Are you ready? For some people, a terrifying question in the lead up to the Advent or Coming of Our Lord at Christmas. Terrifying because of all the overtime you’ll have to work to be able to afford the children’s presents, perhaps. Terrifying because of all the preparation and cooking and shopping to do before the family descends, terrifying because of the arguments that might break out with relatives you have to see but really don’t want to. Terrifying because it’s your first, or second, or third, or tenth Christmas alone, without someone important you used to share it with every year. Plenty of reasons for Advent, the season of waiting in deep, dark purple for the shining gold and light of Christmas to be a time of dreadful rather than joyful anticipation.
Well, I suppose I could stand here and try to cheer you up about it all. That’s what a lot of clergy do nowadays in Advent, after all, representing it as a time of comfort, hot chicken soup for our wintry souls. There are modern liturgies for the Advent candles, focussing on peace, hope and joy: which are all well and good, of course. But traditionally, this is not how Advent was seen at all. It’s a period of waiting, yes, but we’d be only have half the story if we thought it was all about waiting for sweet baby Jesus to be born in a cozy manger with chubby cherubs singing round: because it is just as much about waiting for Our Lord’s Second Coming, which is rather different from his first. The old Advent hymn puts it well – incidentally, an organist friend recommended it for our wedding – the one that starts, “oh swiftly come, dread judge of all.”
Judgment. Well, that’s not a word we like very much nowadays, is it. We’re all told to try terribly hard not to be “judgmental.” And, for a Christian, rightly so, if we truly believe that the only one fit to judge is Christ. But like it or not, that is one third of the message of Advent, and an important third at that – because Advent is a wake-up call, a call to put on the armour of light and rouse from dark slumber, because the Lord is coming and we know not the hour. Jesus is coming: stand by your beds! Cheery stuff indeed.
But before you all rush off to burn your Advent calendars, let’s pause and think about just what that judgment entails, or more to the point, just who it is who will judge us. To help our imagination, we might heed Archbishop Michael Ramsay’s terse caveat: “There is nothing unchristlike in God.” What we know about God, we know through the incarnate human Jesus Christ. So we know that God is not a ruddy-jowelled judge in a grey wig with a gavel in one hand and a black cap in the other. We know that God is not judgmental in the sense of jumping to conclusions about someone because of their reputation, their appearance, even their track record of mistakes. We know that God is a judge born in a stable incarnate among us, who stood with the sinners on the bank of the Jordan, who reached out and offered reconciliation to the tax-collector, the prostitute, the leper, the Samaritan, and even the Scribe, the Centurion and the Pharisee. We know that God is a judge who would rather die for us than destroy us. A judge who smiles at his mother, forgives Peter in his treachery, prays for those who nailed him to the tree. A judge who offers us mercy every day, the chance to turn to him every moment until our last. So Christ’s Second Advent is linked to his First. In the words of the Anglican theologian Fr Austin Farrer, “Advent brings Christmas, judgment runs into mercy.” We will be judged by the God who has revealed himself as love.
Advent is a reminder amid all our busyness that we have a choice to make, and that we need to make it now. Jesus keeps offering us his mercy. When we stand before him in judgment at the hour of our death, and we see his loving face, see the wounds he bore for us, will we be heartbroken and ashamed by promises unkept, harsh words, cruelties and abuses unrepented, unresolved? Will we be oblivious, like the people before the flood, walking in deliberate darkness, pretending we can ignore the consequences of our sin? Or will we be awake, clear-sighted as we walk in the light of the Lord, our sins confessed and our conscience clear, not putting it off for a tomorrow that might never come, but saying and meaning now with all our heart the Advent word: “Maranatha,” “Come, Lord Jesus;” my soul is ready, guide me to Jerusalem.