Sermon for the first Sunday in Advent
Like many people at saint benedict’s table, I came to Advent relatively late. It wasn’t observed in the church tradition of my childhood, yet because my parents sometimes bought us one of those calendars with a little door for each of the first twenty-four days of December, I had some vague sense that Advent was basically a count-down to Christmas. We even had a version made of fabric, which had a little brass ring tied to each of the twenty-four days leading up the Christmas Day. Every year my mum would hang it up on the first of December, and for the next twenty-four days my younger brother and I would see who could be first out of bed to race down to the front hall and flip the ring for the day. Of course ultimately it didn’t really matter who won the competition… another ring had been flipped, and we were one day closer to the best day of the year.
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That month was so filled with anticipation. When can we put up the tree? When can we set up the crèche? When can we start eating the Christmas cookies? How many more sleeps? I knew that my mum stored our wrapped presents in the big walk-in linen closet, and I loved to go and just look at them. Mostly I would just look, because if I examined one too closely I might guess what it was, and I didn’t want to ruin the surprise. Agonizing as it could be, I really just wanted to experience that deep and delicious feeling of anticipation.
During my second year of university I started attending worship here, in the All Saints congregation, and I began to discover Advent. Over the four Sundays prior to Christmas Eve, we’d gradually light the candles on the Advent wreath, which I took to be a grown-up version of flipping the brass rings on the calendar of my childhood. On the fourth Sunday of the season the crèche appeared, yet the baby wasn’t added until Christmas Eve and for some mystifying reason the three Magi didn’t appear until January 6. We sang “O come, O come Emmanuel” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” but held back on the Christmas carols until the late night liturgy on Christmas Eve. In the same way that as a child I had delighted in anticipating the arrival of Christmas Eve, as a young adult I was wrapped up in this more solemn anticipation of the Christmas feast.
What I couldn’t make sense of was the content of the Gospel readings for the season. As was the case with us tonight, on the first Sunday in Advent we read from one of Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings, with dire warnings of a coming crisis and a call to be alert, awake, prepared. Over the next few weeks the season more or less backed its way toward Christmas, as we heard read gospel account about John the Baptist and how he heralded the arrival of a very adult Jesus, and then finally on the fourth Sunday of the season we had story of the Annunciation.
Yet the candles on the wreath, the crèche with its empty manger, and the singing of those carols of expectation were enough. I was more or less hard-wired to thrill in the sense of anticipation… this was a season tailored for me.
Yet the more I lived with the season of Advent, the more I came to realize that although it does bear a significant connection to Christmas, it is not merely an adult version of my childhood “how many more sleeps until Christmas” count-down. In fact, preparing us to celebrate the great feast of the Incarnation is only its secondary purpose. Primarily Advent is a season that calls us into readiness for Christ’s return; for the world’s final Advent, when all of time and history will be drawn to their culmination. The words and phrases that appear in the opening weeks of the season—“be awake,” “be alert,” “watch,” “prepare”—are anything but reminders to get our shopping done and the Christmas baking underway. They call us into a posture of fundamental openness to what God is ever and always about to do in us and in our world.
And so we heard tonight these words from the Gospel according to Luke in which Jesus called his followers to “be on guard (so that the) day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap,” and to “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” The crisis is on the horizon, he seemed to be saying to them, and there is an urgent need to be awake and ready for it. And the reality is that within just a few decades that crisis hit them like a ton of bricks. The Roman army rolled in, destroyed the temple and flattened the city of Jerusalem. Under emperors like Nero and Domitian, Christians were subjected to unimaginable persecutions. Believers recalled Jesus’ words about “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,” and if you were a Christ-follower in those days these images seemed a pretty accurate symbolic description of your reality.
But still, there seem to be two levels at which Jesus is teaching in these passages; one pointing to that imminent and immediate crisis, the other to the final crisis and to the final promise. There is a strong sense here that before the kind of world of which the prophet Isaiah sings—when nations will stream to the mountain of the house of the Lord, and when swords will be beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning-hooks —things are going to reach a kind of boiling point, in which it will appear that all has been lost. Yet “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory,” he said. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” His early followers experienced the crisis and the violent persecutions, but not this final redemption.
Truthfully, we can’t say that the swords have been hammered into ploughshares, or that the lamb and the lion have lain down together. It will be lovely to read Isaiah’s words on Christmas Eve, that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; [that] those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Yet for all of its glory, Christmas is but the first chapter in a much longer story; a story that remains as of yet unfinished. Advent is the season in which we are called to be honest about the brokenness of the world—its needs, its hungers, its lostness, even its propensity to collapse into chaotic violence, as is happening right now in Syria. But Advent is also the season in which we are called into a posture of readiness and preparation for the return of Christ; of openness and trustfulness that there is a horizon to which all of time, all of history, all of creation, are being drawn. For a Christian in somewhere like Iran or Burma today, or in Stalin’s Soviet Union sixty years ago, or in the Japan of the Shoguns four centuries ago, Jesus’ words about an impending crisis and persecutions, and his words about return, redemption, fulfillment, would have rung with a penetrating immediacy that most of us will just never know. Yet the deep promise is held out to us too.
God is not yet finished with our world, and God is not yet finished with us as individuals, or as a people together. On this first Sunday in Advent, I invite you into a posture of wakefulness, alertness, and openness to what God is ever and always about to do. “Behold, I am making all things new.” Even so, Lord Jesus come.