December 2, 2018
First Sunday in Advent, 2018
Donna G. Joy
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
If we pay attention to retail practices, we will believe that the Christmas season actually arrived on the day after Halloween. We are surrounded – inundated – with this mindset, which is reflected all around us, as with this story of two young boys who were spending the night at their grandparents’ house the week before Christmas. At bedtime, the two boys knelt beside their beds to say their prayers. The younger one began praying at the top of his lungs: “I PRAY FOR A NEW BICYCLE!!!” “I PRAY FOR AN XBOX!!!” His older brother leaned over, gave him a little push, and said, "Why are you shouting? God isn't deaf…" to which the little brother replied, "No, but Grandma is!" …this particular one, focusing on the Season of Advent as a time to prepare our Christmas list for Santa.
But for those of us immersed in the Christian tradition, and especially one with liturgical underpinnings, our understanding of this season is radically different. For Anglicans and other liturgical traditions, this day marks the First Sunday in Advent; that season when we wait, anticipate, prepare for the coming of Christ. Ideally, this Advent season relieves us from our frenetic, over worked/stressed lives. It slows us down. It creates space and time for us to think and reflect. Advent creates opportunities to look beyond our need to produce, compete, control. Advent creates opportunities to discover the coming of Christ in the midst of all this; in the midst of our grief, our disappointments, our despair. Advent encourages us to pay attention to the signs of the coming of Christ, because this is where we discover the star that will lead us to this ultimate place of hope.
Joan Chittister in her book, “The Liturgical Year…” says, “Waiting – that cold, dry period of life when nothing seems to be enough and something else beckons within us – is the grace that Advent comes to bring. It stands before us, within us, pointing to the star for which the wise ones from the East are only icons of ourselves.” In other words, Advent offers us opportunities to insert ourselves into the story. The Christ is always coming, and as his disciples/followers, we have a responsibility to learn how to read the signs, discover the hope that comes with this gift, and point others in the same direction. But first, we need eyes and hearts to see.
There is a wonderful short story attributed to Leo Tolstoy that often appears in animated form during the seasons of Advent and Christmas. “Where Love Is, God Is” tells the story of a cobbler who wishes to see God and hears a voice in a dream tell him, “Look out into the street tomorrow, for I shall come.” As the next day draws to a close he is disappointed that Christ did not appear. Then a vision reveals to him that Christ was with him in the old man to whom he gave tea, the poor woman and her baby to whom he gave food and warmth, and the old women to whom he taught forgiveness.
Christ is always coming. We need to know how to identify and discern his presence. But first, what exactly do we mean when we talk about Christ’s coming? He has already come, so what exactly are we waiting and preparing for? And here again, I’ll draw on Joan Chittister’s insights, where she points out that although this is not often abundantly clear, Advent (which actually means ‘coming’), is not about one coming; it is actually about three: Christ’s coming in the past, present, and future.
So, the first coming is to remember the past; remembering the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh, based on the infancy narratives in the Gospels that give its historical context. This IS the moment when God arrived, fully human, in the person of a vulnerable little child; when the long awaited Messiah came into the world; this coming eventually led to the cross where God and humanity were reconnected.
The long wait which led to this birth is identified in our first reading from Jeremiah. In the midst of Judah’s exile where the people have lost all that was important to them – perhaps most importantly, the Temple, what they believed to be the dwelling place for God - the Prophet offers them a message of hope. In the midst of devastation, fear, extreme loss, and grief, the Israelite people are reminded that God is with them and about to come to them in an even more intimate way. So, this first coming that Joan Chittister identifies, is the fulfillment of that long awaited promise; recalling the coming of the Christ child, offering hew hope and new life in the midst of dark and troubling times.
The next coming to which she refers is the coming of Christ in this present time, and as I mentioned earlier, this is where we are called to be attentive.
We too live in troubling, despairing, times. Fake news is on the rise, and responsible news is often devastating. Wars, famine, natural disasters, climate change, political unrest… I keep reading that anxiety disorders are on the rise, and we don’t have to look very far to understand why. If all we can see is disaster, with no coming of hope or light, then anxiety is a natural consequence. In our personal lives: death of loved ones; families concerned for one another; people with no family to be concerned; families and friends with broken relationships; illness… Increasingly, these days, it feels as though we live in dark and disturbing times.
With this in mind, we turn to our Gospel reading for this morning, where Jesus looks up into the sky and sees terrible storm clouds gathering. There are signs, strange signs, that suggest things are coming to an end, and he says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Clearly, Jesus is naming some kind of terrible, perhaps terrifying, doom and gloom, and within the context of his time, we know that there was serious turmoil. One scholar suggests that Jesus was born into a seething cauldron; that is, a state of extreme agitation. Pretty dismal image: an entire society suffering from extreme agitation. Sound familiar?
