Advent 1, Year A, 2013

You may have caught on to this already, since Target has been draped in tinsel for weeks, but Christmas is coming! Today we begin a new church year and the season of Advent.  Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a season of waiting and preparing for Jesus’ birth.

But Advent isn’t just about getting ready for the baby Jesus.  The first Sunday of Advent always begins with an apocalyptic text.  I don’t know about you, but when I get to church in December I want to hear sweet stories about Mary and Joseph getting ready to welcome baby Jesus.  Instead, we get stories of women disappearing while minding their own business.  That doesn’t usually show up in Advent Calendars, does it?

No matter how uncomfortable they make us, these kinds of apocalyptic texts are pretty common in the New Testament.  They understand Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as part of an as of yet incomplete journey for human kind.  Jesus has already done the work of saving us from ourselves, but the work of completing the Kingdom of God—a time when peace and justice will mark humanity’s relationships—is still to come.  Theologians call this time we are in the parousia:  the already, but not yet.

We are already saved by the incarnate, resurrected Jesus, but our world is not yet fully redeemed.  Our world is still marked by human brokenness.  In Advent, we are called not just to remember the infant Jesus coming into the world, but we are also supposed to prepare for his return.

And how do we prepare?

We stay awake.  Not literally awake, of course.  Jesus doesn’t want to come back to be greeted by delirious believers clutching bottles of “5 Hour Energy”.  Jesus wants us to stay awake spiritually.

There are Christians who believe if you compile all the parts of Scripture together that reference Jesus’ return, you can map out roughly when he’ll come back.  But our passage today refutes that notion.  Jesus reminds his listeners that Noah’s contemporaries could not have known that there would be a great flood.  In the same way, Christians cannot know when Jesus’ return will happen.  We don’t need to obsess over it.  We don’t need to try to predict when it will come.  We just need to stay awake.

In our culture, we are experts at doing anything but staying awake and alert to our present.  Our culture has trained us to long for what is next.  Our next meal out, a fancier car, a better job, a more elaborate home.  We think about the future all the time.  We worry about the future. Will we get married?  Will we be able to have kids?  Will we have jobs we love?  Will we be able to afford retirement?  We can even put off our own happiness, thinking that our happiness will come at some point in the future—when we make a little more money, when we lose the weight, when we meet Mr. Right.

In the same way we can put off our own spiritual lives.  Oh, I’ll start going to church when I have kids.  I’ll start studying the Bible when I retire.  I’ll go to that fellowship event once my work settles down a bit.

But this one Sunday a year it is my job to say this to you:  Wake up.

Wake up!

You don’t know what time you have left.  Jesus could come back tomorrow.  You could get hit by a bus on your way home.  Our time on this earth is short and unpredictable.

Would you be ready if you had to give an account of your life today?

Have you checked in lately with God to find out where he is calling you to serve? Have you been paying attention to the needs of your neighbors?  Are there widows, orphans, or other people on the margins in your life who need attention?

These kind of questions make us feel vulnerable and nervous.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown tells us that we numb ourselves to avoid feeling vulnerable.  We put ourselves to sleep to avoid the pain of our lives. We put ourselves into a stupor by endlessly checking Facebook, by watching TV, by drinking every night, by stuffing our faces with brownies or queso.  We would rather sleep walk, than live fully awake.

We only have this one life.  We only have this one life to feel the joy and pain of what it means to be human.  We only have this one life to take emotional risks.  We only have this one life to love and serve other people.

When I yell “Wake up!” at you, it may sound like a nag.  Like something your mother used to do when you were just exhausted before school and all you wanted was a few more minutes of rest.

But I really mean to yell “wake up!” at you as an invitation.  Jesus invites us to live a full, rich life drenched with meaning.  Jesus invites us to live lives in service to God and other human beings.  I want you to wake up, not so you can check off a checklist of “good deeds” you’ve done.  I want you to wake up so you can feel the exquisite joy of being a human being made in God’s image.  I want you to wake up so you experience the human life that God made holy by his incarnation in Jesus Christ.

Your life is ordinary and extraordinary.  Just as it is now—with the same job, home, marital status, friends, pets—your life is really something special.  You don’t have to sell everything and ditch your life to follow God.  Your path to a meaningful, holy life is right in front of you.  So wake up!  And live!

