Advent is here! Christmas is coming! One of my habits as we get nearer to Christmas Day is to read ‘A Christmas Carol ’ by Charles Dickens. Last week I went to a one-man presentation of that ageless story presented by Guy Masterton at the Theatre Royal in Winchester. He helped us feel along with Scrooge the challenge of facing up to our past and our present in the light of the future.
That’s what Advent is about – getting ready for the future as we change in the present. Two Advent Sunday readings give us valuable clues. See Romans chapter 13, verses 8-13, and Matthew chapter 24, verses 36-44.
We need to get ready
Days before his death on the cross, Jesus told his disciples that one day God will complete his work. ‘Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.’ (Matthew 24:42, NIV)
‘Keep watch’, Jesus said, because there will be times when you may be deceived into thinking it’s me coming again when it isn’t: “Watch out that no-one deceives you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ’ and will deceive many.’ (Matthew 24:4-5, NIV) False Christs and false prophets will appear and will perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible.
Jesus also told them, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36, NIV). Just as it is wise to take precautions against theft so, Jesus said, ‘you also must be ready, because the Son of Man comes at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matthew 24:44, NIV).
How right he is! We can easily be deceived into thinking that there are better ways of coping with life than looking in faith to Jesus. Focussing on things rather than people can distract us from God’s purpose for human life. ‘Me and mine’ is another false way, if that prevents us from working for the common good. Clinging to what we have known in the past, blinding us to fresh insights about how to order our lives – yes, even in the life of the Church! That attitude also can mislead us.
Take your pick! We all go astray in one way or another. Charles Dickens was alert to social evils but apparently failed badly in how he treated his wife.
So how can we get ready?
At the end of Matthew 24 (v. 45-51) there’s a story told by Jesus that gives part of the answer to the question how can we be ready for God at work in us and through us. A man went on a journey and left the management of his business to his steward who sees his chance to do what he wants and treats other servants badly. While he is doing this the owner returns and deals radically with the rascal.
In other words, Jesus is saying that our task as his disciples is to be true to our calling by following his way in the here and now. By doing that, we will be ready for his coming, God completing his work, whenever and however this happens.
Thirty years later in the letter that Paul sent to Christians in Rome the apostle dealt mainly with how we wander from God’s ways and how God in his utter love puts us on the right track through Jesus. Then, in chapter 13, Paul emphasizes how crucial is the way we deal with each other and with other people. Above all, he says, we are called to love, love in the same generous way that God loves us. ‘Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another…. Love is the fulfilment of the law’ (Romans 13:8, NIV). He certainly had learned what Jesus emphasized: ‘Love God’ and ‘Love your neighbour.’
In ‘A Christmas Carol’, Dickens described Scrooge at first as being “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” But the painful nightmares of that Christmas Eve helped Scrooge to come to his senses so that he changed in his dealings with others. As a result, Scrooge said to himself, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” He then called out to a boy in the street and asked him to get a huge turkey to be sent to his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit, made a big donation to two men collecting for the poor, had great pleasure in greeting people, joined in his nephew’s Christmas party and even raised Bob Cratchit’s salary, and became ‘a second father’ to Tiny Tim. Quite a conversion!
The Methodist Church ticket of membership this year gives a helpful way of thinking about the new way of life we find through Jesus. It includes these suggestions: ‘Let your whole way of life respond to God’s call: Letting LIFE grow in you every day – Nurturing LIFE in the Church – Bringing LIFE to the world.’
That’s the way forward with Jesus Christ and it’s on offer for everyone!