To begin, a couple of coffee shop observations. The other day at my local coffee place, as the friendly young server completed my order she smiled and exclaimed, “Christmas is almost here!” Now committed as I am to observing the liturgical calendar, I’m not the kind of purist—or Grinch—who would feel a need to remind her that the Christmas season doesn’t actually begin until the sun sets on December 24th, and I sure wasn’t about to give her a sermon on the significance of Advent… I’ve saved that for tonight… So, simply honouring her enthusiasm, I remarked on her obvious delight in the coming season. “I love Christmas!” she said. “It’s the best holiday of the whole year.” And because the staff at this place all know who I am and what I do, with just a hint of pride she added, “I even make my yearly appearance at my parents’ church!”
To listen to the sermon press play:
Then early this week it was in a Second Cup, where I’d arranged to meet with someone. My coffee was served in a bright red cup, emblazoned with the words “Peace” and “Joy,” and then in smaller print, “There’s a little love in every cup.” We might be an increasingly pluralist and secularized society, but apparently most of us still like the idea of our coffee coming with a little love, peace, and joy. They’re good words—our words—yet I couldn’t help but think that as decoration on a coffee cup, they were rendered a bit thin. No matter how many of those cups are printed—no matter how many decorations are hung in public spaces bearing those same words—does anyone really take it to heart? I thought of the prophet Jeremiah’s words, “They say, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace,” and of a verse from Longfellow’s poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”:
And in despair I bowed my head:
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’
It really isn’t my intention to come across as some dour, Scrooge-like preacher here. It is just that I want our words back. I’d even be happy to share them with the Second Cup, so long as we ourselves don’t lose them.
And the way to a robust reclaiming of those words is by way of an equally robust engagement with Advent. Advent, you see, is one of the church’s great counter-practices. Where my coffee cup promised me a little love, peace, and joy, the watchwords for the opening weeks of Advent are a bit more challenging: “awake”, “be ready”, “watch”… and that has nothing to do with watching the flyers for the best sales, laying awake at night wondering if you’ve managed to find the perfect gift for that important person, or making sure you’ve got all the details covered so that you’re good and ready for the 25th.
“[Y]ou know what time it is,” Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans. “[H]ow it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” But Paul, didn’t you write that almost 2000 years ago? The day is near? Nearer to us now than when we became believers?
I suppose the simplest way to answer that question would be to simply quote Jesus—“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”—and to add something like “God’s time is not our time.” Some, though, have developed highly complicated systems of trying to determine the timelines of history, and to demonstrate that it won’t be long now… think of the world-view and theology that informs the Left Behind series, for instance. Those kinds of predictive systems have been tried throughout the 2000- year history of the church, and were particularly common at the year 1000, as the first millennium came to its end. They were popular during the 14th Century, at the time of the Black Death or Great Plague, and for various reasons surfaced anew in the 19th Century, initially in England and then in North America. It is this 19th century version that put great emphasis on the lines from Matthew, of how “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left,” and really developed the idea of what is called “the rapture,” in which faithful believers would be quite literally lifted from this earth and spared from a time of intense tribulation. Some of you might remember a movie from 1972 called A Thief in the Night, which was often shown in church circles, sometimes with a view to scaring the hell out of people.
Yet the theologians and writers of the ancient church tended to see these words of Jesus as being simply a call to vigilant readiness, and not as a description of the mechanics of the world’s end. In our own day, the great evangelical biblical scholar N.T. Wright has written that, “The warning was primarily directed to the situation of dire emergency in the first century, after Jesus’ death and resurrection and before his words about the Temple came true,” and that the imagery of some being taken and some left “doesn’t mean that one person will be ‘taken’ away by God in some kind of supernatural salvation, while the other is ‘left’ to face destruction. If anything,” Wright continues, “it’s the opposite: when invading forces sweep through a town or village, they will ‘take’ some off to their deaths, and ‘leave’ others untouched.” In other words, in Bishop Wright’s measured opinion, Jesus was speaking very directly into the political and military crises of his own day. But, Wright is careful to add, these words “ring through subsequent centuries, and into our own day.” And he does very much believe that God is not yet finished with us; that all of time and history will be brought to its culmination, and that Christ will return. On those counts, he is unwavering.
And that, you see, is good news. Advent good news, which insists with St Paul that creation itself “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”; “that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.” (Romans 8:19, 22) I think that the Lutheran biblical scholar Arland Hultgren is fundamentally right when he says that, “the message of Christ’s return is not meant to frighten us. It is to give us hope.” That’s maybe my greatest objection to the approach taken in Left Behind, A Thief in the Night, and in Larry Norman’s song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”
There’s no time to change your mind,
How could you have been so blind,
The Father spoke, the demons dined,
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.
To this, Hultgren’s words are an important corrective:
The Christ who is to come is the Christ who once lived among us on earth, and who is known in the gospel story as the friend and healer of those in need. Moreover, living in hope, expecting Christ’s return, is integral to the Christian faith, for by it we insist that there is more to the human story and God’s own story than that which has been experienced already.
“[W]e insist that there is more to the human story and God’s own story”; we insist that God has not yet finished with us and our world; we insist that those words love, joy, and peace will find their deepest meaning in the fullness of time; in the world’s final Advent; in the return of Christ.
But still we hear those great and challenging words of these opening days of this season: “awake”, “be ready”, “watch”. Live each day, each moment, in ready anticipation and expectation… even in vigilance. And then we add one more strong Advent word to the mix—wait. For one hour each week at least, hold off the pressure to be consumed with Christmas—shopping, baking, planning, fretting, rushing—and embrace a posture of waiting. Breath deeply of the air of this other season of deep expectation, wakefulness, readiness, and exuberant hope.
And when December 24th does arrive, mark it not merely as “the best holiday of the whole year,” but as a pivotal chapter in a much longer and richer story; one still being written; one in which we all have a part. For now and again, the moment has come to wake from sleep… salvation is nearer to us now than ever before.