Preparing for Christ’s coming
This Gospel reading may seem to be a little out of sequence for some. We are preparing for Christmas, you may think, not for Easter. But we forget that so easily. I hear on all the radio chat shows people already talking about this being the Christmas Season … before Advent has even started.
But Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, and in the weeks beforehand we even prepare for Advent itself, with Lectionary readings telling us about the Coming of Christ.
We have made Christmas a far-too comfortable story. It was never meant to be, but we have made it comfortable with our Christmas card images of the sweet little baby Jesus, being visited by kings and surrounded by adoring, cute little animals. The reality, of course, is that Christmas was never meant to be a comfortable story like that.
Christmas is a story about poverty and about people who are homeless and rejected and who can find no place to stay.
It is a messy story about a child born surrounded by the filth of animals and the dirt of squalor.
It is a story of shepherds who are involved in dangerous work, staying up all night, out in the winter cold, watching out for wolves and sheep stealers.
It is a story of trickery, deceit and the corruption of political power that eventually leads to a cruel dictator stooping to murder, even the murder of innocent children, to secure his own grip on power.
But these sorts of images do not sell Christmas Cards or help to get the boss drunk under the mistletoe at the office party.
That is why in the weeks before Advent we have readings reminding us about what the coming of Christ into the world means, what the Kingdom of God is like, and how we should prepare for the coming of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
In the lectionary readings for Year A, we have arrived at the last Sunday of readings in Saint Matthew’s Gospel about Christ’s days in Jerusalem immediately after Palm Sunday, although the actual account of Palm Sunday in Matthew 21: 1-22 was passed over in recent Sundays.
The Sunday before Advent now gives us time to pause and reflect on the why, over the past few months, we have been following Christ on his journey to Jerusalem. For it is there that he will be revealed in glory as the Son of Man and the King. […]
The story opens with Christ coming again in glory, sitting on his throne of glory (verse 31), and the nations gathered before him (verse 32). They are not atomised, isolated individuals who are gathered before the throne of Christ: they are the nations – all the nations – that are assembled and asked these very searching questions.
These are questions that are directly related to the conditions that surrounded that first Christmas; questions that directly challenge us as to whether we have taken on board the values of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 3-11; Luke 6: 20-31); questions that ask whether we really accept the values Christ proclaimed at the very start of his ministry when he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 16-19). […]
This Gospel reading challenges us in a way that is uncomfortable, but with things that must stay on our agenda as Christians and on the agenda of the Church.
We are challenged in the epistle reading for this Sunday to ask ourselves: What are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints (Ephesians 1: 18)? What is the immeasurable greatness of his great power (verse 19)?
The genius of power is revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice is not to gratify those who want a worldly king, whether he is benign or barmy. Instead, he displays supreme majesty in his priorities for those who are counted out when it comes to other kingdoms.
Christ rejects all the dysfunctional models of majesty and kingship. He is not coming again as a king who is haughty and aloof, daft and barmy, or despotic and tyrannical. Instead he shows a model of kingship that emphasises what majesty and graciousness should mean for us today – giving priority in the kingdom to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner (verses 35-36).
As we prepare for Christmas we should be preparing to enjoy time with our families and friends, time for a good winter’s holiday. But we should also remember the reason we have Christmas, the reason Christ came into the world, and the reason he is coming again.
We can look forward to seeing the Christ child in the crib and to singing about him in the carols. But let us also look forward to seeing him in glory. So let us be prepared to see him in the hungry, the thirsty, the unwelcome stranger, those who are naked and vulnerable, those who have no provisions for health care, those who are prisoners, those who have no visitors and those who are lonely and marginalised.