So the other day when I drove through, it was a surprise to me to find everyone going along very tidily indeed - slowly, even. As I rounded the bend, the reason was easy to see: a police squad car was neatly parked face on to the road, more or less opposite the chapel. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen the police take any interest at all in the traffic flow through Forden. If he was, even - he might just have stopped there for his lunchtime sandwiches, for all I know.
In general, when people know they’re going to be inspected, they put a bit of extra effort in. I’m happy for most people who might call on me to find our house in its normal warts and all state of play. We’re not the most tidy and organised household, nor ever will be. One of my aunties has been known to call on us without much notice, but that’s all right - she can take us as she finds us. But there's another who’s a different matter. I’d need notice of a visit from her, because we and our house would need to be on our best behaviour.
In our gospel reading this morning, we find Jesus talking to his disciples about the turbulent times around them. In those days, many people believed the end might come at any moment; and wars, earthquakes, floods, anything might be a sign of the approaching end. People always do try and read the signs, of course; if we can work out what’s going to happen next, we can be better prepared.” If I could prove that the day of judgement is next Friday, I bet you’d be awfully good right through till then.
To be honest, if the day of judgement is next Friday, I’ll be as surprised as anyone. Jesus told his disciples to recognise the signs for what they are, the marks of a fallen and crumbling world that will at some time come to an end; but they don’t need to get hooked on reading signs, they don’t need to second guess what they see, or find meanings that aren’t there.
To go back to my drive through Forden, there won’t be the equivalent of a clearly marked police car to remind us to start being good. People are always supposed to drive through Forden at thirty, whether or not there’s a squad car there. Christians are always supposed to be good, whether or not they think that God is watching them. (He always is, by the way - which makes the fact that I’m generally far better behaved when I’m wearing my dog collar than when I’m not, just a bit ridiculous.)
So Jesus says to his disciples, “Be on your guard; do not let your minds be dulled by dissipation and drunkenness and worldly cares so that the great day catches you suddenly like a trap.” Unlike the more serious of my aunties, I doubt God minds that much whether my house is tidy; but I'm sure he does mind whether my soul is tidy and whether my life is tidy. He wants to be sure my heart is in the right place. So that’s the sort of alertness and watchfulness he needs from us; not watching for signs and portents so much as being watchful of ourselves and disciplined; and alert to every opportunity that comes our way to show and share God’s love, to lend a helping hand or a comforting arm.
There are quite a few places in the Church year where we’re reminded what being a disciple involves; but in particular before the two great festal seasons of the year, Christmas/Epiphany and Easter, we’re given times for being penitent and prepared. Lent still gets taken seriously, but Advent maybe less so. People quite often call today Advent Sunday, as if Advent were a single day, or a week at best. But it’s all four of the Sundays leading up to Christmas, and the weeks between. A time to get ready.
One reason why I generally drive through Forden at thirty even when people around me and behind me would like to go a bit faster is that I’ve done advanced driver training. If you think you wouldn’t know it from the way I drive, you should have seen my driving before! Anyway, advanced drivers should pay full attention to all the rules and signs of the road. And they’ll aim to be as prepared as they can be for anything unexpected ahead.
Advent, like Lent, is designed and intended to help us progress from everyday disciples to the advanced version. But that only happens when we use the season as it’s intended. When I joined the Institute of Advanced Motoring, that on its own didn’t make me an advanced driver. I needed also to read the book, with all its helpful tips and diagrams and illustrations, and to get some hands-on experience with an advanced driver, which wasn’t always easy; after all, some of the time he was fairly bluntly telling me where I was going wrong, and challenging the decisions I made.
It’s clear from today’s Gospel how Jesus wanted his disciples to progress to being advanced disciples. The medieval writer Thomas a Kempis called this “the imitation of Christ”. Our holiest duty, he argued, is to build into our own lives as much as we can of the example Jesus sets us of faith and love and service and duty and sacrifice. We need to allow his example to challenge the bad habits and the failures to act that otherwise might go unnoticed.
Well, I may be an advanced motorist, but I’m not a perfect driver: I still have plenty to learn, and I don’t always get it right. That’s also true for advanced disciples - though we’re working at being better followers of Jesus, we won’t have become super saints - nor ever will in my case at least (I don’t presume to speak for you). But the message is: start small, but do start. It’s Advent: use it. Do one extra thing, say one extra prayer, read one extra piece of scripture, draw one little bit closer to Jesus.
And don’t do it as a penance, as an attempt at piety or to fit in with the solemnity of the season; do it as a positive endeavour - part of the process of getting ready, not only to celebrate Christmas but also to take faith, believing, Church and Jesus seriously in your life; giving God the place he desires.
We need to be ready for inspection at any time. That’s what Jesus said to his disciples. There won’t be a marked car, or a phone call to say that my serious auntie is going to call by next Friday. And anyway, Jesus doesn’t want his folk only to be disciples when they think they’re being watched; or to be fitted in around the edges of the important stuff in their lives. In a few weeks, we shall sing those lovely words of Christina Rossetti, “In the bleak midwinter” - “What I can I give him, give my heart.” I hope I can use Advent to help me be ready to sing that not just as a lovely bit of poetry or a favourite carol, but as a personal prayer.