Advent Sunday – 27th November 2022
Today being Advent Sunday, it is the start of the new year in the Church calendar. Each year, as many of you will know, we mostly concentrate on one of the four gospels in our Sunday morning services, and for this coming year that gospel will be Matthew.
Some of you may remember that the last time Matthew’s turn came around, I admitted that it is my least favourite of the four gospels! This is a common attitude nowadays. People seem naturally to gravitate towards St Luke’s gospel, with its emphasis on female characters and outsiders more generally, or towards John with its more well-developed theology. Mark is nice and short, which in this age of short attention spans is always going to be a great advantage! But Matthew nowadays has few admirers.
For a start, it’s the longest gospel. It is often said to be the most Jewish of the gospels, and this probably increases the cultural barriers for most modern readers. I think it is fair to say that the scholarly consensus is that it was written by a Jewish Christian; and yet it is also the most problematic from a Jewish perspective – something that will be particularly evident when we come to Holy Week and Good Friday. The female characters who are so prominent in Luke are marginal in Matthew. And there is something about his style which at times seems a little pedantic to the modern reader.
But for most of Christian history, Matthew was in fact the go-to gospel. It has had a huge influence on the Church through the centuries, through its memorable stories such as the Visit of the Magi, and its powerful teaching including the Sermon on the Mount. Church fathers referred to it constantly, and it was read in church more often than any of the other gospels. So taking seriously the high esteem in which St Matthew’s gospel was held in the early Church, this year I am going to try to learn to love St Matthew’s gospel, and maybe you will, too.
Later in the year, once we get past Eastertide and into the Sundays of ordinary time, alongside Matthew we will also be reading a semi-continuous selection of passages from Genesis and Exodus, which we haven’t done before, at least not as long as I’ve been here. This will offer the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the stories of Jacob and his sons, and the Exodus from Egypt.
All of that is by way of scene-setting for the coming liturgical year. But turning to the gospel set for today…
Today’s passage comes after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrate each year on Palm Sunday, and before the Last Supper. It’s easy to get bogged down in details in this passage. As with so much New Testament apocalyptic literature, it is quite difficult to disentangle how much is referring to events that have already happened, and how much to things that are to come. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD obviously loomed large in the minds of both Matthew and Luke. Even the application of the concept of Jesus’ second coming to this passage is disputed by some, who see the references to the “coming” of the Son of Man as being rather about His “coming” to the Father through His Cross, Passion, and Resurrection.
I have spoken before about how every Christian generation looks around and thinks “gosh, it’s hard to see how things can get much worse – Jesus must be coming back soon”. And yet the generations have come and gone, and people have continued to believe that things are getting worse, but everyone who expected an imminent return has been wrong so far. It is perhaps precisely the fact that every generation can read its circumstances into a passage like this that explains its lasting appeal.
But whatever the complexities of the text, the actual message that Jesus is trying to convey is a simple one that we can all take to heart this Advent: we are to be in a state of watchful readiness for the coming of the Son of Man.
Watchfulness is an easy enough concept to grasp; it conjures up images of a sentry on duty or a lookout post. But what are we supposed to be watching for?
In the first place, we are watching over ourselves. Self-discipline is perhaps a rather unfashionable virtue; it might be more helpful to think of self-discipline in terms of healthy self-love. Most of us have quite a good idea of what is genuinely good for us, and what is harmful. Christian self-discipline is really just about turning to the things that will genuinely do us good, devoting less energy to the things that are indifferent, and turning firmly away from the things that are plain harmful. We are called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, and that means understanding and seeking what is genuinely good for both ourselves and others.
In popular culture we often think of self-love in terms of self-indulgence, but self-indulgence is not an expression of self-love, but of self-hatred. When we are dissatisfied with ourselves we seek to compensate with cream cakes or luxury cosmetics or expensive holidays or a serious port habit or whatever our particular weakness may be. When we have genuine self-love, we can enjoy good things in their proper places because we are not using them as an emotional crutch or to fill in an inner void.
Of course the idea of Advent as a time of self-discipline is nowadays deeply counter-cultural. But if we understand self-discipline as the true form of self-love, to seek the things that will do us good, to seek first the kingdom of God, as St Matthew puts it, perhaps it will feel easier.
Today’s gospel is followed by three parables, all of which expand on the theme of the coming of the Son of Man, and the need to be watchful and prepared. The last of the three is the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. What I’ve said so far about watching over ourselves, and the need for self-discipline might perhaps seem a little introspective, a little too inwardly focused. And so the parable of the Sheep and the Goats shows us that as well as watching over ourselves, we are also called to watch over others. And to be clear, I don’t mean snooping and spying and judging what others are doing! Rather, I mean looking out for one another and being willing to help one another. “Just as you did it for the least of my brothers, you did it for me,” says Jesus, and we are reminded that when we are watchful of the needs of others around us, we are watchful also for Jesus Himself.
And that is ultimately what Advent is about: watching for Jesus. Looking for His coming to be our King and Judge. Watching for His coming in our worship together, in our reflection on the holy scriptures, in the Sacrament of the Altar. Watching for His indwelling presence in our hearts. And watching for Him too in those around us, and especially those who need our help.
In the Name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.