The Challenge and Promise of Advent

5 12 2007

Advent is my favourite season in the Church calendar.  Among other things, it teaches us to wait for Christmas while the world is in a holiday frenzy.  In the Episcopal Church, no decorations are put up with the exception of the Advent wreath or some greenery until much closer to Christmas Day.  In fact, it’s not even until the fourth week of the season do we begin to consider the babe in the manger.  We begin our liturgical year by reflecting on not Christ’s first coming, but his second.  Instead of nice, sweet Christmas Carols, we get the hymn, “LO! He comes with Clouds Descending.”

Another reason I like Advent so much is that it keeps us anchored in the present.  In a larger sense, it reminds the Church of its place in the world.  Instead of waiting to escape the world in the Rapture, we are called to make a difference where we are.  In a Bible study I have been participating in with my parish, we are studying the book of Revelations, a fitting supplement of sorts to the season.  We could say the Church lives in a perpetual state of Advent, a time of getting ready, of watchfulness, for the coming of Christ.

When we look at apocalyptic literature such as Revelations or this week’s Gospel reading, we are presented a challenge:  is it literal?  is it symbolic?  do we devour these passages searching for clues to the end of days?  Do we speak only of its existential significance, or how it applied to its intended audience?  Too much reading into the Scripture one way or the other has us running the risk of robbing the early Christian witness of the hope of the consummation of God’s activity within human history.  Our passages this week  serve to remind us that whether we are talking about the flood or the second coming, we cannot know when the end is near.  If we claim to have any real knowledge about any kind of timeline, we risk exposing our human arrogance and pride.  We are called to remember that the point is not to be “in the know” about the day or the hour, for even Jesus did not know such things.  The point is to remember that we are called to rest in the promise that has been given to us.  And that trust extends not only to the promise itself, but to the promise-giver.  As recipients of that promise, we are bound to the future as much as we are to the present time, so we watch, wait and get ready.

Loosely translated, Advent means “shall come” or “is come.”  Our focus is not to worry so much about the when’s and how’s or the signs in the sky, but to be ready for what shall come or is to come, even if we do not know exactly what the “what” entails.  In the Gospel passage, Jesus puts an interesting spin on the story of Noah.  He does not fault the people of that time for their gross sinfulness as does Genesis 6, but he does say that it was business-as-usual for them.  They were too busy with the business of the every day life to see the larger picture.  In fairness, Noah did not know what the future held, but he trusted  in the promise of God and did what he was instructed to do.  The end result?  Noah and his family were rescued.  The short parable of the householder that Jesus tells speaks of someone who lacks vigilance.  Because he fails to keep watch,  because he was too busy with the trees to take note of the forest, a thief comes and plunders the house.  What Noah and the householder have in common is that they knew nothing of their impending tragedies.  They both had to experience disaster. Throughout the remainder of his discourse, Jesus continues with the theme of watching and waiting and doing what is needed.  The only thing you can count on when it comes to God’s timing is that it will always be a surprise.

In Isaiah, we see Jerusalem, a city full of pride, arrogance and religion and heavily critiqued in the previous chapter.  However, in this chapter, Jerusalem is not dismissed at all. The city has a crucial role to play in God’s future.  The city is for now full of condemnation, but also full of hope.  When we look at Jerusalem, we are challenged to see what is not there yet.  We are given assurance of the future, but not when it will happen.  We trust the promise because of the One who makes the promise.  The timetable will take care of itself.  In Isaiah’s time, Jerusalem was a shabby city, marginal at best, and subject to the greater powers of the world (and still is in many respects!).  God’s vision of Jerusalem is not that of an earthly city, but a heavenly one. It is made great because because it has within its walls the House of the God of Jacob.

In Romans, we have two ideas living side-by-side: eschatology and ethics.  The relationship between the two is that one influences the other.  Our views on the end of days inform our ethics.  When Paul says, “Salvation has come near,” it should make an impact on our behaviour.  The Second Coming of Christ is not meant to be a threat for bad behaviour or a reward for good, for all of us will gain Salvation on the basis of God’s grace alone.   The coming of Christ into the world … the Incarnation … the Crucifixion … Resurrection … Ascension … the Return should overrule all of our perspectives of human life in this world.  When we struggle with life, the promise of Advent is that we participate in a struggle where the outcome is already known.   Our hope and its fulfilment is also our challenge for we are to live as though we are experiencing the love and freedom only Christ can give.   We cannot take anything in our present situation with anything more than a temporary seriousness.

Now, make no mistake:  this is not fatalism.  this is NOT being laxidaisical. This is a call to act for what we know is right and just and true because we know the outcome.  Our challenge is to wait and watch for the fulfilment of God’s promises, yet to live as if  they have already happened.   The timing of that day is secondary to the importance of trusting that what  happens in us as we are transformed by Christ is also happening in the world and will continue to happen despite all evidence to the contrary.

Paul says “Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”  This is the promise of Advent.  The timing is something we cannot know, but the promise is forever and eternal….present and future.  We see a time when war is not needed for God is Judge and Adjudicator.  Brutality and prejudice and war is ended because the nations  have given up the privelege of taking things into their own hands.  Pre-emptive strikes are unthinkable in the City of God.  We see the instruments of self-serving justice are turned into instruments for the good of all.  The earth is transformed from a battlefield into a garden.

Our typical readings of the story of Noah and the parables that follow Jesus’ discourse in Matthew tend to focus on their judgmental aspects, but the reality of these parables is that Grace is sovereign over judgment. Trusting in the promises of Advent means trusting that God is at work in the middle of disaster.  Noah experiences disaster just like the rest of the world, but the difference is that he rides it out because he trusts.   No one knows the day or the hour.  Some may be left, some may be taken but no one is excused from what God has in store for humanity and the world we live on.  It is through these disasters where God works his grace.  This season, we are invited to watch and wait for the coming of the ultimate stumbling block, the Rock of Offense, the One who is the cornerstone of a new Creation.  And when Christ shall come, we can all join with Creation and sing

Lo! he comes, with clouds descending, once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia! Christ the Lord returns to reign.

Now redemption, long expected,see in solemn pomp appear;
all his saints, by man rejected,now shall meet him in the air:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia! See the day of God appear!

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,high on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;claim the kingdom for thine own:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia! Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.

Amen

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2 responses

6 12 2007
Doorman-Priest

Very nicely written and thought provoking. I am preaching on Sunday, so I’ll post my musings on the day – I may even steal some of your ideas. Hope all is well with you.

D.P.

6 12 2007
Grandmère Mimi

RB, it’s my favorite season, too. You must be a priest. You already preach lovely sermons to a virtual flock. I love the imagery in Revelation. I love the whole book, and I know not a few folks who don’t like it at all. When I read it, I allow my imagination to go where it pleases as I’m reading. I see the scenes in which the elders throw themselves and their crowns down in worship before the One who was, who is, and who is to come, as metaphors for the proper attitude of our hearts when we gather in worship.

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