Here’s a copy of my most recent sermon. The texts were in keeping with the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44. I’ll get the audio up soon, too.
Please pray with me: Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find wisdom, and in your will discover your peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It’s the first Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season of wonder and waiting, watching and preparing. In just a few short weeks we’ll gather here in the Sanctuary and sing old familiar carols, pass a candle’s flame from one to another, and retell the old, old story that has enchanted so many for thousands of years. Some of us may already have decorated Christmas trees and adorned the outsides of our houses with hundreds of little lights. Driving home after dinner with friends on Friday night I was amazed to see how many houses are already lit up.
It’s that time of year when many of us run around like frenetic, feeding hens, rushing from one venue to the next: from choir rehearsal, to Christmas party, to work, to pick up the kids, to the mall, to a coffee shop for an eggnog late, to a Hallmark store, to the Post Office, to the market, to the church … I think you get the picture. On an emotional level many of us become sentimental, remembering the joys of Advents past, joys experienced in the good years and, maybe especially, the not-so-good years. It’s that time of year when many of us turn inwardly and remember loved ones who are no longer with us or who live thousands of miles away. It’s a time when we look both forward to Christmas and back, back to Advents past, back to Christmases past, and back, way back to the events that started it all. It’s as if we live right between times.
Actually, it was Karl Barth, the distinguished 20th Century theologian, who coined the phrase. He said literally that we as Christians live “between the times.” We find our lives bracketed by events of a past time and the promise of wondrous events in the future.
We find ourselves on the one hand looking back through the lenses of our lives, our cultures, our educations, our religious upbringings, the pillars on which our worldviews are constructed, to places and times of tremendous significance for us as people of faith, the Christian faithful. At this time of year especially we cast our mind’s eye back, way back through historical time and across geographical and cultural expanses to the Ancient Near East, to that part of the world today known as Israel and the Occupied Territories. And we remember the fulfillment of promises made by prophets like Isaiah of a Messiah to be born – a Messiah who was born to Mary in a stable in the town of Bethlehem.
And as our texts today reminds us, we also look forward, and not just until Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when all our hustle and bustle pays off (we hope!). Isaiah describes a time “in the days to come” when “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains …. All the nations shall stream to it.” It will be a time when God will “judge between the nations (notice how it says God will judge between nations and not just judge nations), and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
This is such a beautiful and comforting passage. It promises that, in the words of one commentator, “regardless of where power seems to lie in the present, the day is coming when God’s reign will be established for all humankind to see. God’s dwelling on Mount Zion will be central and elevated over all other claims to prominence or power.”(1) Isaiah promises a day when God will judge disputes between nations and arbitrate for many peoples; people who have been oppressed and marginalized will finally find justice. Instruments of war will be transformed into instruments for tilling the earth and cultivating food, food that will be distributed to those who are hungry. Isaiah foresees the advent of an era of peace with justice, the very peace with justice that God in Jesus heralded.
It’s the kind of peace with justice that so threatened the powers of this world that they sought to snuff it out by killing Jesus. Because of their attempt we enter through the doorway of Advent into the season of Christmas, knowing full well that Jesus’ birth takes on renewed significance in light of his death on the cross and, above all, his resurrection. Perhaps it is for this reason that the early church did not celebrate Jesus’ birth for a few hundred years even though it celebrated Easter all along. Saint Augustine acknowledged that, “The day of the Lord’s birth does not possess a sacramental character. It is only a recalling of the fact that he was born.”(2) Indeed, Jesus himself looked beyond his present and, in our Gospel reading from Matthew, spoke of the coming of the Son of Man.
This coming is known as the Parousia, the Second Coming, the Eschaton, and it commands the imaginations of so many Christians in our own age. On the Internet there are dooms day calculators. Watching world events such as the formation of the State of Israel, famines, epidemics, earthquakes, and wars some have offered precise dates … all of which have proven rather inaccurate. At present many Christians and folks from other traditions or no tradition are captivated by the year 2012 as the year the earth as we know it will come to an end, some believing that a millennium of peace will finally be ushered in. Of course, as the movie 2012 showed, this peace will follow a major unpleasant environmental apocalypse. As well meaning as these souls who seek to warn us of impending doom can be, they clearly have not taken full account of the Gospel text before us today. Jesus says: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” He points to the days of Noah, when people went about their business with not a care for the motivations behind their actions or the consequences of their actions, to indicate that only the prepared – Noah and his family – were ready. Of course, this cannot be the kind of end for which Advent is preparing us. Far from it! We acknowledge God’s own covenant with Noah in Genesis that never again will such violence be unleashed. Remember the significance of the rainbow? Through the prophets and, above all, Jesus and the Apostle Paul we have grown in our understanding of God’s grace and agape self-giving love.
In her wonderful book The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittister writes: “The next coming to which Advent calls our attention is a coming greater than the simple fact of human birth. This is the coming of the presence of God recognized among us now in the Scripture, in the Eucharist, in the community itself. This coming makes Jesus present in our own lives, eternally enlivening, eternally with us.”(3) Rather than being fixated on a definite future date, a specific date of a specific calamity or “rapture,” Chittister says that the next coming is the presence of God recognized among us now. Let me say that again: the next coming is the presence of God recognized among us now. What would it look like if we lived our lives as if this second coming were unfolding in the present moment? How might we act if this second coming were happening right now? What would it mean for the vocations we choose, the way we spend our spare time, the way we talk about others, the we treat others, the way we react to Boston drivers, the way we share our meals with others? Do we really need threats of hellfire and damnation, promises of an apocalypse to wake us from run of the mill lives? Or can we simply respond to the presence of God recognized among us now in Scripture, in the Eucharist, in the community itself?
We could go into much detail about what a specific, once-off event might look like. We could draw on John’s vivid description in Revelations and on the Left Behind series. We can study web page after web page, sermon after sermon, and disaster movie after disaster movie. Would it not be better for us to instead turn our imaginings to the very present reality of the blessings that flow from living as if God is among us now, as if this is the moment when our actions and attitudes matter? Isaiah describes how the mountain of the Lord’s house will be the highest mountain and that the nations and peoples of our earth will stream to it. What if through our actions and attitudes and love for one another and all humankind people came to see just how magnificent God is? What if we played our part in streaming toward that mountain? Isaiah speaks of a time of fairness, of peace with justice. What if we were to hold ourselves accountable rather than judge others? What if we were to keep awake, attending to our own spiritual growth, and working for peace with justice? What if we were to keep awake and notice the signs of our times, the signs of Christ among us, working in us and through us? Just imagine the blessings we will become and the blessings we will receive.
This Advent, let us keep awake and not just so that we may accomplish all the mundane holiday tasks that lie ahead of us. But let us keep awake and watchful for God in our midst, for God before us, God behind us, God around us, God above us, and God beneath us. Let us live as if it matters now how we tend our hearts and minds, how we treat others and ourselves and the earth. Let us live in such a way that we can see and rest in the presence of God recognized among us now.
Please pray with me: Holy One, may we this Advent come to know your presence among us now through scripture, the Eucharist, and in community. Help each of us to keep awake and watchful so that we may be witnesses to the rising mountain of your house and that our lives may be part of that steady stream flowing toward you. We pray all of this in the name of the one for whom we watch and wait and keep awake, Jesus the Christ, Amen.
(1) Bruce C. Birch, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, page 5
(2) Saint Augustine quoted by Joan Chittister in The Liturgical Year: the spiraling adventure of the spiritual life, Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 2009. Page 65
(3) Joan Chittister in The Liturgical Year: the spiraling adventure of the spiritual life, page 65