Advent 1, Year C
Preached on Sunday, 29 November 2015 at the Church of St. Matthew & St. Timothy
Happy First Sunday of Advent! Today is the beginning of a new church year. And all beginnings are also endings – and today our Gospel seems to focus on an ending, or really, the end.
For Advent, I am leading a book study here at the church on Tuesday evenings. The title of it is, “Advent: The Gift of New Hope!” That sounds nice and cheery and Christmasy, right? It’s the title of the book we are using. In light of recent world events, and in light of today’s readings, I wish I could rename it. I’d like to rename it to, “Advent: The Coming of Doom!” Though I suppose that no one would attend if I called it that.
So, I am joking – somewhat. Yet what if this Christmas – Christmas 2015 – was going to actually going to change our lives? What if it were to rock the world in an unexpected way, either negatively or positively? We talk about how Christmas changed the world 2000 years ago – by Jesus being born, becoming incarnate, and coming to live among us – and we talk about how it “changes the world” each year, but in a sort of soft, figurative way. Christmas is more like an observed memorial of an event that changed the world once. Nothing much seems to change now. So, what if Christmas were to radically change everything? What if we were to wake up on December 25th and find nothing as we knew it? How would we live our everyday lives until then if we knew that Christmas would indeed be the coming of doom? Or – if Christmas were to be the coming of something better than we could ever imagine?
And what are we to make of Jesus telling us in the gospel today of the eschaton, a fancy word for the End Times? And why must we hear this gospel on the First Sunday of Advent? Why must we be disturbed by the idea of doom?
I will always remember the first time I was aware of and scared by the idea of the end of the world facilitated by God. A friend of mine invited me to go to her youth group on a Friday night. Her church was a Baptist Church out in Queens. That night, they made us watch the movie called A Thief In the Night. This film, which came out in the early 1970s, is all about a young woman named Patty who considers herself a Christian, but who “hasn’t truly accepted Jesus,” and does not heed the warnings from her friends and families to do so. So, she then has a dream in which the Rapture has occurred, and all of her family and friends have disappeared. Patty then realizes that she and all those “left behind” are to face the Great Tribulation and the Antichrist: the end times. A scary, fascist government system is set up, and they go about trying to chase and capture Patty. In the final scenes of the movie she is running away, being chased by military forces and helicopters, and then – she falls to her death. I was terrified as I watched this, unable to understand how a good and loving God would allow this. And as we were watching, in the final moment of great tension and fear, just as Patty is cornered…. some kids outside the church began throwing rocks at the windows and pounding on the doors of the church building. In complete terror, I jumped out of my seat and began running and screaming, “they’re here to get us! They’re here to get us!” I was full of panic and anxiety.
In Luke’s telling, Jesus is telling of us signs that sound like what we already have going on: we had that red, blood moon this fall, global warming is causing the seas to rise. And there is great distress among our nations. Yet I am not suggesting that we need to panic. I repeat: do not panic! If we read this text carefully, we may instead find a message of encouragement and hope. Really.
Often, when things have been bad for a group of persecuted people, as Jesus’ followers certainly were, they have hoped for a day of reckoning – a day of judgment. A day that will bring about justice for those who have suffered. Jesus’ followers would have been looking for this day. Throughout the Bible, starting at creation, people have looked to God to create order out of chaos, and have maintained an expectation of God bringing about a new age of being that will bring justice.
Therefore, Jesus is not foretelling of an end time that is all about terrifying death and destruction, like what I saw in that movie. Instead, this end time will be about God bringing an end to sin and injustice – ultimately, a very good thing. It will not be a time of terror, but a time for redemption. Just as we begin a new church year and end an old one – the end of time will also be the beginning of something new and better: the coming of God’s Kingdom. And we do not know when it will happen. Jesus doesn’t tell us an exact date. Instead, we are to prepare, and be alert.
This Advent, we prepare for Christmas, but we also prepare for the second coming of Christ into our lives. How can we prepare, besides the usual ways of decorating, baking, buying and wrapping?
Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree – he says to look at the fig trees and all trees, as soon as you see them sprout leaves, you know it is summer. Likewise, if we pay attention, we will know when the Kingdom of God is near. Last weekend, I was in Atlanta, and the fall foliage was amazing: I saw many trees with beautiful red and bright yellow leaves. I was aware of how amazing it is that the trees’ leaves are most beautiful when the leaves are dying – an end time for the trees. And a tree gaining or losing its leaves is a most ordinary thing – yet it can also be amazing and beautiful. Do we notice? Do we notice other such ordinary, everyday things in our lives that may not be as beautiful? Things that actually may be ugly or painful? Jesus tells us to pay attention.
Jesus calls us to “remain alert.” Not in the scary way that the MTA tells us to remain alert, or the way the movie A Thief in the Night tells us to – but to be alert in a prayerful and hopeful way. We are not to let our hearts get weighted down with worry, or drunkenness, or dissipation – that means we shouldn’t be overspending our money or our resources! What if we were to take this seriously and not overspend this Advent?
While we live in a world in which anything can happen, including acts of terror and other pain, we are not to live in panic or anxiety, but we are to live knowing that while the heavens and the earth may pass away, the word of God – the Promise and the Hope of God – will never pass away.
As Christians, Jesus calls us to not focus solely on the here and now. We must think ahead, and we must think through all things to their completion. If we trust in God, we can trust that God is a God of hope. We know and love Jesus – we follow Jesus – and we wait for Jesus to return. May Advent be a time for us to prepare for Jesus’ return: for the rejoicing of eternal salvation and life through him. May we actually prepare for the coming of doom, which is really the coming of hope.