A Sermon for Sunday: First Sunday of Advent; Revd Fr Robert Wilson PhD

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First Sunday in Advent

Today we enter the season of Advent, in which we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Saviour at Christmas in great humility and also look forward to his final coming in glorious majesty as judge at the end of history. It is important to use this time wisely and not to fall into the trap that the secular world has fallen into, of ignoring Advent and celebrating Christmas long before the time. Advent means coming and it is the coming of redemption that we are preparing ourselves for. It is therefore necessary for us to reflect on the nature of our Christian hope.

What is the ground of our Christian hope? There are some worldviews that offer no hope. The secular materialist sees the world as a closed continuum of cause and effect. There is chance that produces variation, and necessity that ensures that the strong triumph over the weak. Hence, according to this view, all our hopes for a better world are ultimately doomed to disappointment. We can know how, but we can never know why the world is as it is. We simply have to accept what pleasure we can and put up with the rest. By contrast, the pantheist sees the world as itself divine. Consequently, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the world as it is. It is only our limited human perspective that causes us to see some things as good and evil. Hence, if we did but know it, our hopes are already fulfilled. We simply have to accept what pleasure we can and put up with the rest.

A different vision was conceived in ancient Israel. The Israelites refused to accept the world as it is. They believed that God had created the world and it was very good, but that the human race had fallen away from God through pride. Consequently, there was a tension between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. They therefore hoped for a new world in which the wolf would finally live with the lamb and the whole creation would be brought back into union with the creator, and his kingdom would finally come on earth as it is in heaven. This hope was not grounded on human attainment, but on God, the maker of all things and judge of all men, and the faith that his purposes for the world which he had created would finally be realised.

The early Christians believed that this hope had been fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. He had come in person to rescue the human race and by his death had destroyed death and opened to us the way to eternal life.  But while the principalities and powers, the dark forces that seem to reign supreme in this present world, had been in principle defeated, sin and death were still very much in evidence in this present age. The early Christians therefore looked for a second coming of the Saviour, in which sin and death would finally be defeated and God would be all in all, in that new heaven and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Since Jesus had been the centre of God’s redeeming work in the midst of time, he would also be at the centre of God’s final judgment at the end of history. The Christ whose coming they awaited at the close of history would be the same Christ as the Christ who came in great humility in the midst of time. But they could rejoice that they had already seen the end because they had already seen Christ. Their hope was not grounded on human attainment, but on God, who had redeemed the human race in Christ in time and history and would finally restore the entire creation in Christ at the end of time.

But, we might say, that was then and now since the Enlightenment the human race has learned not to rely on God, but on our own reason and efforts. Whereas the early Christians saw history as coming to a climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, post- Enlightenment western man repudiated this belief as an antiquated superstition and instead put his faith in reason and scientific progress. Teaching people to rely on God rather than their own efforts had held the human race back  and it was only since the eighteenth century that man had finally come of age and was able to create a better world on the basis of reason and science. Post- Enlightenment western man ridiculed the Christian belief that history had come to a climax in the coming of Christ, but himself embraced a belief in human perfectibility through his own efforts.

More recently, the post- Enlightenment confidence in reason and science has itself come under scrutiny and we have now entered what is commonly called a post modern age. We have learnt that those thinkers of the Enlightenment who claimed to be objectively describing the world were in fact controlling it and that there is no such things as objective knowledge, for everyone has their own agenda. Reality is now seen as something we create, rather than something to which we respond and there is no longer any faith in human rationality as providing the solution to every problem. It is heavily ironic that post- Enlightenment western man repudiated Christianity as incompatible with his faith in reason and science, only for his post- modern successors to abandon faith in reason and science as well as Christianity. Whereas the philosophy of the Enlightenment offered a false gospel of human progress and neglected the darker side of humanity, this post modern age offers a counsel of despair in which we no longer believe in Christianity or in reason and science but only in ourselves. Instead of a false optimism in human progress we are now increasingly coming to view the world with a despairing resignation.

It is precisely at this moment of cultural crisis that we can return to the Christian faith as the true ground of our hope. We cannot put our faith in human progress, as the Enlightenment naively supposed, but we also have no reason to despair of any hope for truth outside ourselves as the post- modernist would have us believe. We must return to a faith in God who is the maker of all things and judge of all men and recognise that the difference between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be is due to our own sins and shortcomings. We therefore cannot place our hope in ourselves, but rather in God who created us in his own image and is now at work to restore us in Christ. He came in great humility as our Saviour in time and history and will come to be our judge at the end of history. It is therefore time for us to wake up out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than we first believed. The night is far spent and the day is at hand. Let us therefore cast out the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light. Let us walk honesty, as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, but rather let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the lusts thereof.

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