When I was a kid, during the month of December, there was a Peanuts cartoon on the front page of the daily paper, announcing how many shopping days left until Christmas. The month of December was deemed Christmas shopping season. But that was then, now our Christmases, in all its commercial glory begins sometime late September. It is about then that our big box stores begin receiving their Christmas order, and not wanting to clog the back rooms, make space for Christmas décor somewhere on their sales floors.
And this past Thursday was Thanksgiving, If it was a good one, you likely ate too much and stumbled from your dinner table to the couch, in a turkey-induced Tryptophan haze, trying to stay awake through a football game, or a holiday movie. Our consuming doesn’t end with one holiday meal. There is Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday and holiday sales designed to get us to spend more money. This is the season of giving, but often it’s the season for overspending. And why not? For many of us Christmas is not the most wonderful time of year, it is the season where we feel the dull ache of what we miss. Loved ones, we’ve buried, family we’re estranged from, and all the things we’ve lost. What better way to get through the holidays, then with a little retail therapy?
But then we come to church, and we discover that here we mark the season in a wholly different way. Advent. The word Advent simply means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming.’ This is one of the preparatory seasons on our Church calendar, and it is our way of preparing the way for the coming of Christ. Traditionally Christians have thought of this on a couple of levels. There is preparing to remember well, Christ’s nativity—the mystery of Incarnation, the sacred moment of his birth, when light shone in darkness, but the dark did not overcome it. It is also a time for preparing for Christ’s second Advent when Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation. And in between these comings are all of Christ’s little advents, the ways Christ comes to each of us and meets in the quietude of our hearts.
In Isaiah 2:1-5, and Mathew 24:36-44, our passages for the first Sunday this year, we hear twi descriptions of God’s coming:
Isaiah 2:1–5 (NRSV)
1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the 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. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
Matthew 24:36–44 (NRSV)
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Matthew’s passage describes this as great and terrible day of the Lord, when God returns to the judge the wicked, Just like in the story of Noah and the flood where the wicked were swept away, Jesus says “two will be working in the field, one taken and the other left, two women will be grinding meal, one will be taken and the other left. Keep awake therefore because you do not know when the day your Lord is coming.” 19th and 20th Century dispensationalism had an idea called “the rapture” where Jesus took the faithful in Christ out of the world before things really got bad. Chances are you may have come across this idea if you’ve ever saw a Christian movie about end times. It is a relatively new idea, and it reverses the thrust of Jesus words. Like in the flood, those who were taken, were those under God’s judgement, those who were ‘left behind’ were the ones who escaped it.
The Isaiah passage is a little happier to our ears. In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest and all the nations of world will stream into it. Isaiah imagines a future where nationalism is no more, and Israel has fulfilled its calling to be a blessing to all nations. People from all over the world would come to be instructed in the Lords ways. God will judge between all peoples and all the war mongers and weaponizers will beat their swords into plowshares, and not study war anymore.
Both passages give us a little taste of God’s coming advent, but in a couple of different ways. I think these passages have several lessons for us as we enter Advent this year.
- Advent means being dissatisfied with the way things are. Jesus words in the first century come at a time when the nation of Israel is occupied by Rome, and the whole conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples in this passage, hinges on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (which happened in 70AD). Isaiah began his prophetic ministry, under King Uzziah of Judah reign. The Assyrian empire. had laid waste to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and Judah was forced to pay tribute to them. In both cases, things weren’t as bad as they could be. In Jesus’ time and Isaiah’s time, God’s people could still worship God in the temple. And there were people that made do with the world they were in. After all, even though things weren’t as bad as they could possible be, things could be worse right?
In our country today, we enjoy religious freedom. Every once and a while you hear someone talk about the war on Christmas, but nobody has stopped us from meeting, and celebrated the birth of Christ. But we have been at war. War perpetually since 9-11. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and there is the rumor and threat of war with Iran. And there are worries about fair trade and tariffs, even with our allies. In our own borders, we are also not at peace. We suffer, political unrest, with the great divide between east and west. Are hearts break whenever we hear about another shooter at a school, church, synagogue or public venue. Things are not the way we should be. This is not the way it is supposed to be. And yet, we could busy ourselves in the holiday we can ignore everything wrong with our world and just sing, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/make the Yuletide gay/ from now on our troubles will be miles away.”
But the message of Advent is this, right now is not the way things are supposed to be. God is coming and we have hope for a different future. Which brings me to our second lesson.
- Advent means holding out hope for our bright tomorrow. Jesus is coming!
Isaiah tells of a new future where God’s temple, is not only not ‘under siege’ by Judah’s powerful neighbor’s but the place where all the nations come to pay tribute and learn and discover the ways of God. He envisions a future where countries aren’t racing to make weapons of mass destruction, but are joyfully, turning their old weapons into farm tools. Isaiah holds out hope for the future of God’s promise, even if his current reality falls dismally short. When God sits enthroned in Jerusalem, things will be completely different. All the good things God has in store will come to pass.
In Matthew, Jesus warns of coming judgment. Trained as our imaginations are by American style revivalism, we often hear this as “you’re going to get it,” but I think the sense that Jesus speaks these words is, “they’re going to get it.” A new age is coming and the people that are oppressing you, who are taxing you harshly and conscripting you into service, or even slavery, the occupying military that threatens you, they will meet there end. And the justice of God will reign! When the baby Jesus was born in the village of Bethlehem, the region of Judea was besieged by the Roman empire. But a baby child would come and bring salvation, not only to the Jews, but the whole world.
The good news for us is that where we are is bad. Maybe not the worst case scenario but bad enough. But the good that God has in store for us, is exactly everything he promises and is so much better than our wildest imaginings.
- Finally, Advent means walking in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:5). Isaiah exhorts ‘the house of Jacob,’ Israel and Judah to walk in the light of the Lord. I think this is an exhortation for us too. Walk in the light of the Lord.
What does this mean? What does it mean for us? There is a Mahatma Gandhi quote that I learned by way of Martin Luther King, jr., “The ends and the means are convertible terms.” King applied Gandhi’s wisdom to non-violent resistance, concluding the way we get to the ends we want to get at, is to enact them. So for King and his struggle for civil rights, the Beloved Community where blacks and whites joined hands in universal brotherhood, meant that the way he envisioned getting there was by enacting the vision of racial peace he envisioned. If wanted peace between whites and blacks, he wouldn’t get there through violence; he’d only get there through non-violent, peaceful means.
In the words of Jesus and Isaiah we have heard the promise of future justice and peace. We have heard about the promise of a world at peace, where all violence ceases. What does it mean for us to be shaped by this vision? What it does it mean for us as a church? What would it mean for us to invest in a future where it isn’t us vs. them, but believing in God’s shalom, where all that is wrong with the world is put to rights, all injustice is brought to an end, and everything that should be, is, and everything that should not be is not?
In a broken ancient world, Jesus was coming. In our present, national and international divisions, Jesus is coming, in the quietude of our hearts Jesus comes. In Advent, we pause and prepare for the coming of King Jesus. We look honestly at the broken world we are in, we hear God’s hope for our tomorrow, and we live our lives in the light, shaped by God’s promise for us. Merry Advent. Come Lord Jesus, Come.