Isaiah 2:1-5 Psalms 122 Romans 13:11-14
Happy New Year! The Christian calendar begins its new year not on January 1, but on this the first Sunday of Advent – which is always four Sundays before Christmas (December 25) and the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day (November 30). Perhaps we are encouraged in this Advent time to stay awake to awaken us out of our complacency of the long green season. The twenty-nine Sundays after Pentecost are over and we are encouraged to begin anew the anticipation of the birth of the Christ child. We are to prepare our hearts, our lives, our whole beings to receive the redeeming love of the baby Jesus.
As Advent begins, I want to be drawn into the anticipation of joy, I yearn to have the Spirit encourage my imagination, to point my heart toward wholeness and reconciliation. The text from Matthew does little to spark that feeling. Earlier in Mathew, some of the disciples’ question Jesus about “the end of the age.” Now, he is deep into answering them, imploring them to be ready for what is to come. I am sure, we all are troubled by what he says.
He talks about the surprise of the great flood – how people just went on living, oblivious to what was about to arrive. An end that comes with destructive force is troubling, no matter how great the new thing that emerges might be. He speaks of the end as if some will be swept up and disappear. Communities will be separated; families will be divided. Very troubling.
And then he compares the Son of Man’s “coming at an unexpected hour” to that of a thief. Unexpected like a thief!” Now it is getting downright terrifying. If Jesus said this now, the story might be different. Home surveillance companies are taking in billions with the assurance that they can blanket every square inch of our homes with camera coverage. Intruders, package thieves, misbehaving pets, and even the Son of Man should beware. In this scenario, I would agree that I might be ready. I would have the upper hand. That is unless the end were to arrive like a thief during an internet outage. Then we would be in the same boat as the early Christians.
I want to believe that the criminal comparison is just a poorly worded metaphor. Just a handful of verses later, Jesus speaks in more positive terms, saying the kingdom is like a wedding and being ready is about attending to the bridegroom. I want to believe this was all constructed by some early Christians who were convinced that the Messiah would be back soon – soon enough to steal them away part and parcel. I want to believe that Jesus is just in a bad mood, or tired, or frustrated, in this chapter – a chapter full of destruction, disaster, persecution. Some of Matthew’s patented “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But, what if this illustration is intentional?
I remember a time early in my marriage when we were broken in to. There had been a string of home invasions in town, but we thought our little house wasn’t on anyone’s radar. We were both sick and had taken NyQuil to sleep. So, we didn’t hear when he crawled in a window and knocked over a plant. It was in the early light of morning, that my husband saw the front door left open. The thief had rummaged through a lot of our stuff. He even took out something frozen like he was going to cook it. He used my comb in the bathroom and left hair that they used to identify him.
I remember that feeling – a feeling of uncertainty, fear, our little piece of the world being invaded and disrespected. Someone said that we were lucky. Yes, we were lucky, but that didn’t help jumping at each creak in the floor or gust of wind moving curtains or screen doors. Every little thing that seemed different took on new meaning and needed investigation. It seemed like we were constantly guarding against a ghost.
I was thinking that the Kingdom of God has to be sneaky – because otherwise we probably wouldn’t cooperate. In perfectly apocalyptic fashion, we would need to be disturbed and disrupted so the true nature of our faith can be revealed.
If a new beginning is to take place, a number of things we value greatly will need to be stolen – things far more harmful than the dishonorable behaviors Paul warns us in the epistle reading. Some of us excel in divisiveness. Some of us have perfected the art of letting anger linger in our minds and in our hearts. Some of us draw strength when finding the fault in others and then talking about it. Sometimes, we might refuse to let our aims and goals be sidelined or even interrupted. We all may struggle with giving these things up willingly. Having them taken from us – having them stolen might be the only way we will let them go.
Matthew delivers a blunt reminder. Advent can be a season to remember that what we hope for is rarely what we need, nor is the way God gives it, the way we would prefer to receive it. I’m working on getting ready for that and I hope you are too. Ready enough to accept that it brings trouble with the aim of establishing joy.
It is important to remember that Advent is not just a season in which we recall an event of the past – Jesus’ birth – but also a time in which we look at the present and the future. When will Jesus come again? When will we see the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven? Of course, no one knows. Each Advent we turn to these questions anew.
For many of us, the weeks of December are filled – usually overfilled with activities and family traditions. Our days are packed with festive preparations – buying gifts, baking cookies and breads, preparing for guests, decorating trees, and attending parties. So it can be disconcerting to say the least to find that when we arrive at church on the Sundays of Advent, we encounter not only hopeful signs of the birth of baby Jesus, but also sober warnings about judgment at the end of time and a call to “forsake our sins” in preparation for Jesus’ second coming. We celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world – but it comes to a world that is often broken and dark.
This First Sunday in Advent is not only the beginning of a new season, it is really the climax and conclusion of the Church Year. Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, both his coming in history to Bethlehem at Christmas, his actively coming into our hearts and our lives, and his coming in glory at the end of time. Expectation is the major theme.
Certain words are used so often during our liturgical seasons that they are difficult to ignore. “Waiting” is one of these words. It may be difficult for us to get a sense of the people of old waiting for the Savior. It’s quite another thing if we are in the midst of a struggle or a situation where we are currently waiting for something painful to change.
I know many people who are waiting - some who have cancer, and are waiting for treatment and a prognosis. There is a woman waiting on a place to live so she can move out of an abusive situation. Another person is waiting to hear if there is a job available after an interview. Another waits to know if a move is in their future.
On this First Sunday of Advent, the church is called to longing for God’s redeeming presence, to the sorrow that is not sentiment but repentance, and to expectation. Both Isaiah and the psalmist lead a lament by the believing community and a prayer for God to come in saving power. In the epistle, Paul reminds even a troubled church such as Corinth that God’s coming in Christ is the formative act for the Christian community. Matthew offers a description of how it will be, and is when God’s Christ comes to perform God’s final work of judgment and redemption.
Advent is not a period of Christmas preliminaries, but a season in itself, with its own integrity and its own announcements. The purpose is not to inform us of the number of shopping days before Christmas, but to proclaim the coming of the Lord. The temptation is there to allow Advent to melt too easily into the birth stories, however, this first Sunday of the season calls upon biblical texts that are not at all associated with the nativity.
We prepare for this journey of Advent, this transformation, by working on ourselves to become more open for God’s presence in our lives. We can work on our sense of transparency, of being as full as we can be of the love of God and let it leak it out of us like crazy. Perhaps the first step is that we really should want to unearth God in our midst…to let the mundane become the edge of glory, and find the extraordinary in the ordinary. To not find perfection, but to realize possibility.
As Advent begins, my prayer is that this becomes a time to walk with God and for God to walk with us. As Advent begins, here we are in this sacred place, all of our paths converging and we are learning how to breathe in time with the breath of God. Oh, the possibilities…..wait, watch, stay awake; the Lord is coming. Amen.