Advent I, Year C
December 2, 2007
Scriptures: Isaiah 2:1-5, Ps. 122, Romans 13:11-14
Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44
Preacher: The Rev. Laura E. Gottardi-Littell
It’s Advent. And also the holiday season.
A time of hopes and fears.
A Christmas carol talks about the “hopes and fears of all the years”
Our personal hopes and fears often get stirred this time of year. Memories and longings surface around our own Christmases past, present, and future. And about the rest of our lives. At this time of year, we can experience the hopes and fears of all our years, the themes, the leitmotivs that run throughout our own individual lives, the hopes and fears we’ve always known.
This time of year is an intensifier. A microcosm.
It can be the best and worst of times. People are kinder, except when they’re stressed or depressed. Music is great, if you like non-stop Christmas carols. The snow is fun except when you have to shovel or drive in it. The traditions, decorations and lights are so wonderful, unless you’re grieving, ill or having a hard time for some other reason and then they just remind you of how you’re supposed to be happy and aren’t. It’s wonderful to be with family and friends, unless we’re tired from too much socializing and sad because some dynamics are difficult and don’t seem to change year to year.
It can be a manic depressive time, a time of great highs and lows. High as we think of how happy we’ll be and we’ll make everyone: low when we sit down after the gift-giving is done, with a pile of stuff we don’t particularly want, and seeing in others’s faces that they too ended up with a pile of stuff they didn’t really want. High as we rush from church to store to home, from baking to decorating to wrapping to traveling, having a great time. Low when our natural energy levels run out, when loved ones are arguing, when despite all our efforts we can’t make it a perfect time. High when we experience the love, joy and peace that are real and can be heightened by the season. Low when we see the world is still the world, the war is still on, people are still dying, suffering, cheating, and lying…and where is Jesus anyway?
It’s a very hopeful and fearful place – this world of ours. And it can seem more so at this time of year.
As we begin a new church year today, and enter the season of Advent, our Scriptures call us to another layer of hopes and fears. They talk about end times, and new beginnings. Today’s lessons are about the hopes and fears of all the years.
Isaiah speaks of a future time when the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains, and all the nations will stream to it. God will judge between nations and arbitrate for many, beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Paul writes to the Romans about the now, Paul’s now, nearly 2000 years ago. Now is the time for the church in Rome to wake from sleep. Salvation is near. The night is far gone, the day is near. Time for Christians to put aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; living honorably. Stop getting drunk, having a lot of promiscuous sex, being jealous of each other, and fighting. Jesus is coming, so clean up your act.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks to his disciples about the future, the end of the world as we know it. When the Son of Man will come on clouds of heaven with power and great glory. Jesus compares that future time to the Great Flood, the time of Noah’s ark. Some will be saved and others…not so much. No one knows when this time will come. So we have to stay awake. Be vigilant.
On the one hand, these Sciptures give us great hope. Nations will cease from warfare. All people will come to God. Salvation is near, light is dawning. Jesus is coming back. How wonderful. How hopeful.
Yet these readings also have fearful elements, or at least elements of real uncertainty.
Isaiah says all nations will come to God, the god of Israel. Does that mean all other world religions will be no more? And as much as we may love our own faith, is that what we really want deep down? A monolithic world? Our God the winner, other gods the loser? Maybe on some level we want that, maybe on another level, not. It’s something to think about. It’s a deep question, it’s a question that emerges for me as I encounter this text.
Paul says salvation is near. The night is far gone, the day is near. Paul says Jesus is coming back soon. How incredible. How hopeful. Yet looking back through the lens of nearly 2000 years, we see that Jesus didn’t come when Paul or Matthew expected. Why not? What happened? Where is he?
Matthew says Jesus will come again in great glory, at an unexpected hour. And that some people will be taken with him and some left. How hopeful to be the ones to go with Jesus, to be part of the saved community, but how fearful to be left behind.
These Scriptures bring up mixed emotions for me. They stir my faith and doubt, my hopes and fears. And I think as your pastor I owe you that honesty. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is a necessary integral part of our faith journeys.
I don’t know what the second coming will look like. I hope Jesus will come back, because we need him. On some level, I also fear Jesus will return, because what will happen then? What will life be like? What kind of world will he usher in? How will I or any of us do at the last judgment? Who can stand when he appears?
And how do we reconcile this judgmental God with the God of love, the God of the New Testament?
So you see, it can be a manic depressive kind of thing, a swing between hope and fear, reading these apocalyptic Scriptures for today. In an already manic depressive time of year.
So where are we called to stand? What to make of these Scriptures? What to do with them? What do they have to do with where we are today, in the 21st century, at the beginning of Advent, facing down another Christmas?
