Words of Hope for the First Sunday of Advent
The Rev. Fran Holliday
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Chicago
Sunday December 1, 2013
Advent 1 Year A
Every year as the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend comes to a close, I begin to focus my attention on Christmas. I start out by playing Christmas music and gradually add in a Christmas movie here or there. Just last night I was watching “Miracle on 34th Street.” The 1947 original version with Natalie Wood of course!
At some point over the weekend I pull out my personal Advent wreath, which I light daily. I love to watch the candles burn down as they mark time, the time between now and when we celebrate the birth of Christ. I love the anticipation and all of the build up leading up to Christmas.
And then just as I am comfortably nestled down into my celebration BAM it happens every year. The gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent catches me off guard once again. It’s as if someone threw a big bucket of cold water on my celebration. The gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent is always apocalyptic in nature, anticipating the second coming of Christ, and the final judgment.
On the first Sunday of Advent we never hear the voice of John the Baptist proclaiming the Messiah’s first coming nor do we hear the voice of the Angel Gabriel proclaiming the Incarnation to Mary. Rather the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent is always about the end times regardless of the lectionary cycle of readings we are using.
Many of us find these readings like the one we just heard from the Gospel of Matthew to be jarring, disruptive and, disconnected from our journey toward Christmas. There are generally two ways that Christians deal with These readings and I must say that neither one seems optimal. On the one hand people cite this very gospel that we read along with other readings from the Old and New Testament, as proof of the “rapture”.
The rapture is a fundamentalist concept that God will come at an unknown time and bodily lift up God’s elect, while the rest of us get left behind only to have God’s wrath and judgment inflicted upon us. “About that day and hour no one knows… Then two will be in the field; one will be taken up and one will be left. Two women will be grinding wheat together; One will be taken up and one will be left.”
This concept of the rapture was made popular in the 1970’s book by Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth and more recently in the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. You may recall that at the height of the conversation about the rapture fundamentalists created a bumper sticker which read: “When the Rapture comes this car will be driverless”. This led to a humorous response which, also appeared On a bumper sticker, “ When the rapture comes may I have your car?”
Another common response to these end times readings is that many Christians just ignore them. When I was preparing to preach today I called some of my colleagues to see where they may be going with these readings and the refrain was always the same, “Skip the gospel preach on Isaiah” “Ignore the end time reading”.
The concept of the rapture with all of its dire predictions about when and how the world will end is ridiculous. On the other hand I think if we ignore or shy away from the apocalyptic gospel readings we run the risk of missing the hope and essence of Advent that is buried within them.
Advent is a season that calls us like no other to live into a paradox. Christ has already come into the world, We are already living with the hope and reality of the Incarnation. “Emmanuel” God with us.” In Advent we are preparing for something that has already occurred. And yet Advent also claims that Christ will come again to restore all creation in what St. Paul calls “The fullness of Time”
So we are also preparing for something that has not yet come to fruition. We are awaiting the second coming of Christ, But we need not do so in fear or with anxiety, Because Christ himself is already present and working to restore all creation even as we speak. Advent invites us to journey with the God Who is already present, to bare witness to the new thing that God is always doing to restore us and the world.
This is the hope that lies deep within the Gospel from Matthew that we heard this morning, when viewed against the backdrop of Advent. It is true that the reading is disruptive. Look again “Two will be in the field; one will be taken, one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. The reading here does not place any judgment On those in the field or those grinding the meal. These people are simply going about their everyday usual activity and then God interrupts that activity.
God breaks into the ordinary moments of their lives to do a new thing. God is already working to restore us to all that we can become to interrupt our life as we know it- to make us new. This is the hope and promise of these readings when placed in the context of our Advent celebration. God is always interrupting us Working to get our attention Feverishly wanting us to become more - But we often don’t notice, Yes, sometimes it comes with a bang But often God works in quiet less obtrusive ways And we need to still ourselves to perceive it.
Advent more than any other time is a time for stillness A time as the scriptures direct us… To keep awake, be alert, for we do not know the day or the hour when God will act and we could miss it. Advent is a time to pay attention and to anticipate God’s activity in our lives. In Advent we are called to see the God who is just over the horizon preparing to do a new thing in the midst of our everyday routines.
On November 17th a tornado swept through the towns of Diamond and Coal City Illinois. Some would say that this was the work of God, or even God’s judgment. The God of Advent however is not a God who whimsically controls the weather to prove a point, But rather the God of Advent is one who is already present in the world and is working to make all things new.
Jason and Mari Eaton have experienced this new life. They had just brought their new baby Ariana home the day before the storm. When the storm hit they were fortunately with relatives, however their small house was gone. The baby’s room, which was lovingly decorated and filled with new gifts and baby items, was trashed and leveled. As Jason picked through the debris he found very little that was salvageable. But then things took a positive turn. The pain and sorrow that was overshadowing them which could have easily consumed them, was interrupted by the love and generosity of strangers.
Hundreds of volunteers came into the area and provided food, support and help with the clean up. Strangers spent hundreds of dollars on new baby items for Ariana, who picked up the name “Tornado Baby. Somebody said, “Can I take a picture of Tornado Baby, She is the light in all the darkness.” God’s presence in the world through the outpouring of kindness and generosity in this situation has changed everything. It has interrupted what could have been a situation fraught with despair.
The tornado baby has become a symbol of something new – of hope. A light in all the darkness. God is always working to create a new thing in us- But we must take the time to notice it, and to acknowledge it so that we can claim it and embrace it. This advent I invite you to contemplate the new thing that God is about to do in your life and in the world around us.
Keep alert, stay awake, pay attention.