Sermon delivered on Advent Sunday the 27th November 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban’s Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 2: 1 - 5     Romans 13: 11 - end     S. Matthew 24: 36 - 44

Romans 13: 12f “The night is far gone, the day has drawn near. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us conduct ourselves fittingly as in the day.”

St. Paul’s imagery is of the approach of dawn. One of the things that surprised me when I first came to the tropics was how early most people got up in the morning. I soon came to understand that the dawn light before the heat of the day starts setting in is valuable, and in the tropics especially, for many it is often well worth it to be ready for the dawn.

Part of the teaching of Christian faith is that the final time of crisis and challenge for the earth, the “kairos” in Greek, is on its way and is about to dawn. The fact that this has been taught for more than two thousand years does not negate the truth of it, as for every one of us the length of time before the kairos may be no longer than our time on earth. Whether after our death our conscious spirits will pass immediately to that final “kairos” or whether we will consciously wait for it, the sources of faith demand of us to be ready for it. If dawn is one hour or two hours away, will I be ready for it, whatever the case? Or to change the metaphor, if the removal vehicle is about to come and take the furniture, will we have sorted out the drawers and the cupboards before the van turns up, whether it comes in the morning or is delayed until the afternoon?

Today we find the liturgical colour changed to violet. Violet is the most sombre of the liturgical colours, used sometimes at funerals and used for the season of Lent up to Palm Sunday as well as for the Advent season. While it is right to think of purple as the colour of the robes of royalty - and the Christ who will come is the King of kings - I think of violet as the liturgical colour of preparation. Purple can be very much like violet, although they are really different colours. The Church is reminding us that if it were not for the grace of God we would fail entirely to be ready for our eternal destiny. In Lent we are reminded to prepare for the risen presence of Jesus our Lord. In Advent we are reminded to prepare for the Coming of Christ to judge both the quick and the dead. So the New Year of the Christian calendar does not begin with fireworks and conviviality. We do not customarily wish one another good luck on Advent Sunday. Rather, we encourage one another to be ready for a Day of the Lord. If it were not for the grace of God we could never be ready. Nevertheless as members of the Body of Christ it is our calling to be prepared for that day, the day we are taught in our Gospel today that, while perhaps it may not be immediate, is at any time imminent.

While the first chapter of the book of Isaiah details the disappointing wickedness and unfaithfulness of God’s people, our Old Testament lesson today from the beginning of chapter 2 begins nevertheless with a truly stunning prophetic vision, described as “the word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw” - a vision of the “mountain of the house of the Lord” established as the “highest of the mountains”, whether literally or figuratively not perhaps mattering very much. All nations shall flow to it - a river of humanity flowing upward. We may recall that the gods of antiquity were pictured as living on mountains. But upon the mountain of the Lord, those who flow to it find the true God teaching them His ways, the true law and the true word from Himself. “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.” The triumph of biblical faith will, at the last, bring peace. A question for modern Christians to ponder is, should we really slide so readily into the prevailing secular and media story of religion being the source of social strife and war, if we truly believe in the fulfilment of Isaiah's great vision? May not secularism itself be the cause of worse war than biblical faith, and do we not see something of that war already?

The hour of crisis and challenge, then, is something to be anticipated and looked forward to, as for any great undertaking or adventure. Should there be fear? Yes, there should be, but we should look the fear full in the face, say a prayer and take the appropriate action. If fear induces us to evade the issue that generates it, then we are taking the wrong path. That would be like running away from your house and letting the removal men take away your belongings unsorted and unprepared. We are indeed to fear God, as indeed in the Scripture we are told to “fear” those who exercise authority over us, but taking fright and running away is not a good response to the gift and challenge of fear. Let us be as those who in a crisis say to one another “Take courage”, rather than those who silently run away.

In contrast to those Christian groups of today who tend to go overboard in trying to determine from Scripture just when exactly Christ is to return and what world-event must happen in sequence with other world-events before He comes and during the time of His reign on earth, Scripture itself focusses much more on the religious and moral obligations that flow from or are enhanced by the teaching of His return to judge and to reign. The Gospel today tells of Jesus warning that the Son of man is coming at an hour we do not expect. We can think of the “thief” that Jesus describes in his parable of the servants, some looking after, and some neglecting to look after the property prior to their masters’ return, in the same light as the culmination of the forces of moral carelessness and laxity that steal away our souls from a steady love for and faithfulness to our true Master. The unfaithful one will be taken away and dealt with appropriately: while the faithful one will be left to welcome the Master into His property. For St. Paul in the New Testament lesson the approaching crisis and challenge of Christ’s imminent Coming spurs us on to take the necessary steps to be raised from sleep, to cast off the works of darkness and put on the weapons of light, to walk as children of the day, and to eschew the mindset and the practices of the children of the night. St. Paul’s words are both descriptive and allusive, and it seems clear that the moral implications of the Gospel of Christ had not, then as now, been fully accepted by some of the members of the Church. St. Paul points the way to the pastoral backbone for dealing with such situations. It is Christ Himself we are to put on now, the Christ for whom we must hasten to be ready in the day of crisis, challenge and judgment that St. Paul sees as the Day of salvation. The very command “Love your neighbour as yourself” is turned from a general principle into an urgent challenge: for it is far on into the night and the day draws near.

It has been estimated that if mankind as a whole adopted the lifestyles that Christian teaching has always permitted and advocated, the advance of AIDS and other diseases would be dramatically reversed and contained within a few years. The truth is that just as it is reported of the men of Noah’s day that they were hardened to matters of right and wrong, good and bad in the moral sense, just so is this largely the case in our own day. That we are a civilisation in trouble is proved by our language being routinely atrophied to minimise judgments of right and wrong. The persistently hardened human heart may itself be for us, however, a great premonitory sign of the imminence of the Day of the Lord.

Jesus in His teaching on His Coming counsels us to be ready for it and recognise early signs of it, but not to be overly concerned with trying to get a handle on the timing of it. The real point is, Are we ready? If we are ready for that, then we will have a basic readiness for the proximate and lesser crises of our lives as well. Indeed it is true to say that the hour of crisis and challenge and judgment that Jesus and the apostles speak of is forecast to us in the lesser crises of our lives, crises that test our real character and show us and others of what we are truly made. Let us learn from these lesser crises, then, and test ourselves to see if we are truly being made ready for the ultimate test that awaits us.