First Sunday of Advent: A Time of Anticipation
In the Christian liturgical tradition, this is the period in which we begin preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. The liturgical calendar is structured as a journey you take throughout the year; periods divided into seasons. These seasons have different emphases, different moods, there is an ebb and flow to the year, periods of penance, periods of reflection, and periods of joy. Here at the Meeting House, we rightly hold to the liturgical calendar very lightly – giving us lots of opportunity to draw on other sources, such as music, fiction, philosophy, other religious traditions and so on… But it is valuable to just reflect for a moment on what is lost in doing this. Take this period of Advent - the mood of the period is expectant waiting, a hopeful anticipation, as we create the space in our lives to allow God in. It’s all about hope. It’s like when you have a guest come round to your house, you might do the vacuuming, tidy away that pile of papers that’s been sitting on the dining room table, and make up the spare bedroom, ready for their arrival. But instead of it being your house you’re getting ready, it’s your heart, and the guest is Jesus.
It has been said if you’re sick of Christmas by December 25th then you haven’t done Advent properly. Doing the vacuuming, doing a spot tidying, is not always fun, but it’s done in hopeful expectation of what is to come. In other words, we are supposed to be delaying gratification, doing the heavy lifting now, so that in four weeks we can celebrate together. Within the Unitarian tradition, we largely (though not entirely) take each service, each hour together on a Sunday morning, as its own hermetically sealed little thing. We think to ourselves - did we find that service good? Which means, did we enjoy it, did we find it interesting? This is problematic way of thinking about it, but we’ll come back that. This morning’s reading from Matthew 21 about Jesus getting hold of that donkey, upon which he rode into Jerusalem; Jerusalem, where he was crucified, where he died because his radical ethical message was too much for everyone. So it’s a ‘both and’ Gospel reading. We’re on a journey with Jesus, towards his birth during this Advent season, but also towards his ministry, towards his message, and towards the culmination of that ministry.
Following this morning’s reading in the Gospel of Matthew, we have the incident concerning the fig tree. It goes like this. “In the morning, when he (Jesus) returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, ‘How did the fig tree wither at once?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea”, it will be done.” We’re on a journey, we’re heading towards Christmas, and we confronted with a withered fig tree – what an earth is that all about?! What is the purpose of this story? Is this really just a story about Jesus cursing stuff because he is grumpy and hungry? Because that’s how it appears on the surface. But no, there is a deeper meaning, lost to our contemporary ears. In 1st Century Israel the fig tree had symbolic meaning; it represented the Temple, more specifically the political power of the Temple, the establishment - the Jewish Religious authority. The political class of that time. What does Jesus do on the way into the city is that he effectively burns the flag! This is a loaded, theological, social, political gesture unlike any other. He is condemning the system – the industrial, economic, religious, political system – and why? Because salvation is no longer to come down from on high, no longer to be meted out by priests and politicians, rather it is to be found within us. The Kingdom of God is within us.
Cursing a fig tree could get you killed! It’s a pretty risky thing for Jesus to do, the kind of gesture which is going to upset some people, even though they need to hear it. Really the Jews who are upset by fig tree being withered need to receive that message, need to hear it, more than those who aren’t. This story of Jesus withering the fig tree is an important lesson. It’s an important but divisive message about how we should relate to the Kingdom of God, as opposed to the establishment of the day. Whether individuals Jews on that particular morning found that message edifying or good or uplifting is not simply irrelevant, it would be to entirely misunderstand the spiritual journey. The Sermon, or Address, is to be endured? Is to be evaluated? Is to be examined? To stand with your head above the parapet? I wonder if anyone can hear me?
What is the purpose of an Address? Part of it is discerning where the line is, working out what’s going to take people out of their comfort zone, and then just stepping over that line just a little bit. But you’ve got to be careful, if you misjudge where that line is, you could lose everyone in the room, or be so bland that then there’s no point at all. That’s what you’re doing some of the time. An address should also help people grow in their spiritual stature, or grow into person they are called to be, or God calls them to be, or the universe calls them to be. And being challenged to grow in this way is not always comfortable, or feel uplifting. Sometimes we need to be brought into an uncomfortable place for a time, to be challenged for a time, and to be left churning ideas for a time.
‘So, did you like it? Yes, I liked it. Oh you liked it!...’
An address should be about being there, about experiencing something, about wrestling with something and coming out yourself a different person on the other side. ‘I liked it’ is missing something. If the address just becomes the thing which is done, and it’s not about movement, or a journey, or an awakening, or a process of self-discovery, then we’re just in the maintenance game. And I don’t want to be in the maintenance game. Do you? When I was talking about the liturgical calendar at the beginning, this is where I was heading. With a rolling liturgical calendar everyone knows there is a process taking place. We might be in a challenging space now, but it won’t last. We might be confronted with a burning flag now, but it won’t last. We might be asked to look into the darkness within, to self-examine, but it won’t last. And in the same way, during this season of Advent we enter into a period of anticipation, and a time of waiting, which means in a sense this service will be left incomplete, as will the next, and the next... As we do the hoovering, the heavy lifting, and clear the papers… Because something is coming, and it’s going to change us.