“The night is far gone, the day is near.”
Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s Advent, but you’d be forgiven for having a sense of deja-vu. Two weeks ago, Richard Ames-Lewis preached on some readings very like those we have heard today. Then, we heard words from Luke’s Gospel about the signs of the apocalypse, and Richard noted that every Christian generation has tended to look for signs of the Lord’s coming, while the Church has waited — more or less — patiently. The years have stretched on: first decades, then centuries, and now millennia. And so “patient waiting” has beoame the foundation for so much Christian spirituality and prayer. We rest in hope, in expectation of the Lord’s coming and the fulfilment of his promises.
As I listened to Richard, I saw in my mind’s eye and felt with my heart the hopeful quiet and the stillness of a Benedictine cloister or a retreat house, where time seems to stand in a particular way. “On God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation” (Ps. 62).
This patient waiting is such a gift, and one that we need in this hurried time. I hope we embody something of it here, in this place of prayer, as a still point in the centre of a busy city.
Still, there are many gifts, many virtues, many practices and attitudes that are related to eschatology, the Christian understanding of the end of all things. This is one reason why we have such a long season about the end roughly from the Feast of All Saints through Advent, which has begun today. The season gives us time to reflect on more than one aspect of our faith.
Richard talked about patient waiting two weeks ago; before that on Remembrance Day, I talked about, well, more impatient waiting. (That might be a difference between us: patient, impatient.) And at our study day two weeks ago, Jeremy Begbie also discussed Advent and the theme of longing and desiring the end. That attitude says, “O Lord, how long?” or “My soul is athirst for God” or “Drop down, ye heavens, from above”! It is an attitude that greets a vision like Isaiah’s (2:1-5) as news of coming and welcome relief.
So, since we’ve already covered a fair bit of ground, today, I’d like to talk about something slightly different: the sense of immediacy that we have in Advent and the importance of our response to God. This theme of immediacy came through in our readings today and in our collect.
We have heard that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” The course of time is always hurtling on. We prayed: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness…now in the time of this mortal life…” And we listened to Jesus saying: “You must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Our Christian understanding of the end of time must deal with delay, with the question of Why hasn’t Christ come? But we are always expecting the end, looking for it and greeting it; we know every moment could be the end for us, for we are guaranteed no time.
The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Or, as it says more literally in the Greek, “The Son of Man is coming in the hour you do not suppose.” It’s very personal. It’s not just an unlikely hour, but an unknown — an hour that has not entered into our heart. “For who has known the mind of the Lord [fully] or been his counsellor?” (see Rom. 11:34). We are not God’s advisers, as much as we might like to be, telling God the best possible time for his kingdom to come and whispering into his ear. No. Our posture is different. We stand at the ready, like a servant awaiting a master or, more disturbingly, like the owner of a house expecting a thief. For so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
This readiness is always tied in the New Testament to our ethical behaviour, our response to what we know is good. Our Gospel passage linked it to the calamity of the end: when disaster strikes, there is no time to dither over what is right to do. We must drop everything and head for the hills. If we had a fire in this building, we would need to act in the right way, not wonder aloud about what to do. We had another sort of picture of immediate action during the recent terrorist attacks in London: those scenes of heroism where bystanders moved swiftly to subdue the attacker.
Similarly, the ethical demand of faith is clear and immediate, demanding our obedient response. As St Paul puts it in the Letter to the Romans:
The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ….
This image too should be familiar to us, since we are accustomed to rising with the coming light of day. As the sun’s rays steal across the horizon, we throw off the bedclothes and rise to dress ourselves and go to our tasks.
What does this imply for us now? At the least, that we need to stop procrastinating, no matter how easy it is to remain in our sins. How many of us know of some good thing we need to do, and we are not doing it? How many of us are doing things we ought not to do, but we continue on? It is far past the time to throw off any bitterness or resentment in our hearts, to stop dealing in lies and illusions, to make amends with our neighbour. We must throw these things off like the dreams of darkness we set aside each morning; we must dress ourselves instead in the light of the Lord. Do you know what is good? Do it, to the best of your ability.
There is story of how this happened, which you likely now.
In the late fourth century, a young, cultured North African teacher was sitting in a garden in Milan in spiritual turmoil. He had spent years trying to live his own way, and he was exhausted. He wanted to know the will of God; he wanted to know it right then. And he heard something in the distance like a child’s voice, “Take up and read. Take up and read.”
So he took up a nearby scroll, containing St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He opened it to the passage we have heard today, and read:
“Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Word of God came to that man in an immediate fashion, and its ethical demand was clear as the day. His name was Aurelius Augustinus. We know him now as St Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the most prolific and eloquent Christan teacher to have ever lived. For him, in that garden, when the Word of God came, the day dawned and he knew Christ had come to him.
May we pray for the grace to recognize the visitation of God in our own time and lives.