I think we are called to stand smack dab in the middle between hope and fear. Knowing that sin, death and pain are real. Knowing love and kindness and justice are equally real. Knowing that there is something beyond us, some force that draws us together and beyond our own limits in ways that are knowable and incredible, as I think many of us experienced on our retreat. And yet knowing that there are times when God also seems absent in our lives, when we experience the darkness and the void.
In our own lives and as Christians in the world, called to stand between our hopes and fears. We’re called to stand between darkness and light. Knowing that intermingled sun and shadow is the nature of life right now. Someday maybe we will see fully, but now we see only in part, through a glass darkly, as we read from 1st Corinthians on our retreat.
As I struggle with my hopes and fears about the last days, there is some help from theologian Karl Barth who reminds us that in the Biblical worldview, a judge was not so much one who comes to reward or punish but one who comes to set things right, to restore justice and harmony. I long for, and I know you long for, a world where harmony and justice are restored. That is a hopeful thing to contemplate. Yet if it brings up our fears, that is something to pay attention to. Are we unjust? Are we living out of harmony? Then we have some self-correcting to do. Do we see injustice and disharmony outside of ourselves? Then we have a role to play in helping correct that.
We may all have our own vision of what a restored world looks like. And I think it helps to understand the Scriptures we read today as culturally conditioned. Yes, they are God-inspired but also they are human depictions of what a new world, a new Jerusalem could look like.
And so if your own hopes and fears are a bit different from what you heard in Isaiah, or Paul, or Matthew today, I think that it is all right. And if Paul and Matthew didn’t get the timing of the second coming down just right, that’s OK too. But these Scriptures point us to a hope that is important to hold on to. That there can be a better time, a better world.
We need this hope. Otherwise we get caught up in the paralysis of despair.
We’re called to stand in this gap, between hope and fear. Not swinging between one pole or the other, in a manic depressive sway. We’re called to stay awake. Be alert. And alertness presents us from between unrealistic optimism and naivete, on the one hand, and doom and gloom despair on the other.
In between Pollyanna and paralysis is where we’re called to stand this Advent and always.
We know what the past holds. For our own lives. For the world. We don’t know what the future holds. Good things we hope. For ourselves. For our world.
But it’s now in the present that we need to focus. Be alert. Live in realistic hope, knowing it’s a fallen world but knowing there’s also much more than sin and death. Live in the middle ground between hope and fear. Know the reality and validity of both. Pay attention to and don’t discount either. Don’t be bi-polar. Be grounded. Keep awake.
We’re in an in between time. Smack dab in the middle between hope and fear. In between what our faith tradition tells us is the first and second coming of Christ.
Know that Jesus is with us, in this mingled time of sun and shadow.
Another theologian writes:
“The central message of Advent is that God is not just a light at the end of a dark tunnel. God is in the dark tunnel with us. In the dark times of our lives we struggle to be faithful to God in spite of doubt and failure and guilt. And we struggle with the pain of grief and fear and illness and personal calamities. It’s crucial for us to hold on to the belief that God is with us in those hard times. He doesn’t just suddenly show up when things get better…God is in the darkness. We cannot wait for the light to come on at Christmas before we choose life. But we know the light is coming. Christ will come, not as a magician to solve our problems, but as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, bearing in his flesh the scars from the whips and the nail holes in his hands and feet. He will take us by the hand and walk with us through our shadowlands into such a bright dawn as we cannot yet imagine.”
Immanuel means God is with us. God is with us now in the present, as well as the past and future. Jesus is the place where past and present and future meet. In him, all the hopes and fears of all the years are met.
So what to do this time of year? How to make it a meaningful time, even a happy time? Look for Jesus. Find him in the quiet moments, in the beauty, solemnity and festivity of the season. Prepare your heart. Prepare him room. Advent is an excellent time to step up our prayer lives and I’m reminding myself as well as you of that. See God all around us, even as we despair over the difficulties of life. The darkness of our world, even the darkness of Madison Avenue, don’t have the power to take Christ out of Christmas.
And be him. Be the light in the darkness. Our time together on the retreat clarified that that we are the body of Chirst, each of us living members, and that Christ is in us and and among us We are called not only to see light and hope but to be light and hope for each other You are the light of the world, Christ told his disciples. You and I are the light of the world. Let’s offer it to one another and to as many as we can.
In this in between time, as we wait for Jesus, while we know and experience the reality of the fear and the darkness, we are called to increase the hope and the light of the world, even as we wait for its full completion.
We don’t know, with a scientist’s certainty, about that birth in Bethlehem, long ago. What really happened there. We don’t know with a scientist’s precision what the end of the world and the second coming might look like.
We are in the present. This is where our salvation lies right now. And Christ is with us in our darkness and our light. Christ is not only the light at the end of the tunnel. Christ is with us in the tunnel.
Advent is an in-between place. In between Jesus’s first and second coming. In between hope and fear. And that, my friends, is where we’re called to stand.