Mark 13: 33 “Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come.”I’m sure that the name of the Reverend Ian Paisley maybe familiar to most of you. He was the fiery protestant preacher in Northern Ireland. One day in his chapel in Northern Ireland he was preaching about Judgment Day, saying: “At the end of the world there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth”. An elderly woman in the congregation cried out: “Excuse me, Reverend, but I haven’t got any teeth”. He replied “Teeth will be provided!”.

Some churches similar to Mr. Paisley’s love to emphasize Judgment Day and the second coming of Christ. Sometimes it seems their preachers take great delight and enjoyment in the idea that only a select few will be saved – which includes them and their church of course. The rest of us are not going to be saved.

A feature of 20th century fringe churches and cults is that only their group will be saved, which is sometimes accompanied by mass-suicides as. From my experience as a priest, it is ex-Jehovah Witnesses and Pentecostals who are the hardest people to get back to Church and the sacraments – because they have been so damaged by this Gospel of Judgementalism.

I am reminded of a priest who recounted the story of his childhood. His mother told the children that they were not to touch the cookie jar, and if they took a cookie, God would see and they would be punished. So he grew up with the idea of a God who punishes and judges. Fortunately he encountered an Anglo-Catholic parish and found a congregation where love and joy was obvious in their worship and the celebration of the Sacraments.

The first Sunday of Advent reminds us that the Church does not ignore the second coming. Rather it puts it within the whole drama of salvation – and at the very beginning of the Church year as a necessary prelude to the celebration of Christmas. Whilst most of America has gone shopping and is enjoying the “Holiday Season”, with Christmas Carols in the air – we have put on purple and penitence, and hear words of waiting and anticipation.

I don’t know about you, but I used to hate waiting! In my last parish I used to go to the supermarket at 6:30am to avoid the long lines (fancy getting up that early to go shopping!). I still can not abide people who take forever to pay their bill, or need a price-check! On the other hand, I love waiting in an airport – usually because I am going somewhere interesting.

In the Gospel, Jesus says that we must not just wait – but watch. In other words, be on the alert. It reminds me of the bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming……look busy!”

All of today’s readings emphasize this waiting in expectancy. In the opening words of today’s Epistle, Saint Paul encourages the Corinthians who are waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ.

In the first reading (Isaiah 64:1) the prophet says: “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down.” Isaiah wants God to intervene and save Israel – but he is in a dilemma. They have sinned and deserve to be punished. Is he therefore appealing for God to come and punish, like Mr. Paisley?

Actually no. In verse 9 he says: “Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people”. Isaiah wants God to come and save his people, not punish. So he prefaces this last remark with a cry from the heart: “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art the potter”. A wonderful image of how God is so concerned for us because we are his people. God is not our destroyer, but our loving Father.

And so before the second coming, there was the first coming and the first Christmas – when God sent his Son “born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law”.

Jesus the Redeemer.

This is what Advent means – that our redeemer is coming. Indeed it is not God who will judge – but Jesus, his Son, our Redeemer. As the Creed says: “And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end”.

The one, who is going to judge us, is the one who loves us. This is why the first Christians looked forward eagerly to the second coming. Their cry was “Maran Atha” – “Come, Lord”.

It was an event to look forward to with hope and joy – to eagerly await. Of course it didn’t happen, by the time we get to the Middle Ages “Maran Atha” was replaced by “Dies Irae” – the Day of wrath and doom impending. The second coming which was Judgment Day, the day of great reckoning. And that is what the theme in the Middle Ages became, not a day of hope and joy, but a day to be feared.

But surely any judgment by Christ is filled with mercy and hope? God has handed over judgment to one who is our brother, as well as our Lord. He knows human existence from the inside – and he has suffered.

So when he says that we should live as if he was coming soon, we know that this is a thing of joy, not fear.

This is evident in how Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians in expectation of Jesus’ return: “I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given to you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him”.

If “Watch” is an Advent word, so also is “Grace”, and there can be no better way to prepare for Christmas than to have a grace-filled Advent. Remember the words of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary at the first Advent “Hail Mary, full of Grace”.

So may our Advent be a time of grace

+ Through prayer

+ Through the Sacraments

+ Through reading and reflection

For you can be sure that the more we find time for him daily, the more wonderful will be that day when we see him face to face.

Let us not forget the flourish of hope with which the Creed concludes:

And I believe one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen”.