Advent 1, Year B, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

The days got short and dark quickly, didn’t they?  Even though the shortened days come like clockwork, every autumn I am surprised.  I feel rushed into the falling leaves and apple cider.  I want to cling to warm, long days and fresh peaches just a few more weeks.  The early darkness is ominous somehow.  Darkness shrouds our world every afternoon, earlier and earlier, pushing us inside where we can take shelter in the warmth of our homes.  But we know the darkness is out there and it leaves us on edge.

Is it any wonder that we start flooding our world with cheerful Christmas lights and tinny holiday music and gingerbread lattes?  We cannot help ourselves. We cannot wait for Christmas. We cannot handle the anxiety of the darkness.  We have to mitigate the discomfort the darkness creates in us.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Now imagine this same darkness, the same cold nights without the luxury of electric lights or piped in Christmas music.  Imagine the darkness without a hot mug of peppermint mocha.  Imagine being eight months pregnant, the hours stretching before you, the weight of your body pressing down on you, the anxiety of bearing the Lord’s child weighing on your mind.  Pregnancy has a way of slowing down time, pulling days into impossibly long stretches of time as you feel each creak of your joints, as you look at your nursery, so ready for a baby.  As you worry each time you don’t feel the baby kick or roll.  As you imagine the delightful and the horrific possibilities–the smell of a new baby and the violence of birth.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Each Advent we join Mary in her agonizing wait.  We know that Jesus will be born alive and squirming.  But Mary did not.  We know Jesus is God incarnate, but will still be a normal human baby, easy to hold and to love.  But Mary did not.  Mary must have wondered who this strange child would be.  Is the God of the universe capable of loving his mother?  Is the God that created all life able to be contained within a human exterior without destroying the vessel that contains him?  Oh, how Mary must have worried and waited.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Mary was not the first person to anxiously wait for God.  Longing for God has been part of the human condition since Adam and Eve were banned from the Eden.  The separation we have from God is not natural, not how we are meant to be.  The Psalmist today is miserable.  He cries

How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.

The Psalmist feels that God has turned his back on his people and calls out to him

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

The Psalmist does not ask for God to intervene, to defeat the Psalmist’s enemies, to change their situation.  He asks God to shine his face upon his people.

The Psalmist expresses our deepest desire so simply.

At our core, we long for God.  We long for the intimacy of knowing and being known by God.  We long to be restored to the days of Eden, when we could walk with God in a garden.

When we are in our darkest corners, what we want is for God’s light to break through somehow, so we know we are not alone, so we know he will sustain us no matter what happens.  We can survive any number of personal tragedies so long as we have a sense of God’s presence in our lives.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

We live in an in-between time.  Biblical scholars refer to it as the parousia.  The already, but not yet.  Jesus has come, but we are not yet fully restored to intimacy with God.  We live in-between the incarnation and the coming of God’s Kingdom.   We live in-between knowing God loves us enough to die for us but not seeing mercy and justice dominate our world.  We still wait.  We wait for Jesus to come back.

Advent gives us a liturgical space to live into this tension.  The nights are dark, but it is not yet time for Christmas.  Michael’s stinks like potpourri and Quakerbridge Mall has prepared Santa’s throne, but we know in our hearts we are still waiting for that baby to be born.  Still hoping that baby will bear God’s light.  We light one candle every week to give us hope, to remind us we will not be stuck in the dark forever.  Eventually we will light the center candle, the Christ candle.  Eventually that baby will be born.  Eventually he will come back.  Eventually we will be restored to perfect intimacy with our Creator.

But for now, we wait.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Advent 1, Year B, 2008

Happy New Year!

The world is going to end!

Today, this first Sunday in Advent, we celebrate the beginning of the new church year.  Advent is the season of repentance as we prepare to welcome Christ into the world.  However, Advent is also the time in the church year during which we remind ourselves that Christ will come back again.  This creates a little cognitive dissonance within us.  After all, Christ coming into the world the first time is really exciting and, even . . .cute!  Jesus started as a little baby.  Babies are adorable. What is less adorable are the scary and mysterious apocalyptic images we read during our Advent lessons about the second coming of Christ.

Today’s lessons reminded me of one of the darker moments of my seminary experience.

In order to be ordained an Episcopal Priest, you must take an exam called the General Ordination Exam.  This exam is taken over a four-day period, early in January, after Christmas break.  If we failed the exam, our ordination could be postponed, so we were appropriately terrified.

