And here we are, entering the season of Advent. For these four Sundays we will be slowly working our way to Christmas, which is symbolized in the gradual lighting of the four candles on the Advent wreath. What that means is that at least while we’re gathered here in worship, we’ll be enacting a bit of resistance against the way in which the wider society thinks about Christmas. The halls—and the malls—are all decked out with glittering trees, garlands, and decorations, but not here. Not yet. You turn on the radio, walk into a store, pick up a coffee at Starbucks, and you hear Christmas music. But not here; not until Christmas Eve.
- To listen to the message, click play:
It is not that we’re trying to be killjoys or piously grinchy. No. We’re actually digging back into the deeper traditions around these seasons of Advent and Christmas; traditions that long predate the very modern focus on finding the perfect gift, partying with work colleagues, and hoping that our families behave like those in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Advent begins in relative darkness, with just one lone candle burning on the wreath. It also begins with a gospel text that feels about as far from a baby in a manger as you could possibly imagine. It is all about urgency, wakefulness, and vigilance, with overtones of a looming apocalyptic crisis. If you’re thinking of Advent as being primarily a lead-up to Christmas, this kind of text will put a bit of a crick in your neck.
But this season isn’t primarily about prepping us for our December 24th celebrations; it is primarily about proclaiming that the coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem is not the final word God utters into the world. That was the first Advent—an extraordinary Advent of God becoming flesh and dwelling with us—but God is not yet finished with our world. God is not content to let us remain in a space still marked by so much brokenness.
What we heard read was just one section of a much longer set of teachings Jesus spoke to his disciples in the days before his arrest and execution. They are living in a time of impending crisis, and he knows it. It isn’t just the crisis of his impending death, either, but a much wider and deeper crisis in the life of the whole nation. The empire is beginning to grow impatient with the nation, which is showing signs of sedition and resistance against Roman rule. They’d been given a good deal—they can keep their practices, their temple, their identity as Jews—so long as they behave and tow the party line. But not everyone is doing that, and even some of their leading citizens are becoming slightly, shall we say, uncooperative. Pontius Pilate was notorious for the brutal violence he used to quell any notions of rebellion, and it seemed sure to only get worse.
Jesus could see things would soon unravel—he could read the signs of the times, so to speak—and he knew that the days were going to get darker for all in that nation, whether or not they were members of his movement; whether or not they were among those who had caught his vision that the Kingdom was not to be won by the sword, but was in fact already in their very midst working like yeast hidden in the dough. He had called them away from the sword, to walk a whole other way. He would soon show them what that would look like, in his own death on the cross. He would soon show them the extraordinary and unexpected power of that way, though his resurrection. But he wanted them to know that it was yet to be costly, for the swords of the empire were beginning to rattle, and the nation itself—God’s chosen—was beginning to splinter and turn on itself.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Jesus can read the signs of the times, but he can’t tell the future and chart it all out on a flow chart. So be ready, he tells them, be awake and alert. Don’t let yourself be lulled into thinking there’s nothing to really worry about. Make sure your life is in order, make sure you’re heeding the call. And then to really press his point, he offers those lines about how “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” I realize that this is often read in a very particular way, as in the whole “Left Behind” series, but it is also notable that many biblical scholars, including N.T. Wright, understand this to suggest that the ones “taken” are actually those arrested and dragged away; that here Jesus is actually talking about persecution.
The truth is that such things did happen. The empire did finally lose all patience, and people were dragged off to be executed. In the end, the temple itself was flattened, and the once great city of Jerusalem lay desolate. “The warning,” says N.T. Wright, “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.” There’s a very concrete context for this teaching, in other words. “But,” Wright continues, “they ring through subsequent centuries, and into our own day. We too live in turbulent and dangerous times. Who knows what will happen next week, next year? It’s up to each church, and each individual Christian, to answer the question: are you ready? Are you awake?”
But ready and awake for what? Well, take Jesus at his word: for “the coming of the Son of Man.” For his return, for the final Advent, for the culmination of all of time and all of history. Because again, the core message of this season is that God is not yet finished with us and with our broken world. There is yet a final chapter.
Jesus’ teaching here sounds so fierce and dire, doesn’t it? You shift into this Advent 1 space, and maybe begin to wonder what there is to hope for… which is why we also read from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah too was speaking into a setting of dire emergency and deep crisis, and I believe he would have been completely onside with Jesus’ call for wakefulness and readiness. Yet what he could begin to see—what he could begin to sing to a besieged people—was remarkable.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
All the nations—it is wildly generous vision, that says that God’s choosing of Israel did not equate to God’s judging or rejecting others. And then further into the passage come those words we all need to hear; maybe now more than ever before.
God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
Swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning-hooks; is it even possible to hold such dreams in a world where we know too much about nuclear weapons, fighter jets, military drones, and concealed handguns?
To which the prophet would say, yes it is possible; maybe necessary if you’re going to keep your sanity. You must walk now in the light of the Lord; especially now. To which Jesus might add, “so wake up, be alert, know the cost of following such a vision, and trust that indeed God is not yet finished speaking into this world, into these lives of ours.
That is where this season of Advent begins.