Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary The First Sunday of Advent Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36 Be on your guard... “Be on your guard,” our Lord advises us in today’s reading from near the end of the Gospel of Luke. Odd advice, we might be tempted to think, at the beginning of the Advent season, a time when we are more inclined to anticipate the joy of the coming Christmas season than to be on guard against unspecified perils. But then we remember with a jolt that we are indeed surrounded by perils and terrors of all sorts, from rampant pandemic to endemic poverty, from terrorism to tyranny. Not to mention migrants on the border of Poland and along the English Channel; troops on the border of Ukraine; and new strains of Virus discovered in Africa. Mindfulness is perhaps not such a bad idea after all these days. Be alert. Or as our Hungarian friends often tell us upon parting, Vigyázz magadra. Take care of yourself. After all, the world is full of surprises. The “distress among the nations” which our Lord knew in his day is with us still, though the names and boundaries of the nations in question may have changed a bit over the centuries. The “fear and foreboding” of which Jesus warns are as real and deep as ever. Indeed, “fear and foreboding” are palpable even during our sacred Advent season here in relatively safe and comfortable Central Europe. The machinery of evil may have changed over the centuries but the technology of the human heart remains the same as it ever was. And, in times such as these, it is easy to become -- if you will excuse the infelicitous expression -- gun-shy; to hunker down and love only those we already love; and trust only what we know for sure -- even when what we know for sure is alas manifestly not so. Yet it is just at times such as these that God so often insists upon challenging our deepest anxieties and prejudices, surprising us yet again with divine mercy and redemption. After all, it was in times just such as these that Christ was born of destitute and near-homeless parents forced to seek shelter for the night in a backyard village lean-to of all places; not exactly the palace of a prince or king. Yet, even in the midst of the world’s confusion and chaos, “the kingdom of God is
near,” as Jesus reassures us, as difficult as it may sometimes be to discern or feel its presence. Rather than hunker down, “Stand up,” commands our Lord, “and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And that is also the message of today’s Gospel narrative. The surprise and wonder of Christ’s incarnation forces us to look again in our own age at the “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars;” forces us again to consider anew the signs of God’s intimate and pervasive involvement in the world about us. And in our own lives. Advent then is that season when we learn to overcome our “fear and foreboding” and yet again open our hearts to others just as God has disclosed and demonstrated his love for us in Christ. Advent indeed requires a certain element of mindfulness -- of keeping awake and alert to the universe around us – and to the cosmos within us. It requires as well a certain sense of recognition and acceptance of others with all their spiritual baggage and insecurities -- no small order in an age of polarization and mistrust. Of course, being on the Lord’s spiritual welcoming committee has never been an easy task. Just ask certain shepherds of Bethlehem. Who or what are we waiting for, we might well ask. Who or what are we welcoming? Refugees perhaps from lands far different than our own? Homeless beggars at street corners? Christ after all came in a manner completely new and unexpected. Would we have recognized him at rest in that feed-trough outside Bethlehem so long ago without herald angels to announce his presence? Would we have known to welcome him? His coming is still hotly debated and even denied, his very existence a sign of contradiction for many. After all, he brought joy, but we still know sadness. He brought life, but we still know death. So, putting out the welcome mat and hanging the “Open for Business” sign in the window of our hearts can seem a scary proposition this Advent season or anytime. As we secure our airports, screen our visitors for Covid and guns, and look over our shoulder in line at the grocery store, it can become all too easy to forget about welcome and human commerce altogether. The near-apocalyptic scene painted in our Gospel account of confusion and distress has become an unfortunate reality in too many parts of our world today. Sometimes even our neighbor can seem the enemy. Good thing God did not – and does not -- see things that way. Good thing God thought we and our world were worth yet another chance. Otherwise, we might still be left out in the cold and dark; left alone with our “fear and foreboding;” left alone perhaps in a smelly old barn bereft of angels, shepherds, and virgin mother. Advent is if anything a season of hope against hope. It is a time which reminds us that, in God’s scheme of things, in God’s good time, the laws of entropy do not necessarily apply after all. The universe and our lives will not continue to get darker and colder forever. Our spiritual winter of discontent will come to an end.
And the fig tree will again blossom and bloom. “Summer is near,” our Lord reassures us with a straight face, even at the beginning of Advent and the coming of winter chill and darkness. Our “redemption is drawing near.” Perhaps only a genuine follower of Christ can remain vigilant and on guard for the coming of God’s kingdom in a world such as ours. Perhaps only a genuine follower of Christ, mindful of the incarnation and of our salvation which it ushered in, can hear of a spiritual summer of redemption and understand that – no matter the human or earthly season -- Christ’s word and promise to his people “will not pass away.” Followers of Christ are always after all people of hope, people of vigilance. So, “be on your guard.” Or as our Hungarian friends might tell us all, Vigyázzatok magatokra. Amen. The Revd Dr Frank Hegedűs