Advent Sunday 2019
Romans 13:11-end - Matthew 24:36-44
It’s always difficult on a train not to overhear people’s conversations, even if one can only hear one side of it. On Wednesday while on a train I sat opposite someone who took a phone call from someone claiming to be a policeman, who was ringing to ask this person about someone called Bethany her sister, apparently, who had gone missing. The recipient of the call said she did not have a sister by that name. The conversation continued, and the recipient revealed that she did indeed have a sister, but not called Bethany, and she told the caller her sister’s name. At this point I became somewhat concerned and began to listen a bit more carefully. My fellow passenger - who was quite young, was revealing her own and her sister’s details down her mobile phone to a complete stranger simply because he had told her he was a policeman. As the conversation continued I wondered what to do. We were approaching Highbury and Islington and I would have to get off, and yet it seemed to me that my traveller was being scammed, lured into a situation where she might say too much (if she hadn’t already!).
Should I say something?
I was overhearing half of someone else’s phone call, and even though her discombobulation was evident to everyone nearby, it was none of my business. I was not wearing my clerical collar. The call ended and then she called her father, concerned and troubled. Which meant I learned a bit more about the situation. It was impossible not to overhear: she was barely a foot away from me on a crowded train. As the train entered a tunnel the young lady was cut off. We were only a minute away from the station. What would you have done?
I spoke. ‘Forgive me,’ I said, ‘but I couldn’t help hearing part of your conversation, and I would say that the person you were speaking to might not be genuine and it could be a scam’. She looked at me aghast, for this had not occurred to her, and said so. She seemed grateful that I had said something. I went on to suggest that she call the police station from which the caller had claimed to have rung and verify, or report it. The train stopped and we both got off, swept away by rush hour commuters. The encounter was over and I have no idea whether she took my advice.
We all know people who have been the victims of scams, of various kinds. I myself had my identity stolen and had a really difficult time extricating myself from liability for goods bought in my name and delivered elsewhere. There is some information and education about identity theft and telephone scamming available, but still, the criminals become more daring and clever. My travelling companion took at face value that someone calling her mobile and claiming to be the police, was a policeman. It did not occur to her, nor her father, apparently, that he was not. Furthermore she had become worried about her sister. Her instinctive trust had made her vulnerable.
In the New Testament we hear from both Jesus and St Paul that the ‘day of the Lord’ will come like a ‘thief in the night’. The language is of crime, or burglary, of a robber sneaking in by stealth when unexpected. It is a universal metaphor, accessible to every time and place. Criminals have stolen things in every culture and place throughout history. It is an inevitable corollary of greed, avarice and acquisitiveness. A thief in the night is someone everyone understands and dreads equally. Scamming, electronic money theft and currency fraud, even short-selling in financial markets are modern equivalents. In any event, one can wake up one morning to find one’s wealth depleted or even wiped out by the dishonest actions of others. The nocturnal swag bag thief can be a techie-savvy digital burglar nowadays.
In a world where dangers are online as well as outside the door; in our bank accounts as well as in our pockets, there are also dangers in our hearts and minds. These dangers are of complacency and negligence. Spiritually speaking it is too easy to dismiss the deception and corruption of evil as archaic and irrelevant concepts and so, rather than don armour and lock our doors against them, we assume we live in a cosy spiritual village where the lights are always on and we need not lock our doors. Someone once suggested to me that Satan’s greatest advantage nowadays is that no-one believes in him any more. (C.S. Lewis has a similar idea in The Screwtape Letters).
As a result we could be sleepwalking into spiritual catastrophe. Faith is undermined, truth ridiculed, kindness mocked, justice denied and decency redefined. We have all seen hints of this in political, public and international affairs, and our current intellectual, spiritual and online environments all blend to create a melée of danger. We need spiritual burglar alarms as well as digital and house alarms. For we do not know at what hour we might be attacked.
This is as true now as it was when Jesus spoke and St Paul wrote two thousand years ago. The situation is not so different, as fears for the end of the world and the contemporary attitude towards public and private morality were then and are still, troubling. In the First Century they foresaw Roman destructive occupation and a return of the Lord in military triumph. Today we anticipate with fear the destruction of our planet, an environmental emergency, and a climate crisis. None of it looks good. It is unpredictable, worrying, and real.
So, as we learn to live with these signs of our times, we follow the injunction of St Paul, to ‘put on the armour of light’. In another letter, to the Thessalonians, he is more specific, describing the ‘breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation’. In modern terms, these are like having decent locks on our doors, alarm systems and security measures to prevent nocturnal nastiness while we sleep.
Speaking spiritually though, as St Paul, and Jesus are doing, these are metaphors for being alert to the signs of our times, reflecting on what we are hearing and seeing in the media and acting for good. For good, as in morally good, but also for good as in on a permanent, lasting basis. There are thieves out there, ready to breach our spiritual security, raid our rationality and walk off with our cultural wealth and religious heritage. Truth, decency and even common sense are under threat and we need to be alert to that. It is, now, as it always has been, what St Paul calls the moment to ‘wake out of sleep’. ‘Wachet auf’ – as Germans say – Sleepers wake!
Most of all, though, this is a personal burglar alarm call. The stirring up of own neglect of our faith, of beliefs, our moral duties and our kindness are what Advent is all about. Advent is a time of preparations, not simply for Christmas, but for more sombre realities that lie, probably, further ahead. Each of us has our own day of the Lord lined up – a kind of deadline looming. But unlike the deadline of Christmas, or any other deadline, we don’t know when it is.
Life itself is one deadline after another, followed, ultimately with the final deadline – the dying end of our personal line. Our whole life is underlined by a final deadline. It is certain – inevitable. And we do not know when. Advent is traditionally a time to remember this, reflect upon it and to place all of other deadlines, and indeed our lifelines, in the context of that ultimate deadline.
But this need not be bleak - for Advent is a time of light. Our own deadline is not a black line, but a hopeful line of light. Death is not a dark tunnel that peters out into nothingness. Rather, in this time of waiting that we call Advent, we have an opportunity to step away from the here and now of present living, and engage with God over time, forming a deep and extended relationship, in the heart of which we can search and be searched out, know and be known. To do that takes time and patience. We revisit this season every year. And we try to not let it be completely subsumed by pre-Christmas frivolity. Advent is a dark time, for sure. But it is all about light. That’s why it is about light. Light makes no sense without darkness – and darkness, being about the lack of light, makes no sense without the light which it lacks. Darkness is not nothingness, but rather the absence of light.
And that absence will come to an end with presence. Not Christmas presents, but Christmas presence – the presence of Christ – God with us – Emmanuel. ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ we sing at this time of year. He has, he does and he will. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 01/12/19