Sunday 1st December 2013
The First Sunday of Advent
St Giles, Shermanbury
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 21:1-13

On this First Sunday of Advent, happy New Year. This is the day on which we begin to follow the life of Jesus right up to Pentecost which is a little confusing as that Feast Day is often referred to as the birthday of the Church; but never mind!

I don't know what you associate Advent with but increasingly I think people think more of the Advent Calendar than the Advent Wreath; and most contemporary Advent Calendars subvert the whole purpose of Advent by putting a piece of chocolate behind every little door when the purpose of the season is delayed gratification if not, after the recent terrible tragedy of the Philippines, reduced gratification because consumption creates global warming.

For the next 24 days our valiant efforts to live contemplative, low-key, stay-at-home and pray lives will be challenged by invitations to lunches, dinners, parties and, of course, carol services. On that last point I am a firm advocate of the advent Carol Service but am conversely reluctant to listen to Christmas Carols until Christmas Eve. But I recognise that this is now a difficult period for Christians who do not want to run the risk of looking foolish or curmudgeonly by refusing invitations to festive occasions or appearing to split hairs over what carols are sung when. And so, realistically, we may not be able to live as quiet and untainted an Advent as we would like, while the red of Santa tries to overpower the purple of our Church season.

But, still, this is an important time for us to contemplate the great event at Bethlehem and our Gospel Reading from Matthew gives us what at first sight is a rather odd entree into the season; wouldn't it have been better for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem last week on the Feast of Christ the King? I don't think so. For us the image of Jesus, the Messiah, riding on a donkey cuts an unlikely figure, as unlikely as the Messiah being born in a stable or being crucified. Victorian sentimentality has tended to turn away from the relationship between the crib and the Cross but it is here in our Gospel; the unlikeliest of Messiahs born in Bethlehem, is going to die on a Cross. At the very least, then, the story of the birth of Jesus, knowing what we know, should induce more than a little schadenfreude.

The other potent theme in our Collect and Readings is that of light and dark. To a post-industrial society darkness is an exception to the rule; we induce darkness when we want to go to sleep but for the rest of the time we largely live in light; but for our ancestors darkness was, for the most part, only penetrated by feeble candles and lamps; there was always the fear of the unknown, both physically and psychologically. There was the consolation of the stars but it was precious little set against the fear of villainy and the clawing of superstition.

But the most important aspect of the birth of Jesus that we need to think about in Advent is the idea of Jesus as the Messiah. This somehow seems to get lost amid our traditional - and I think misled - concern with the problematic relationship between the Crucifixion and our personal salvation or, 'going to heaven'. Jesus was, first and foremost, whatever else he might have been, the Messiah, the fulfilment of Jewish hope extended to the Gentiles through his proclamation of God's Kingdom on earth, as the Lord Prayer says, as it is in heaven. The Messiah did not come to overthrow the Romans, nor even to become the High Priest, he came to fulfil the promise of a new covenant, a new creation, following the culmination of the incarnation in Resurrection. And the evidence of this is clear in the Gospel: nobody watching Jesus entering into Jerusalem could doubt that this was a Messianic gesture: the people knew it, the followers of Jesus knew it and the religious authorities were in absolutely no doubt and it was made much more critical for them by their own admission that Jesus was announcing the kingdom through mighty acts; what he did was even more dangerous, from their point of view, than what he said; people could be passive in the face of any amount of rhetoric but there was nothing like healing to rouse admiration. We have invented, or surmised, the donkey which carried Mary to Bethlehem but there is no doubt about this Palm Sunday donkey whose status is often misunderstood to signify humility compared, notionally, with the horse Matthew's use of the word "meek" is somewhat misleading here; If you look at the First Book of the Kings you will see that David bids the newly anointed Solomon to ride on his mule, a cross between a horse and a donkey. Jesus, the Son of David, knew precisely what he was doing.

And so should we. The coming of the Messiah to establish God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven should divert us away from an obsession with the mechanics of salvation towards the work we need to do to ensure that the Kingdom is established. Our life here is not the occupation of time in a corrupt, physical environment, it is our opportunity to work for the establishment of the Kingdom prior to its ultimate hegemony when we will all be bodily restored, not in 'heaven' but on earth as it is in heaven.

Kingdom theology is a massive area for our contemplation and the Readings throughout Advent should help us. What were the prophets waiting for? What did John the Baptist see when he saw Jesus? What made the wise men set out and why was Herod so threatened? It wasn't because they all believed that the terms of individual salvation were being changed by the Son of God it was because their common consciousness revolved around the idea of the Messiah. There were a few - though the evidence is that they were very few - who thought that the Messiah would be a military leader in the line of the Maccabees but, to be honest, nobody thought that the Maccabees, in spite of their military prowess, were in any way Messianic. To think that the Jews thought that their Messiah would be a coarse military leader is to traduce their hopes and their tradition. But what we have to recognise is that we are part of that tradition; what we are getting ready to celebrate is the birth of the World's Messiah.