Advent 1 – New Life
“Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” (Ps. 80:7) In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost…
This morning is the first Sunday of Advent. To many of us, it means we have finally finished off the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers (or admitted no one will eat that weird root vegetable blend), put up our Christmas tree and decorations, and opened upon the Advent calendar, getting ready to watch Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem. “Advent” means “to arrive” and we can be forgiven for believing that it refers solely to the birth of Jesus. In fact, this season of waiting and expectation, as our collect suggests, is not only a time when we remember Jesus’ birth on earth, but it is also a time of reflection and preparation for his coming again in the last days. Just like those first century Jews, we continue to look for the long-awaited Messiah. Liturgically, this season is very much like Lent, a time when we are to be in penitential prayer, aware of our sins and Christ’s forgiveness and of God’s promise to bring his justice and judgment to this world when Christ returns. Jesus came to earth the first time, so that he could come again.
So, we have our readings from Isaiah and Mark, readings very similar to those we had last week on the Feast of Christ the King. Isaiah calls out to God to remember his people, to look with mercy upon them and deliver them from their enemies, while also bringing judgment upon those enemies.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence…
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
Isaiah confesses that the community of faith has sinned but asks God to remember his people. At the time of this prophecy Israel is living in exile, a community far from their homeland with the Temple of the Lord nothing but a forgotten pile of rubble. The prophet knows that Israel has sinned and that many no longer believe in the Lord and yet he affirms the faith of his people and calls upon God to remember them.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
We too are a people living in exile, waiting for Christ to return and fulfill his promises. Granted, this is a very comfortable exile. Even in these financially difficult times I saw a lot of absolutely massive TVs moving out of stores this weekend and the new, electric Amazon trucks are constantly in motion in our neighborhood. Most of us in this congregation are well-fed and have warm homes and an income. But comfort, like suffering, can equally drive us away from God. Jesus has been a long time in his return and to suggest that complacency can and has set in would be an understatement. It is to this that Jesus speaks in our Gospel today.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. … Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
How are we going to spend this time in between the first advent of Jesus and his second? It is clear that the after Jesus’ ascension, the Apostles thought Jesus would be coming any day! Paul urge people to not get married, so that we could focus on the business of the spreading the Gospel (but he did say, “better to marry than burn,” advice that has led to more than a few ill-advised marriages, I can attest). I remember hearing a radio program coming out of Waxahachie, Texas called “today’s news in light of biblical prophecy!” They were repeats, so it was a bit humorous to hear the preacher equating Gorbachev with the “mark of the beast” some 15 years after he left office and the Soviet Union had collapsed.
And if you think that doesn’t sound like you or our religious traditions, a Pew Research Poll from just last year found that “39% of adults say they believe ‘we are living in the end times,’” and that included 55% of protestants (non-evangelicals), 33% Democrats, and 40% of those with some college education. The notion of living in the “end times” is not something new, nor is it a relic of the past. It is part of human nature and our human experience, to see the hardship and conflict around us and cry out, “How long?” How long can we stand this, how long can we endure? Come Lord Jesus! It is understandable (and right!) to cry out for justice, for God to see our plight!
But spending the time we have trying to predict the day and the hour of his return, well, Jesus himself said it was unknowable. On the other hand, Jesus tell us what we should be doing in this time.
“It is like a man going on a journey,” Jesus says, “when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake!” Each of us has our own tasks and skills that we have been called to do and we are to set about them with all industry, honesty, and integrity.Elsewhere Jesus tells us, beyond the specifics of our vocation, that the work of a follower of Christ is to love one another, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and to be people of prayer. This time in between should be filled with our devotion to Christ so that his presence suffuses all that we do and are. How we engage with our coworkers, our families, even those crazy drivers on the road and people fighting in stores for the latest game or gadget, should be transformed by Christ’s love in us. This is how we are to spend our time in exile, our time waiting for the master to return.
As we enter into this Advent season we need remember that it is a time of preparation, not just with the bright lights and decorations of our homes, but of our souls.
While I want us to learn anew that Advent is about preparing for the Parousia, Christ’s return, I am not a grinch! We also remember and celebrate his first arrival here on earth, when God loved us so much that he took on the form of a human, a little baby, to enter the world and be as one of us. It was the most human of all experiences. We can imagine, and we should, the experiences of Joseph and Mary as she “pondered in her heart” what the angel had told her about the child in her womb, as they worried about the health of mother and child, and what it would mean to bring a baby into this world. They prayed and prayed. Anyone expecting a child prays.
The reason for the prayer is because it is a wonderful and fearful thing when a new life is born into this world. The prophets often describe the coming day of God’s judgment by saying that all creation will groan as a woman in labor. Men, we will never know this pain, although Carol Burnett once told us how we could approximate it, “Take your bottom lip,” she said, “pull it as far away from your face as you can, and now pull it over your head.” The reality is that women often die in childbirth. It is less common today in our part of the world, but the only times that women are described as crying out in pain in childbirth in the Bible, as opposed to the prophetic pronouncements, the mothers die giving birth to their child. There is so much joy, so much hope, and promise and yet even with the easiest of labors the mother will be in great pain. That is why the prophets describe the coming of the New Creation as the earth groaning like a woman in childbirth. To be born again involves some pain, some anguish but it gives way to LIFE.
When Christ comes again the world will be wracked with pain and suffering but with it will come new life. Jesus warns us again and again that there will be wars, famine, persecution, and suffering. Just before today’s reading in Mark Jesus warns his disciples that in the last days,
12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Yet we know that through all that suffering comes new life! Though the sun be darkened the light of Christ is coming that will outshine the sun and the moon combined! Every parent knows that moment when you realize that this precious little new life that you are bringing into the world will, in fact, destroy your old world, bringing discomfort, diapers, bills, worry, fear, and doubt. Oh but it is such joy! Such hope and life!
In this Advent season, let us be aware of the suffering, our own and those of others, but do not be overwhelmed by it. Remember the joy that is to come and let us keep at our tasks, caring for others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and preparing our hearts to receive not only the baby Jesus, but also our risen savior who returns to bring the New Creation and Life Eternal.