Isaiah 64:1-9 Psalms 80:1-7, 16-18 I Corinthians 1:3-9 Mark 13: 24-37
The turkey leftovers are gone. The five extra pounds are here. Happy Thanksgiving wishes fade into the background and we begin a new liturgical year! The Church 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).
For many of us, the weeks of December are filled, perhaps not with spirituality and Godly moments but with the busyness of preparations, food, gifts, whether to travel or not. So it is hard to understand that when we get to church on these days of Advent, we hear not only hopeful signs of the birth of baby Jesus, but also sober warnings about staying alert for 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.
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.
I love that Nora Gallagher reminds us that in Advent “the holy breaks into the daily.” In Advent, we become more aware of God’s presence in our hearts, our actions and in our interactions with others. 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 can’t be ignored. “Waiting” is one of these words. It may be hard 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 waiting for something painful to change.
I know many people who are waiting - some who have cancer, and are waiting for treatment and prognosis. 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. We are all waiting for a break in the pandemic and to see a vaccine available to us.
We experience many different emotions as we wait – those awaiting the birth of a child, or a grandchild, differ from those waiting to hear the results of some medical tests. On this First Sunday of Advent, we experience the turning point of the year, all of the assigned readings direct our attention to the future. We begin the preparation for Christmas. A new age is dawning, already present but not yet consummated. The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah talks about sinfulness and righteousness. We can only be saved by God’s mercy. The potter will mold us into the people God wants us to be, but we must be present, aware, and informed.
In Psalm 80, we hear a prayer for revival and restoration after experiencing destruction. God is our only hope. The writer calls for God to “restore us”, over and over again. In Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth, he thanks God for them, their spiritual gifts and their faithfulness. Paul affirmed their privilege of belonging to the Lord, and receiving God’s grace. He speaks of the power God gave them to speak out for God and to understand God’s truth and the reality of their spiritual gifts.
Mark’s gospel seems strange for Advent. With no birth narrative, it begins with baptism. He also calls for watchfulness, for only the Father knows the day and the hour. The expectation, mystery, and celebration of the reign of God are the leading themes for this day.
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.
Mark’s Gospel turns our attention to last things. He anticipates the end times when heaven will quake and stars begin to fall out of the sky. What seems to be a disaster is actually preparing the way for the “Son of Man” and his gathering his chosen. If Jesus is considered to be a thief breaking into a house when the master is away, then the disciples must be watchful and vigilant. They, we, must always be looking for Jesus’ coming and as part of our preparation, to live faithful and faith-filled lives.
It seems strange to begin our anticipation of the birth of Jesus by being warned of his coming again. Keep awake! Not like pulling an all-nighter in college. But to be alert, aware, focused and committed. It seems that as Advent begins, we are asleep to so many things that matter in our lives. And that is our task as we prepare our hearts for the birth of the Christ child. We hear shocking words that are instructing us in alertness, in making preparation for uncertain certainties. Watch, stay awake; the Lord is coming.
We prepare for this journey of Advent, this transformation, by working on ourselves to become connected and restored in our faithfulness. So much of Advent is centered on the play and balance between the dark of winter and the frail light of candles. We experience the emptiness of the nativity scene that will be lived into as we celebrate the Sundays of Advent. As we prepare our hearts for the birth of the Christ child every year, we realize that more and more will be added to the preparation, much like adding to the nativity scene. In waiting, in preparing for the coming of Christ we are hallowing this experience. To hallow is to make holy, to make a place both inside and outside of ourselves, a space fit for God, a space that is God-shaped.
So we must say, “Keep awake”. It may be disconcerting at first that the Gospel reading to begin Advent is from Mark, with no birth story, and that this reading is a discourse about the end of time. But it becomes clear to us. Advent, after all has to do with the coming of the Lord, the birth being only one form of the appearance of Christ. And at the center of faith’s understanding of the end times is the coming of the Lord. Because God is “The One Who Comes” to strengthen, to reveal, to judge, and to redeem, the posture of the people of God is always the same: repentance, expectation, and hopefulness.
As Advent begins, my prayer is that this becomes a time to walk with God and for God to walk with us. In St. Patrick Breastplate prayer, he wrote: “Christ to shield me today against poison, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so that there may come to abundance of reward. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit up, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”
As Advent begins, may we use the opportunities presented to us to connect to God – the 6:00 Wednesday Evening Prayer and discussion of the daily devotional booklet, Together in Advent. The Sunday 5:00PM class will read and discuss A Way to the Manger . Spending this time in prayer and preparation is a powerful way to experience Jesus. We need time to refocus, to rest, not to anticipate, to just experience. Perhaps that is what Advent is calling us to do – to connect, to reconnect to those things of God that define us and mold us and empower us.
Here we are in this place, waiting, seeking, wondering, believing, all as the Body of Christ. My prayer for all of us – God, you clothe yourself with my soul. Open my heart to the gifts of this day. Here we are all of our paths converging and we are learning how to wait in time with the movements of God. Oh, the possibilities…..keep watch, wait, stay awake; the Lord is coming. Amen.