A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Chris Chataway

Is 2:1–5; Rom 13:9–14; Matt 24:36–44

Thank you for your welcome, and my particular thanks to Dean Frank for inviting me. We began our Advent service with prayers of penitence and confession, so let me confess before you how I came to be here today.

Dean Frank knows I am a cricket tragic, and he has kindly invited me, every year for the past 5 years, to come and preach during the Adelaide Test. And every year I have had to reluctantly say no, because of duties at our Cathedral in Ballarat. But this year was different and I was able to come, so thank you Dean Frank, not only for today’s invitation, but for generously inviting me again and again over the past five years.

A former Archdeacon of Adelaide, the late Archdeacon Allan Daw, was a role model when I was a younger cleric. He too loved cricket, and he said, “Never ask me which is more important to me, God or Cricket!” So we never did find out. I adopt a similar approach! When anyone in Ballarat asked me about coming over to preach here today, I reminded them I was also coming to attend the Adelaide Test; and when anyone accused me of skiving off to the cricket, I would say, “Oh but I’m off to preach at St Peter’s Cathedral!” So lest you think I am just here for cricket, I can assure you, in the spirit of Allan Daw, that I am honoured to be here with you, bringing you greetings from the Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Ballarat, and from our Bishop and former Curate of this Cathedral, Bishop Garry.

And it is an auspicious day to be preaching, this Advent Sunday, the start of the season of Advent. Advent Sunday is like a change of innings in cricket, the players leave the field and the ground staff come and reset the pitch, reset the scoreboard, get out a new ball and so on.

Similarly in the Church, each Advent Sunday begins our new liturgical year, (so Happy New Liturgical Year everyone!) We start the year again. We change the Cathedral colours to purple, our prayers and music become more sombre, and it suddenly starts to feel a lot like the season of Lent.

Unlike Lent, though, we are not so much penitential as expectant, waiting, ready for God’s initiative, as we near the celebration of the greatest initiative God took in the birth of Jesus Christ.

Advent is a time of waiting, expectation, being ready for an encounter with God, the time of that encounter we do not know until it happens.

“…about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…”

We might think then, that the season of Advent is about the future, looking forward, being ready to be surprised by the second coming of Christ. And that is true to a certain extent, for we do look for the consummation of all things at some point in the future.

But this poses some problems. I have my doubts about living ones life as if the world is about to end at any moment. If we live our lives constantly looking for Christ’s coming and the ending of history, we will inevitably weary of it. Like the boy who cried wolf so many times, so that when the wolf really came, his cry made no difference. Do you ever feel that way when the Scriptures talk about the second coming of Christ?

But perhaps we have this wrong. Maybe the Scriptures, such as we have in our readings today, are not so much about the future, as they are about the present, the now. Maybe Jesus in his teaching and preaching, taught more about the importance of today being the moment of decision, rather than delaying things for the future.

A few weeks ago, Bishop Garry pointed out how most of us, at one time or another, focus too much on the future or too much on the past. When we get too focussed on the future we worry about things that may or may not happen: we worry about losing our job, our health, our family, or we worry about the economy. “We God-botherers”, he said “often worry about the future of the Church. And there is much in the Bible which mentions the future, and it often sounds pretty scary.”

But Jesus directly says not to worry about the future, for the future is God’s concern, instead focus on the now, which is the very point of our reading from Matthew’s Gospel.

“if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake…”

Jesus urges us to stay awake, and to stay awake is about what we need to do now, in the present, not the future. As St Paul says elsewhere, “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”(2 Cor 6:2).

While the future may shape our decisions in the now, the future will always be God’s future not ours. All we mortal beings can do is live in the now, from one moment to the next.

If I can refer to cricket again, (with no apology) a batter must be utterly focussed on the next ball, not thinking too far ahead, and not thinking about the last ball, or anything else. Ricky Ponting would say to himself before every delivery, “Watch the ball, watch the ball, WATCH THE BALL!”

Advent Sunday is our reminder to “watch the ball”, to stay awake, focussed on being present to what God is doing, now. When that happens, God does great things through us.

Is the future important? Of course it is, because our view of the future will shape the decisions we need to make now. There is a future that God is yet to reveal, and that knowledge fills us with hope. It is God’s future, a future for which we long, that shapes us, now; and helps us live in the now.

Is the past important? Yes. This wonderful Cathedral is only here because of past generations and their commitment to the mission of God. And we are shaped by our knowledge of what God has done in Jesus Christ in the past, for all time.

But past and future are God’s realm, not ours. We must live in the present and not be caught up in constant nostalgia for the past. This period leading up to Christmas, is often the busiest time of the year. There is so much we need to do to celebrate Christmas.

It is also the end of year, when there are many occasions and end-of-year parties to attend. The reason I like Advent Sunday so much, is its call to us in this busy time to stay awake and wait, to stop and take notice, to pray and reflect; it’s a call to live in the now.

The Anglican Board of Missions Australia have produced an excellent app which you can get for free and download into the device of your choice. You might commit yourself to using the app this Advent, as a tool to stay in the now; use it to put aside thinking too much about the past or the future. Access it in your lunch break, or at morning tea, or during your daily prayer time. Find a routine that works for you. You might find it useful to help you stop, wait, watch and pray.

For each day of Advent, the app gives a reading, some quotes from a variety of great writers and thinkers, and some questions or comments to reflect on. To give you a taste, the focus of the app today is on the notion of where is God? Where do we find God?

One of the quotes is a poem by Lisa Jacobson about our culture losing its sense of God, and asks how are we to respond when former notions of God lose their lustre. If we can’t find God as we used to in a post-Christian world, where will God be found?

The poem suggests a possibility. Let me read it to you.

The churches are almost empty or sold,
as if the world, having tilted these
for centuries, reached its tipping point,
and from the pulpits, god slid out.
And all that fanciful gold leaf
on heaven’s floor was incinerated
by our telescopes, whose lenses caught
it in their scope. And bits of tattered
god fell down.
I’ve heard the âme (‘soul’ in French)
is the name of a wooden chip,
very exposed and vulnerable,
that violin makers insert into
the bodies of their instruments
to further enhance the sound.
So maybe that’s where god
lives now.
If you ask a priest, he’ll point up.
If you ask black fellas, they’ll point down
to stones that sing and rivers
vibrating underground.

Advent Sunday is a reminder of that chip of wood, that faith, that hope deep within us, that helps us encounter God, and, like the violin, make our lives sing with purpose and love.

I invite you then, to make something of your Advent journey this year, by committing yourself to God’s “now” over the next three and half weeks. Use the app, or read the Bible everyday, or choose a favourite prayer and repeat it every day, or just meditate and be still for some moment of the day.

Because I believe that if we watch, if we wait, if we let ourselves live in the now, we connect more with God, we connect with the Jesus who is already among us.

Advent Sunday should not be reduced to an exhortation not to misbehave in case you get ‘caught with your pants down’, as they say, when Jesus comes. This day is about developing our awareness of what the God of the future is saying and doing in the present, in the now, in you, in me.

Our Scriptures today have many invitations to the now. Hear Isaiah’s invitation to God’s people: “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

Or from Paul, “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Or from the Gospel, “therefore you must be ready.”

These are all invitations to live in the now. May God bless your Advent-waiting with joy. May you find God in a new way, or a deeper way, for God will always find you if you but be open to the God of Love, in whose name I speak.