Most of the questions on our exam were manageable, but then Tuesday January 4th, 2005 at 1:30 PM, we opened our Church History question.  Now, to take the exam, we would go to the library, pick up the question in a sealed envelope, and then go to our dorm rooms to answer the question on our computers.  At 1:30 PM on that fateful Tuesday, I opened the question and suddenly heard a scream from across the hall, and then some cursing from upstairs.  When I read the question, I understood why.

I won’t read the whole question, but the first part of the question was this:

During the second quarter of the 19th century, a modern form of apocalypticism known as Dispensational Premillennialism (or Premillennial Dispensationalism) arose in Britain, crossed the Atlantic to the United States, and subsequently played an important role in the development of Protestantism in this country.

Briefly identify the origins and major features of this type of apocalyptic thought. Trace its history in the United States from the later 19th century to the present, noting major developments and situating them in the context of their times.

The reason my neighbors screamed and cursed, was that none of us had ever heard of Premillennial Dispensationalism.  We had no idea what the subject of the question meant. We were toast.  Thankfully, the question was open book, so we were able to fudge some answers, even though the term was not even covered in our Oxford Dictionary of Theological terms.  It turns out the people who did best on the test were those who were raised in fundamentalist households.  Premillennial dispensationalism, as it turns out, is the theology that undergirds books like the Left Behind series, and many fundamentalist churches.

And, I still don’t fully understand premillenial dispensationalism, even though dispensationalism does rate its own Wikipedia entry now.  Basically, premillenial dispensationalism is a theology begun in the late 1800s in England, which eventually ended up on our shores.  This theology has a very complicated understanding of end times that takes the Bible literally and takes clues from the Bible’s apocalyptic passages to divide time into thousand year blocks that outline when Jesus will come again.  This theology involves tribulation, the anti-christ, and the State of Israel and much, much more.  Those who believe in this theology are very certain about what the end times will be like.

We, as Episcopalians, however–in typical fashion–are less sure.

We talked about the idea of the end of time in Seminary.  I remember lots of graphs about the word parousia, which is the word the Bible uses to describe Jesus’ coming again.  But the graphs never told us anything about what the parousia would be like.

And this is where I think our passage today is helpful.

No, not the spooky part about the sun being darkened.  Not even the elusive part about the green leaves of the fig tree.  No, I mean this part:

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. It is like a man going on a journey, 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– 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.

This part of the passage reminds us that no one really knows when Christ will return.  No one really knows what life for people on earth will be like when Christ returns.  We can make guesses, based on texts and what we know about Jesus already, but in the end, even the most certain person will be surprised by Christ’s re-entry into the world.

What God calls us to do is to remain in the present.

We cannot control the end of time by worrying about it, or hoping for it, or trying to predict it.  All we can do is be responsible for our own hearts, minds and actions.

We prepare for Christ’s coming by leading the life the un-mysterious parts of Scripture call us to lead.  We are called to follow Jesus, to pray, to read Scripture, to love our neighbor, to take care of those in need.

What we want to do as we go through life is to pay attention.  Jesus calls us in this passage from the Gospel of Mark to “keep awake”.   When life is stressful, or even boring, it is  easy to disconnect and stop paying attention to the world around us. Sometimes escape-physical, mental and emotional-can be really tempting.

But when we keep alert, when we pay attention to the world around us, we give ourselves the opportunity to really live.  When we stay awake, we are also awake to the opportunities that God gives us every day.  We are awake to opportunities to love and serve.  We are awake to opportunities to grow and learn.  We are awake to opportunities to give thanks.

God does not always speak to us in a booming voice.  Opportunities do not always jump up and wave their hands and shout, “Hey!  You over there!  God wants you to pay attention to me!”  To fully serve God, and prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming again we must be fully aware of our present and open to the experiences it brings us.

In the end, we do not need to know the exact details of what Christ’s second coming will look like in order to be prepared to receive him.  We just need to open ourselves to what Christ is doing here and now in the world around us.  If we participate in what Christ is doing now, we’ll be able joyfully meet him later.

This Advent, as we prepare to receive Christ into this world, we are invited to brush aside the distractions and stresses of the holiday season and to really focus on staying alert to the work God is doing in us and around us.

Amen.