I wonder if you know what this is? It’s a coffee mill. Not one of those fancy electric ones, but a hand mill. You put your beans in here, turn the handle, and you get freshly milled coffee in the bottom. There’s a little adjustable screw and butterfly nut in the bottom that you set depending on how fine you want your coffee ground. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I used it. David despairs of me, that I usually can’t be bothered with making real coffee, and I haven’t bought beans to grind for a very long time.
I’m not sure that this is the kind of mill that Jesus was talking about when he described two people grinding with a hand mill, one being taken and the other left, but it was the closest thing to it that I could think of around the house. In Jesus’ time, of course, the milling of grain into flour would have been a communal activity. Much as it is in areas of the world where subsistence farming is still the norm, groups of women would gather together during the day to mill the grain and make the flour. The men would be out working in the fields – clearing rocks, ploughing, sowing, weeding, harvesting, whatever was appropriate for the time of year.
Jesus is describing normal village life in the majority of his country, at the time that he lived. Normal village life that had gone on since before the time of Noah, and which still describes normal village life for millions of people around the world today. Some of us, particularly in places like Eyton still have some sense of connection to the land and the rhythms of the seasons, but for the majority of people in this country, this is no longer normal village life. In fact, normal village life doesn’t really exist.
That’s not really a problem, life goes on, and we live in different ways. If we own a hand mill it’s far more likely to be for coffee than for grain, and that’s OK. Where we might have a problem though, is if we fail to recognise that Jesus is talking about normal life. Because our normal lives don’t look like the normal life that Jesus is describing, it might not seem obvious to us that Jesus is talking about our normal lives, as much as he is talking about normal lives that do include milling grain and tilling the fields.
For some of us our normal lives might include going to work, looking after the grandkids, visiting friends, doing the gardening, coming to church. For some of us normal life might include hospital visits, caring responsibilities, wondering what disaster is going to hit next.
This is important for us to understand because Jesus is drawing a contrast between the normality of the every day and the complete abnormality of the last day. On the one hand you’ve got the day that is just like the day before, and the day before that, going back hundreds of years, the humdrum, sun up, sun down, one day after another, not much happens, routine of life. On the other hand you’ve got the end of all time, the day on which there will be no tomorrow, the completely unique day on which Jesus will return to bring down the curtain on creation as we know it.
Many centuries previously God’s messenger, Isaiah, had also looked forward to the last days. In his vision of the roll out of God’s kingdom three areas of life were brought together under God’s righteous rule and reign.
Firstly the Lord’s temple is established as the highest of the mountains. The Lord’s temple is the place of worship, the place of sacrifice, the place of reconciliation with God. In Isaiah’s vision this is seen to be the highest, the most prominent, and all the nations stream to it. The whole of humanity is unified in the worship of the one, true God. People from all around the world recognise that reconciliation with God comes through the sacrifice of Jesus, and come to worship together. There will be common worship
Secondly, as they come to worship, they come to seek the wisdom and law of God. Again people from every tribe and tongue come to God to be instructed, and they choose to walk in God’s way. Again, this points to Jesus who described himself as, “the way, the truth and the life.” The nations of the earth will accept the judgements of God as ruling and binding, they will submit to them. There will be common law.
Thirdly, flowing from the common worship of the one true God, and the obedience to the common law of the one true God, there will be peace. War and conflict will cease, weapons will be destroyed. More than that, tools and resources committed to war will be repurposed for use in agriculture and providing for the good of the people. There will be no need to invest in weapons systems, or train soldiers because there will be peace guaranteed by the Prince of Peace. There will be common peace.
It really doesn’t sound normal does it? We only have to look around the world, look at the news feeds, read the papers, watch the TV to realise what a break from normality this would be. But it was what Isaiah foresaw, and it is what Jesus promises.
So it seems to me that as we enter Advent we are faced with a couple of contrasts for us to think about and to explore.
The first is the contrast between our daily, normal, lives and the interrupting abnormality of the day that Jesus will return. Some of us may need to be on our guard, that we don’t get lulled by the routine into a drowsiness that forgets that the last day is coming. Like the unwary householder in Jesus’ story, we may find ourselves surprised by that which we ought to have been ready for, if we’re not careful. For some of us, it has become normal for our daily lives to be painful and full of grief, and that may be wearing away our hope for the future. It is hard to hold on to the promise that Jesus is going to return and bring healing and wholeness when we have been waiting for so long and the way is so hard. We need to pray and support each other in persevering in hope and faith.
The second is the contrast between the normality of brokenness in our world and the promise of God’s future. However normal war and conflict and all the things that go with them seem to us now, we are to insist that they are not God’s intention for the creation, and they are abnormal from the perspective of eternity. As we look for Christ’s return, we assert the claim of the Kingdom that the current situation is temporary, and we refuse to despair, to become cynical, or to abandon hope of change, because God has promised that the day is coming.
When I was starting to prepare for this morning, I looked back on sermons I’d preached in Advent in previous years. I realised that one of my first sermons as vicar here at St Catherine’s, three years ago, was on the first Sunday of Advent, and I preached on these two readings. I brought along a round tuit and a lert, and talked about how sometimes we can feel like we’re impatient for God to do all the things that he’d promised, that God would get a round tuit. I also talked about the importance of being a lert, the world needs all the lerts it can get. I mention this because looking back like this seemed to me to highlight an irony. Of all the seasons of the church year Advent is the one in which we are encouraged to realise that all that is normal, all that is routine, is, one day going to be completely interrupted.
It is the season in which we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ first coming, and in which we are reminded that Jesus is going to return, and are encouraged to remain ready for that return. So Advent is all about being ready for our routines to be disrupted, and we have made that reminder part of the routine. It’s what we do in Advent. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s really important that we have the discipline of being reminded of Jesus’ return, I just wonder if we’ve tamed it a bit. I wonder how many Advent sermons we’ve listened to in our lives, and I wonder if they lose their bite in the repetition.
So, this Advent, what is going to break that for us, if we need it broken? I wonder if we might dare to ask the Holy Spirit to interrupt our routines, our normal lives, in a way that will help us to get a glimpse of what the final interruption might be like. As I was writing this I thought of Kato and Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films. Kato, the man servant, jumping out at the police inspector to test his readiness to defend himself against assassination attempts. I don’t mean that kind of silliness, but something, perhaps that allows us to see beyond the normality of our day to day, beyond the apparent normality of the brokeness of the world, and to get a better view, from the perspective of eternity that will enable us to remain hopeful and expectant of Christ’s return in glory.