For some reason I found myself looking up the Dictionary definition of the word `Advent`. I was told that Advent describes the arrival, the appearance or emergence of a notable person or thing. And this started to ring bells with me…. because it tells me (and this is after all the beginning of a new Christian year) that from the very outset our faith is not something over which we have any control. It tells me that my primary stance if you will, is that of someone called give their attention… There is something here for me to wait for … to welcome and receive. Advent, this arrival, appearance, this emergence, tells me that this is where it all begins…. and importantly, this is how it continues.
This Advent posture… (impatient creatures as we are)… is not one which many of us find especially congenial. This is why I suspect, so much Biblical language about the Lord coming among us is laced with expressions on the one hand of longing and desire; and on the other calls to readiness and caution that we are not caught unawares. So it`s language that is filled with `tension` and tip-toe expectancy. And it`s important to dwell on this fundamental theme because it cuts across our usual understandings of faith which appear to resemble the desire to reach some sort of settled state. Whereas on the contrary our true predicament is illustrated perfectly by the way we often fail to recognise or accept his coming among us…. just as we will recall in a few weeks` time “he came to his own and his own received him not”.
But why, I wonder should this be? … Why should we live with a God who remains seemingly incognito or unrecognised in his daily and moment by moment comings among us? Well, we might simply observe that for much of the time we`re perhaps too busy, distracted and unreflective or maybe deep down we regard `appearances` of the Almighty as something which only the `nutty fringe` tend to focus on. And my essential point is that Advent catches us out in both respects. It tells us again, that from the very start the whole thing is about Him and His action in the world and our task is to give our attention; to welcome and receive. All of which is a direct challenge to our default assumption that WE are the principal players in `our` life`s story. On the contrary in taking Advent seriously we come to see ours elves as caught up in HIS.
So what do we do? Well let me make a not altogether frivolous suggestion. I am sometimes tempted to say that we should institute a new practice on Sunday mornings. The convention should be…. that you take off your watch and you leave it at the door.
What`s intrigued me over the years is how, one by one, what we might have called the `distinctives` of Christian living have been abandoned largely for the sake of an easier and more congenial existence… and principal among these is our attitude to time… not least keeping the Sabbath. The upshot, I would suggest, is that you will find little if any difference between our own attitudes to this crucial subject from anyone else among whom we live, regardless of their creed or outlook.
Just reflect for a moment on the language we use. We are for example, just as prone as anyone else to speak of demands on our `limited` amount of time. We talk of `spending` time; we `use` time, we `invest` time, we `put time aside`. We regard it as important to `save` rather than waste `precious` time and in recent years we`ve become familiar with that better class of time called, `quality time`. Now one could give more and more examples of this but the essential point is that caught up as we are in a culture of time `management` it`s clear that we have come to regard this thing called time as something within our control. Basically, we have bought in to the notion of time as a commodity… and when the truth – the Advent truth (that it isn`t within our control) bears in on us it becomes the source of huge anxiety. And Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 5.27)
No, I suggest you leave your watch at home…. Or better still don`t wear it at all today… the Sabbath Day. Don`t measure with your watch the length of time spent doing this, that or the other; and certainly don`t presume to say to the Almighty that you might just squeeze him in between what you might regard as more pleasurable appointments. Because this and every Sabbath we all enter a very different time zone. It`s a day marked out not by our convenience or schedule but by grace; a day of attentiveness to the truth about ourselves and the world. This is what Advent teaches us… we are not the prime movers; our fundamental stance is waiting, listening and giving our attention…. and keeping Sabbath ensures that our lives …. The rest of the time…. are shaped accordingly. For twenty-four hours we relinquish what we like to think of as our controls on life and we get things the right way round. Instead of grasping we learn to receive.
We have spent much of the past few months talking about the Sabbath at our Wednesday evening meeting and what`s been fascinating for me is the huge degree of tension which this has caused for us…. Our essential subject has been the Ten Commandments but we`ve found ourselves giving a huge amount of attention to this call to keep the Sabbath Day Holy. It`s significance has been highlighted for us.
I hope you`ll recall that Sabbath was God`s gift to the people of Israel as they were liberated from Slavery in Egypt. It had a pivotal place among the Commandments as a badge of their identity and as a practical way of demonstrating that their lives would be shaped and founded not on the lethal cycle of productivity and acquisitiveness of Pharaoh… but instead on the Command of the God who created and redeemed them. Now, those of us who fail to identify with this (our fundamental story), easily find ourselves riled by this Commandment because we have brought into that great taboo that it`s wrong to tell anyone how to live their life. Generations of mis-use and misunderstanding of the Sabbath have seen it side-lined and even derided.
And let`s be honest for most part we Christians have side-stepped and turned this and other Commandments into options for the sake of an easy life. A life in which I am at the centre…..I mean God didn`t really mean take a Sabbath …… did he? But pausing from our regular activities is a potent reminder that time is not actually `tight` or in short supply and neither are we I control of it. We may not have all the time we WANT but we do have all the time we need and again on this day we have this truth brought home to us as we relinquish the `controls` and supports we so anxiously cling to. Yes, in the eyes of many we are an odd people. Our New Year begins today……Advent Sunday….. and we will continue throughout the weeks and months that lie ahead marking time in a different and unique way.
We will find ourselves immersed in a very different story from that told by many of our contemporaries. We will listen to and mark and celebrate the story of the God who has created and re-created his world in and through Jesus Christ. The God who is, who was and is to come. This pattern of celebration and festival is here to bring home to us that we have a very different relationship with time… and as I say it begins with Advent and it`s all focussed in an obedient keeping of the Sabbath. It`s this Sabbath time which gives meaning and pattern to the remaining days of the week. It sets the tone; it puts down a marker and gives us a reminder of our true identity. It`s the irreducible minimum of Christian lifestyle.
And if this puts you in a place of tension….. again I say, “so be it”. Pray this one through. Ask yourself what you`re clinging to? Where your real desires are? and how far you have been sucked into a culture of acquisitiveness, control and anxiety? No, Sabbath is an act of resistance to a culture that fears time; and Worship is not something to get out of the way so that we can fill what we call `our` time with our own agenda…. Worship encompasses the whole of life… and life is shaped by the God who sets Sabbath rest at the heart of it all.