The First Sunday of Advent
Well, here we are on the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new Church year. Happy New Year!
Thanksgiving has come and gone . . . or mostly gone, depending on how many leftovers you still have. Black Friday and Cyber Monday has come and gone. And now we’re seriously into the Christmas season and Christmas spirit . . . except when you go to Church.
Here there are no carols playing . . . no Christmas lights shinning . . . no Santa Claus . . . no manger scene with Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. O, we’ll be adding these things over the next weeks as we prepare for Christmas. What we have here at the beginning of Advent are our blue altar hangings and an wreath with a lonely candle burning and these lessons about the coming of the Lord, apocalyptic texts about the Second Coming of the Lord of Heaven, judgment, and righteousness.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 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.” (Luke 21: 34-36)
I dare you to read this at the office or neighborhood Christmas party. It would be kind of hard to make a carol out of it or to put it in a Christmas card.
The disconnect here is that culturally, we’re preparing for a celebration of the first coming of Jesus . . . the one described in the beginning chapters of Luke’s gospel that speak of angels singing sweetly to shepherds watching their flocks by night—about the baby to be found in a manger wrapped in swaddling cloths.
But the Church is drawing our attention to the Second Coming that is forecast for the end of time when
‘There will be 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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ (Luke 21:25-28)
So Advent is preparation for two comings of Jesus. The first is well taken care of by the culture. But the Second Coming is the one to which our attention is drawn today. And as one writer has observed:
Luke wrote with a deep and growing sense that Christian discipleship is a kind of living in between—aware of Jesus, waiting for Jesus, and coming to know this Jesus for whom we wait in the midst of an eventful, unpredictable, even tumultuous world, waiting to stand before him, yet not always knowing where he is.
Living as we do, in between the first and the second coming—we live with uncertainty. Oh, we try mightily to have everything nailed down and wrapped up. But God is always on the move. Out ahead and beyond our formulas and descriptions.
Our Jewish brethren refuse to speak the name of Yahweh, for to do so would somehow limit, confine, define the Holy. The great sin is idolatry. The commandment is to not make unto ourselves any graven images, to bow down and to worship them.
And whether the idol is a crèche scene and Christmas as we’ve always known it, a church building and worship done in a certain way, the Bible understood as the immutable, unchangeable word of God—God is always moving on.
Here in Luke, chapter 21, the verses for today’s gospel are set in the context of the destruction of the Temple.
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ (Luke 21:5-6)
In fact, by the time that Luke penned these verses, the Temple, the center of Jewish life, culture, and identity had already been destroyed by Roman legions in the year 70 C.E. So once again God’s people were set adrift and forced to rediscover life, culture, and identity without the sign and symbol of God’s presence among them—which now lay in ruins, along with the city that had contained it.
As the destruction and desecration of previous temples and multiple defeats and exiles had proven, time and again, present arrangements and current understandings will end, God cannot be contained, and in the words of the old hymn, “time makes ancient truth uncouth.”
Famine, wars and rumors of war, genocide, peoples in exile, signs in earth and seas of environmental catastrophy are still very much a part of our world—along with the greed, and poverty that we never seem to avoid.
And so we begin a new year. As we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, these four weeks of Advent remind us that we people of faith are called to stay awake, be alert, to look for signs of the divine in this in-between time. The Jews of the late first century had to reinvent their religion—to find the dwelling place of God when the temple was no longer.
The Christians had also worshipped in the temple—so they, too, came to realize that the dwelling place of God wasn’t in stone—but in the one they called Emmanuel: God with us.
Where is Emmanuel today? Certainly not confined to a child in a manger, not limited to Jesus of Nazareth who is no longer physically among us, and not to be so until he comes again with power and great glory. So where is the Holy to be found in the meantime?
Be awake! Be alert! Be on the lookout for signs of Emmanuel. This is the task of God’s people as we enter this new year of God’s time. Let me give you a hint of where to start: look around you, and see the Body of Christ.
Wesley D. Avram, writing on this Luke text in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1,David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 22