Sunday, December 02, 2007

Advent 1A, Part 2

On the real first Sunday in Advent, I preached at Episcopal Church of the Advent in Sumner. Little Charlie and I stayed Saturday night in Greenwood, where he treated Mary Dent and me to his own version of the Nutcracker. Of course, it consisted entirely of the battle between the Nutcracker and the Rat King.

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 24:37-44

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Really, Jesus? We know exactly when you’re coming. Turn on the TV, open the newspaper, tune in the radio and it’s right there: “Only 22 shopping days left until Christmas!” We know exactly when you’re coming. Or is it when Santa is coming…

The shelves have been stocked with Santas and snowflakes and Christmas stars since, when, Labor Day? We’ve been surrounded by sleigh bells for so long that surely we’d have arrived at the stable by now. But when Advent finally arrives, the readings seem to lead us toward the parousia, the second coming of Christ in power and great glory, rather than toward his first coming at Bethlehem, in humility and deep darkness.

The Latin word adventus means “coming”. And yet, despite the calendars that mark the season, Advent is not at all about counting the days until the baby is born or counting the days until he returns. This briefest of seasons looks back (even as we are looking forward!) to God’s coming into the world to make a home here, and it also looks forward to God’s coming into the world to take us home. But the Latin, adventus, means more nearly a coming that is imminent than a coming that is 22 days away, let alone generations away. And so this season is mostly about the gazillion advents that take place between the beginning of the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the end. It is about God coming into the world, into our lives, each and every day, in expected and unexpected ways, in anticipated and unanticipated moments.

My aunt tells about an airplane flight she took from Alaska back to her home in the southwest. It was dark when the flight took off, and she closed her eyes but found she couldn’t sleep. So she settled herself as best she could to see out the window, where a brilliant full moon was casting its light across the clouds. After a while, she looked across the row of seats to the window on the other side of the plane and saw something she did not expect. The light over there was purple and pink and orange and gold. The sun was rising. My aunt says she was filled with wonder at the possibility of being in that exact place where night and day meet, and that she wanted to run up and down the aisle and shout at everyone, “Wake up! Everyone, wake up! If you don’t wake up, you’ll miss this moment!”

Both Matthew and Paul were just as eager to shout, “Everyone, wake up!” at the believers in their communities. When Matthew was writing his account of the good news, the earliest Christians believed Jesus would return within their lifetime, and so they urged one another to be prepared. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. By the time Paul was corresponding with church communities throughout the Mediterranean, the urgency had begun to shift from expecting Christ’s imminent return to expecting a much longer wait in a world that seemed hostile toward hope. If Jesus had already come in humility and deep darkness, and was not coming back any time soon in power and great glory, what were the faithful to do?

They weren’t to count down the days. In the verses just before our gospel passage begins, Jesus says that not even he knows when he will return. Instead of counting, writes Paul, in this in-between time when the night is far gone and the day is near, we are to love one another. The coming of God into the world through the law could be summed up in the single commandment to love one another. What are the faithful to do while they wait for Christ to come? Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep…Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, Love come down, Emmanuel, Love-with-us. Another preacher has said, “One does not have to wait for something out of the ordinary [like announcements from angels or airplane rides through daybreak]. The all-important thing is to keep your eyes on what comes from God [which is to say, Love] and to make way for it to come into being here on the earth.”

Light and darkness are familiar to us as images of Advent. We light candles in anticipation of the birth of a baby on a dark, silent night, the birth of light in a dark, noisy world. Darkness is something of an ambiguous image in this season – in it is danger and shelter, unease and stillness, anxiety and courage, death and newborn life. We are accustomed, exhausted, perhaps, from walking the Christmas aisles at Walmart, to settling gratefully under the mantle of Advent darkness to wait for the day of the Lord to come.

But today, on the first Sunday in Advent, Jesus calls us to wakefulness and action, to attentiveness and preparedness, to love. Not the sentiment of love that drops a few coins in the bell-ringer’s bucket, but, as my aunt says, a “steely, resolved love” that walks into the darkness with God, intent on illumination. Advent is the season in which we are called to live urgently as the church, practicing mercy and forgiveness and comfort and peace. To open our eyes in the darkness and see – and be – a great light. When we wait in this way, as the Body of Christ, walking the path of God’s vision for the world, we will find that God has already come. God has been here all along, coming into the world over and again in unexpected ways and at unexpected moments and through unexpected people, including us. And in all of those “advents”, those comings of Christ, from the day of Incarnation to this Sunday morning, from tomorrow straight through to the last day, the light steadily grows. There is still deep darkness, but Love like silver stars is enlightening, charting the way toward dawn.

Our readings today, then, are not about the first advent or the second advent of Christ, but rather they are about a God who comes. A God who loves. A God, our God, to whom darkness is not dark, to whom night is bright as day. When our consumer culture has us looking 22 days ahead, when our end of the year reports are looming, when exams are around the corner, when Christmas cards haven’t been sent, when travel plans haven’t been finalized, when bills are piling up, when calendars are overflowing with obligations, the season of Advent calls us to stop and be awake, to watch, to see how God comes into the world each day, as surely as the sun rises. The season of Advent calls us to love as God has loved us, enough to walk into the darkness bringing light.

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on which day your Lord is coming. Really, Jesus? We know exactly when you are coming. We know that you are here now, for you promise to come whenever two or three are gathered in your name. We know that you are here whenever we love one another, not the sentimental kind of love but that steely, resolved love that sees you in all people, especially the most unexpected. Besides this, we know what time it is, how it is now the moment for us to wake from sleep. Now is the time for us to go up and down the aisle, up and down the sidewalks, up and down the hallways and highways shouting to everyone, “Don’t miss it! Don’t sleep through, or shop through, or sorrow through, or skip through the marvelous moment of love when night meets day, when the light of the world comes upon a midnight clear.” Now is the time to watch for the ways God loves us and comes to us each and every day, and for the ways God comes to others through our love. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

O come, thou Dayspring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

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