Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
It’s the First Sunday of Advent, and already it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.
In-person shopping to the tune of Jingle Bells has returned. Westminster has been decked with greens – be sure to see the swags in the Cloister Hall. We’re having hot cider outside around firepits and holding a Carol-Sing in the sanctuary after the service. The children of the church are hard at work pre-recording their Zoom Christmas pageant, set to premiere in two weeks. The choir is rehearsing What a Wonder, the iconic Christmas anthem sung in this room every year since the 1930s, to be heard on December 19 this year.
At our house we put up the tree on Thanksgiving Day. Some of us have started dreaming of a white Christmas.
And, yet, the ancient wisdom says, do not to rush into things. Wait. Watch. Listen.
Did you notice a certain foreboding mood in the pre-Christmas texts of Advent read this morning? Not much in the way of fa-la-la in there.
“In those days,” Jesus says with a kind of grim determination to make his disciples sit up and listen,
“In those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
His soliloquy here in Matthew’s gospel has been dubbed “The Little Apocalypse.” It’s not exactly encouraging.
“Then two will be in the field,” Jesus continues. “One will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
Do we really need this? Who wants to stick around to see if it happens? If this is Advent, I may go looking for another, more cheerful season.
“Keep awake therefore,” Jesus says, “For you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… Therefore, you…must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Jesus sounds like a street-corner preacher here, an end-time prognosticator out to terrify, as is so often the case with those indulging apocalyptic theology.
But the gospel was not written to frighten people into faith.
Yes, the Lord will come again. The texts are clear on this point, though we don’t know when. In fact, we cannot know when and how and where, and we should not waste time speculating about it or working ourselves into a frenzy over it. Instead, Jesus seems to be saying, we should continue going about our daily business, doing what we can to make this world a better place. Far from an alarming Advent, Matthew seems to want us to have a rather mundane one.
Jesus, for his part, also advises caution. He urges us not to panic.
“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet.” (Matthew 24:6)
Jesus is working hard to get our attention. He wants us to slow down and be aware of who we are and how we are living. He wants us to let go of all that might distract us, so we might attend to the world around us, and to God’s word to us in this season.
People of faith should know in this season that some things will come to an end, and a new day will commence. Advent is a bridge between the time before, and the time after. It links us to hope that conveys us from exile to home, through the night to the dawn, from chaos to peace.
Advent – this season before the season – wants us to be ready to begin again.
The prophets of old urged the ancient Hebrew people to prepare for the day that was coming. They weren’t concerned with details and didn’t know exactly what to expect. Isaiah prophesied that weapons of war would be changed into implements of peace, bringing life, not death.
We could hope for the same in our time. Imagine if there were a massive effort to collect the weapons with which we have armed ourselves against one another, to melt them down into instruments that could help construct a more peaceful world. Advent wants us to prepare for something as far-reaching and preposterous as that, something that would move the world closer to what God intends, rather than spiraling away, as seems to be happening these days.
Each of the prophets of ancient Israel imagined a world that was not yet, but one day might be. We can do the same; that’s what this season is designed to do – help us see possibilities where none previously existed – a way where there appears to be no way..
Ezekiel foresaw the day coming as a time when dry bones scattered across a valley floor would come together and fill with breath and stand and find new life as the people of God. Joel saw that day as the time when God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, and young and old alike would dream dreams and see visions. Jeremiah spoke of the day that was surely coming when God’s promises would be fulfilled.
In each case, something was coming to an end, and something new was beginning. The prophets may not have known precisely what it was, but they knew the people of God had to find their way to a different future.
That is the basic point of Advent: we cannot keep going like this forever. Whether 2000 years ago, or today, we need light in a gloomy world. We need a firm foundation in an uncertain time. We need calm in a culture infused with anger. We need quiet in a world filled with noise.
Imagine if people in those places in our time where despair is overwhelming could see a future when hope might return. A friend is a doctor in a Covid unit in a hospital filled to capacity and is near the breaking point from the strain and hostility directed at them by unvaccinated patients and their families. Imagine if the light of Advent could pierce that bleakness and help people begin again.
Things need to change.
The church should think of Advent as its own unique season, unlike Christmas, which the broader culture appropriated long ago. This is our time, a time to prepare for change, to be ready to begin again, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the world. Advent alerts us to be ready to start over. Incarnation is about to happen, and with it comes the possibility of new ways of living together.
Our faith says we can forgive. Who among us does not need to forgive, or be forgiven, and seek reconciliation with someone? We can begin again.
Our faith says we can end destructive habits. Who among us does not need to leave old ways behind, somewhere in our life? We can begin again.
Our faith says we can trust one another. Who among us is not exhausted by animosity and longing to live differently with our neighbors? We can begin again.
Our faith says we can learn to love. Who among us does not want to be accepted and valued for who we are and live into our full humanity as God created us, and offer that same grace to others? We can begin again.
Advent invites us to confess that we have miles to go, that we’re not there yet, that we know we fall short, but, also, to acknowledge that we can begin again. Christianity is a religion of second chances.
“I’m always amazed,” Maya Angelou once said,
“When people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.”
In her poem Love’s Exquisite Freedom, Angelou sounds like a long-ago prophet of this season.
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
In the cry of the prophet, in the words of the gospel, in the song of the poet, and in the anguish of our time, Advent proposes that we pay attention and peer carefully into the shadows to see the light – faint as it may be – the light that is coming.
When we see that light, that means we should be ready to begin again.
Thanks be to God.