Happy New Year my sisters and brothers! Today marks the beginning of another Church year and the start of Lectionary A for those of you who like to follow the Scripture readings. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent for Years A, B, and C is always apocalyptic, anticipating the return of Christ, and it is for that return as well as for the Birth of Christ that we wait during the Season of Advent.
Now despite all the signs of Christmas that flood our world immediately following, if not before, the celebration of Thanksgiving, it is not actually time for Christmas just yet. This is not to deprive you of your joy and excitement in the anticipation of Christmas but rather to heighten and enhance it. Advent is a kind of pregnancy—a time of joyful expectation and careful preparation for the time of fulfillment.
And in fact all our readings for today indicate that:
Isaiah talks about a time when everyone will stream to God’s house asking to be taught God’s ways and how to walk God’s path; a time of peace when all instruments of war will be transformed into instruments of peace.
Psalm 122 possesses prayers for peace, quietness, and prosperity and in acknowledgment of the fulfillment of that prayer the psalmist commits himself to doing good.
Romans follows up on that theme of response by saying that indeed the time is now and to prepare by waking up, realizing that the darkness is passing, the day is coming, and the time of salvation is ever nearer, so put on the armor of light, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then in Matthew, we have the words of our Lord himself, who tells us that,
- He will be coming back,
- That absolutely no one knows exactly when, and
- We are to be ready; to be vigilant, which is awake; and to be prepared for his coming.
Now just so we have a picture of how that conversation with his disciples came up, let me put it in context for you. Jesus and the disciples had just left the Temple in Jerusalem and the disciples had pointed out its various buildings, at which point Jesus in his characteristically cryptic way told them that not a single stone would be left standing and it would be utterly destroyed. This of course prompted the alarmed response of, “when is that going to happen; what sign should we look for?” Jesus then launched into telling them about the signs for the end of the age and warned them about imposters who would lead them astray. He described the tribulations of the end times, and told them that he would return and although they wouldn’t know exactly when, they would know when it was time. Just like in pregnancy, you know you’re having a baby but you never know when you will give birth.
At first glance this doesn’t sound like good news. He’s describing the end of the world and telling them they must live in the uncertainty of when that will happen. And he doesn’t use happy examples of such uncertainty: he says it will be like those who missed getting tickets on Noah’s ark when the flood suddenly came and wiped out all life on the planet, and like the moment when the thief breaks into your house and steals everything you own. If we had to understand these images apart from the total witness of Scripture, we might be tempted to think Jesus wanted us to live our lives in trepidation and fear of the unknown. Come to think of it, there’s a degree to which we do exactly that, don’t we? It feels like our world is always telling us to be afraid of this or that.
But that is not the message of Jesus. He is not saying, be afraid be very afraid. He is saying, “I will be with you, in the good and in the bad; you will never face anything on your own because I will be with you and for you, forever.” His message of the end is not an invitation to cower in fear but rather to live in hope and anticipation. And because we are to live in the certainty of his return and the assurance of his presence, we should prepare ourselves.
That’s what we are doing in Advent, living into the promise of his presence while dwelling in the realm of uncertainty. The timing of Christ’s return is uncertain, as are many things in life. We are never really prepared when natural disaster strikes, when a loved one dies, when we lose a job, are diagnosed with a disease, or face the ending of a relationship. In general, I would go so far to say that we aren’t really adept at handling any kind of change—good or bad—because all change is uncertain. That’s why I believe, at our core, we really hate it, because we can’t control or predict it. (Although we certainly do try!)
If you want proof of this, take a look at the different kind of insurances that exist. There’s health insurance and life insurance for the inevitable uncertainties, and car and home insurance for the possible uncertainties. But Jesus is offering us the eternal insurance, which is the promise that he will always be with us and for us. It is in acknowledgment of that promise that we prepare ourselves.
You know, this time of year “Commercial Christmas” crowds and rushes our time of preparation. It says to hurry up, after all, there’s so much to get done, but Advent says, slow down, and remember who your God is. “Commercial Christmas” says, quick go out and acquire and accumulate more stuff; Advent says empty yourself of the burden of conscience and the weight of fear. The former is full of blinding glitter that spurs us on to ever increasing levels of frenzied activity. The latter is content to curl up with a blanket in the dark, knowing that the darkness grows dimmer and the light of day is making its gentle approach.
Yes Christmas is almost upon us, but not yet. I encourage all of us to wait in the hope of the promise, to not run ourselves ragged in the dark. We tend to fear the dark, literally and figuratively but it says in Isaiah the God gives us treasures in the darkness, riches in the secret places, so that we will know that God, the Lord of all, is the One that calls us by name. Be still and listen for that voice. God is most assuredly summoning us into his love, and reminding us of the promise to always be with us and for us.
That’s the promise. That’s our hope. That’s the gift.
Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus.