos at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

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