This type of text is defined as apocalyptic, that is, talk about the end times. And, certainly, many would say that we at this moment in history are living in apocalyptic times; times in which strange images haunt our consciousness. We live with images of endings, and destruction, and death. Indeed, we live in challenging times. How can we today, honestly, look up into the heavens and not feel that the old world is breaking apart?
So, in a sense, this apocalyptic, its bad-all-over biblical language is confirmed by what we see in our world and often enough within our own personal lives today. But the good news is that Jesus does not end with this message. Jesus says more than a simple, “Its bad all over and going to get worse.” He goes on to say, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Looking ahead to the cross…) We need to link the word “apocalyptic” with the word “redemption” (that is, to be freed from distress through a reconnecting with God). Because here’s the thing: the sheer terror of the moment is a sign that God is about to break through. And that is Good News.
So, as we identify the perils of our time, where do we see signs of the coming of Christ? This present day reflection on, anticipation of, the coming of Christ is absolutely critical because it requires each of us to confront the pain, and at the same time discover the hope, light, and peace of Christ in the midst of it, empowering us to transform it!
Although this is one important focus for Advent, it in fact is something we are required to do throughout the liturgical year. We are a people who know the pain of the cross, yet we also know the hope of the resurrection. So where do we see signs of the coming of crucified/risen Christ in this present time?
Reflecting on this question within the context of St. Peter’s, I’m reminded of a parish survey we did last spring (with much help and leadership from Marcus LeNabat). In this survey we discovered that at this present time, week after week, liturgical season after liturgical season, as people endure these often troubling times, they discover the coming of Christ through: worship - the richness of God’s Word, along with the open table Sacrament shared each week; the gift of each other and the often profound sense of belonging; insights gained from Christian education. People have discovered the coming of Christ through the richness of refugee ministry, and continue to discover this gift through the lives of numerous people connected with our many outreach ministries.
Before we get too big headed about all this, though, we must always remember that we’re a work in progress and must be cognizant of the areas where our worship and ministries can offer experiences of the coming of Christ even more effectively. This is a never ending process. And we, indeed, are a work in progress. Strategic, carefully and intentionally planned hospitality, for instance, was identified as a weakness. So, this ministry has received a particular focus since the summer.
More detailed findings of this survey will provide the focus of my Annual General Report in February. In the meantime, if you wish to see a summary, it will be posted on the web site tomorrow. If you need a hard copy, please see me after worship and I’ll have copies. But the point here takes us back to Tolstoy’s story, where Christ came in the form of the old man to whom tea had been given, the poor woman and her baby to whom food and warmth had been given, and the old women to whom forgiveness had been taught. Christ comes to us in worship, in each other, in the refugees we sponsor, in the folks at St. Matthew’s Maryland Community Ministry, in those whom our pastoral ministers visit, in our Christian Education opportunities. Christ comes to us in a multitude of ways. We only need to open our eyes and our hearts to see.
Finally, the coming of Christ to which Advent points is the Second Coming. Children in our Atrium will happily and proudly tell us that the Greek word for this coming event is: Parousia. Joan Chittister says that this final coming: whets the desire of the soul. At the end of time, Jesus has promised and the Christian believes that the Son will return in glory. Then the reign of God for which we strive with every breath will come in all its fullness. This is the coming for which we truly wait. This is the fullness for which we long. In the words of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Indeed, as we ponder the coming of Christ during this Season of Advent, we reflect on not simply one, but three comings: Past, Present, Future. This is NOT simply a complex theological proposition; it is real; it is true. It is something we can actually work with.
We are called to reflect on the Old Testament - this morning: Jeremiah - where we are reminded of the long wait that preceded the birth of Christ. We are called to remember that the promise of this birth has been fulfilled in/through Jesus, the Christ. We are to remember that the whole point of this birth is NOT the birth itself; it is that God came in the person of a child, and THIS birth leads us to the climax of the story, which is Good Friday/Easter. The pain and reality of death; the hope of new life/new possibilities.
As a Good Friday/Easter people we are called to reflect on the ways in which the crucified/risen Christ comes to each of us all the time; and we need to allow ourselves time and space to identify those comings. I personally think this is the primary challenge during this Season. We are called to reflect on what this coming means when Christ – all in the fullness of time – comes again, when the: “reign of God for which we strive with every breath will come in all its fullness.” (Chittister) This is the coming for which we wait. This is the fullness for which we long.
I wish each and every one of you a holy and blessed Advent, as you ponder this and search for the signs of the coming of Christ each and every day.