Sunday 27th November 2016
Year A, The First Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Romans 13.11-14
Matthew 24.36-44

Happy new year!

Most of you will not only know but be a little fed up of hearing about my fund raising trek for RNIB across part of Iceland which involved the purchase, among other things, of heavy boots and special socks, trekking trousers and waterproof over-trousers, a rainproof jacket, hat and gloves, in marked contrast to the vest, shorts and running shoes of the sprinter.

Our two Readings for this first Sunday of the Church's new year are both addressed to sprinters, speaking of a time, very near at hand, where the world as Jesus and Saint Paul knew it was going to come to an end, so close that their hearers were supposed to be on their constant guard for the event, whereas we trekkers, in our heavy boots and gear can now look back at almost two millennia of Christian history with no sense that the end is near. We have a sense of our own mortality and we wonder what the after-life might be but we do not expect the last judgment to happen any time soon.

The difference between the sprinters and the trekkers is such that we need to consider our Readings, and others like them, in a proper context. It is simply not reasonable for the sprinters and the trekkers to behave in the same way. For example, Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.26-31 thinks that the end of earthly time is so close that marriage is an irrelevance but we are hardly likely to think the same; and, looking at the matter more broadly, we will all take extreme measures over the short term which would be too punishing over the long term: the sprinter at best can run 100 meters in 10 seconds but the trekkers can't keep that up over a kilometre, let alone ten kilometres.

And so, in our context, what might "watch" mean?

For a start, we need a different skills set. The sprinter has to adjust diet and body pitch to the sprint whereas we need a very different diet and body pitch. For the long haul we need a sustaining diet, the tactical ability to come from behind, the stamina to keep up the pace and the capacity to endure pain. We are not watching for a vision which might come any day now, we have to watch our behaviour every minute of every day, exercising a kind of moral stamina.

Let me, then, briefly look at these four attributes: first of all, in a way that Matthew and Paul could not have imagined, we have the stamina wrought within us by the Holy Spirit which, in turn, gives us the ability to come from behind and to overcome setbacks, to get ourselves back on terms with God and our world; and we have the stamina to stay the course because of the Spirit's capacity within us to draw the whole of our being towards Jesus. But perhaps the most difficult aspect of life for us, and the one which puts so many people off Christianity, is the necessity in this life to endure pain; and while I would never want to belittle the pain of our First Century martyrs, at least they had a vital sense that their earthly pain would be short lived and magnificently rewarded whereas in our day the pain can be lifelong while the reward seems, at best, obscure.

With that in mind, on the first day of the Church's new year, may I suggest some new year's spiritual resolutions:

1. In this year of The Bible, let us learn better how to recognise and draw on its resources: we might read a book we have never read before or at best not read for a long time; we might dig much deeper into a book we know well but perhaps superficially; or we might admit our shortcomings and seek help.

2. Secondly, as it is the gift of Christ to the world and our community of sustaining grace, let us be more attentive to our position within the Church: we might consider as carefully as we can what our community obligations are to our church and whether we are doing enough; we might want to shake ourselves out of a rut and try something different; and we might, above all else, recognise that we are the Church.

3. Thirdly, as our Church is the corporate expression of Christ's mission to the world, let us make more effort to align the Church and the world instead of hoping that Church leaders and politicians will, against the whole weight of human history, put right what is wrong; we might think about the justice due to refugees and asylum seekers, about justice within our land and, in considering public debt and climate change, justice between generations, so that we leave God our Father's world a better place than we found it.

4. Finally, and perhaps a little strangely, let us pay as much attention to restraint as to generosity. During the past year our own country and the United States have been scourged by intemperate speech: let us, therefore, take more care with our speech in three ways: by understanding what we are saying instead of simply repeating what we have heard; by understanding how what we say affects other people instead of concentrating on our own logic and self justification; and by recognising Jesus in diversity and otherness rather than only seeing Jesus in people like us.

In this context "watch" means watching the world for opportunities to build God's Kingdom here as it is in Heaven but it also means watching ourselves; and it means constant vigilance made possible by our growing love of the Bible, our deepening commitment to Christ's Church and, above all, our painstaking imitation of Christ.