Scripture for the first Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 2.1–5; Psalm 122; Romans 13.11–14; Matthew 24.36–44
Being welcoming is something that many churches strive very hard to do. Individuals within congregations devote themselves to creating an inviting and welcoming environment. So it can be frustrating and galling when someone slips through the cracks. But it does happen. When we are lucky, we hear about it, and we can be motivated always to try harder.
This is a timely point at which to think about the idea of welcome. Advent is a season devoted to preparation for the arrival of Christ. But there is a lot more to welcoming him than making a cake, exchanging presents, and saying, ‘Happy Birthday, Jesus.’
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus mentions Noah, and it would be easy for Christians to draw up the gangway of our own little (metaphorical) arks, and think that we’re all right, doing the good things we do in our church (with a small C) or our Church (with a large C). Because, without being smug, in our churches many good things are done, and we need to acknowledge our successes in proportion to our challenges and failures. As C.S. Lewis noted in The Screwtape Letters false modesty can be as damaging a sin as pride, because it undervalues the richness of the gifts that we have been given.
But equally, we can’t simply adopt the attitude that Jesus has been here; that some of us see that the time of light has arrived; and to hell (literally) with the rest of the world that chooses not to see it. We’ll just carry on as we are, doing what we are doing, because that must be the right way. But Jesus wasn’t really calling his followers to complacency, which is where this kind of thinking leads us.
Jesus leaves us with a responsibility – and just as he identified with the poor, the sick, the dispossessed, the needy, the broken, so he leaves a clear message through the gospels for us to continue to look for him amongst those sectors of our communities.
Rather than trying to predict or anticipate some apocalyptic arrival of Jesus, we might be better occupied looking for ways to watch for his coming in everyday encounters.
Meanwhile, the season of preparation is upon us. Today’s readings might be said to have as a common theme: ‘Clean up your act!’ Which in turn leads is to consider where that might apply. Isaiah speaks of swords beaten into ploughshares; Paul writes to the Romans about laying aside conflict: how much preparation of ourselves spiritually are we doing, as opposed to material preparation?
Advent leads us into a creative tension between the world’s injustice and brokenness, and the hope that Christ can help us to be agents of renewal. We can begin by looking for Christ in those whom we meet, and for flashes of grace that season our daily lives. Advent is a season for preparation to meet and welcome Jesus in all the encounters of our lives, and so to deepen our relationship with God.