Sermon for the first Sunday of Advent., Year B
November 30, 2008
Gospel: Mark 13:24-37 “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”
The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell, preacher
I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. And now…welcome to the Christmas season! That’s where we are now, right? You’ve been to the stores, you’ve seen the Christmas decorations and merchandise. Maybe you’ve heard those radio stations that are already playing Christmas carols. (I confess I am listening to and enjoying them.) Culturally, the pedal is down to the medal, the countdown has begun, and it’s full steam ahead to Christmas.
Wait a second. Have we forgotten something? Oh yes. Advent! It starts today. The beginning of the church year. These four weeks leading up to Christmas are a liturgical season of their own. Advent, from the Latin word, adventus ,meaning “coming.” In Advent, we remember the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, and await his coming again.
Advent often gets lost in the shuffle of the holiday season. We can forget it’s a separate season, with its own wisdom and traditions. Advent is a time to prepare our hearts room for the Christ-child who was and is, and is to come. It’s a joyful season but also penitential. After all, part of making room for Christ in our hearts involves sweeping out the cobwebs there. Some people refer to Advent as a “little Lent.” For many centuries Christians fasted during Advent.
So In the midst of the holiday hustle and bustle, there is this quiet season of hushed wakefulness, of joy and repentance. Advent. It is worth paying attention to, and observing. The spirituality of Advent can help us cope with the holiday blitz, and with whatever the month of December may bring.
This time of year, the holiday season, can be an intense time. It can stir our human hopes and fears, the hopes and fears of all the years. We may find ourselves recalling joyful or painful memories of Christmases past. We may hope this will be a wonderful Christmas, or be afraid that it won’t be. Some years we may have a great deal to look forward to at the holidays, other years we may be separated from loved ones, in poor health, struggling financially, or facing other challenges. We may look around at the world and shake our heads, wondering where on earth peace is.
This time of year can stir our hopes and fears for our own lives and for the world.
This year, there are certainly things to be hopeful and fearful about, on a global level. The economy continues to be precarious. War and terrorism continue to wreak havoc. We have a bright, energetic, and committed new president who has his work cut out for him. Last month’s presidential election seemed more fraught with human hopes and fears than elections in recent memory. There was and is a great deal at stake.
Today’s Scriptures for the first Sunday of Advent are also about human hopes and fears in turbulent times.
The prophet Isaiah says: “O God that you would tear open the heavens and come down, and rattle the earth, and make the nations tremble.”
Isaiah expresses a very human hope for a clear sign of God’s presence, for God to make things right, bring justice here and now, in our own time.
Isaiah also expresses our human fear of unworthiness, saying: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind take us way.”
But then he returns to hopefulness: “Yet Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember our sins forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”
In today’s psalm, the psalmist cries out to God in a mixture of hope and fear: “O Shepherd of Israel…Stir up your might, and come to save us!..How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, he reminds the Corinthians that they have all the spiritual gifts they need as they wait for the revealing of Christ, who will strengthen them to the end. It is a hopeful passage, but it implies that the Corinthians need to be prepared for difficulties.
And then there’s today’s gospel passage from Mark. Jesus speaks of end times, the apocalypse, in which the sun is darkened, the moon gives no light and the stars fall. At that time Jesus will come in clouds with great power and glory. But no one knows when that time will come; so Jesus cautions us to keep awake, stay alert.
What a juxtaposition of fearful and hopeful images – the end of the world as we know it…and then…Jesus.
Jesus is talking about end times. We call that an apocalyptic text. When we look at apocalyptic passages in Scripture, we can choose to take them literally or to understand them as symbolic. At least one scholar has made the case that Jesus was talking about the existing social order coming to an end, rather than the destruction of the universe. St. Augustine said that for each of us, end times represent our own death. Since none of us knows when that will come, we are to live our lives in a state of readiness, to be upright and just. And Christ will be there for us on our last day; we are in God’s hands, God is in control.
How do these Scriptures speak to us today, on the first Sunday of Advent, in 2008? How do they address our own hopes and fears?
Our Scriptures speak of times when God seems absent, fearful times when we long for a clear sign that all is well with us and our world. Isaiah and the psalmist express the hope that God will come, will be present to us. Paul tells the Corinthians with confidence that Jesus will come back. Jesus tells us with certainty that he will come again and we should be ready.
These Scriptures ask us to live with the tension of a God who was here, who will be here again…but what about now? I think today’s Scriptures -- and Advent in general --call us to something between hope and fear. Call us to something besides looking only to the future, or remembering only the past. We are called to a deeper awareness of God’s presence in the here and now.
Advent is not just a reminder of Christ’s birth, not just a time of waiting for his return. We celebrate a threefold Advent: Christ has come, Christ is with us in Spirit, Christ will come again.
Our task at Advent is to be open to signs that God is at work in our own lives and the world around us.
“The fact that the world is not what it ought to be does not alter the truth that God is present in it. God’s plan has been neither frustrated nor changed. “ (Synthesis, Sedgwick Publishing, November 2008).
The fact that our lives may contain struggles and heartaches does not mean that Christ is no longer with us. Indeed, sometimes in the midst of very challenging times, God is present to us in very real ways. Our challenge is to be open to that presence, and to see the signs of it.
The uncertain part is not whether Christ is present. The uncertain part is whether we are prepared to receive him. Can we see him, in the hopeful and fearful signs around us?
No matter what is going on in we can be open to God’s presence. Even if we are experiencing an end time – the end of a relationship, the end of a journey, even the end of our lives – Christ is with us. God hears our hopes and fears, God is ready to make a new beginning with us, God is giving us gifts and allowing us opportunities, if we are open to them.
Can we see the signs around us? Can we make room for Christ in our hearts? Can you take a quiet moment to walk in the snow? Spend a few moments in conversation with a good friend? Can you listen to the sacred music and stories and feel a deeper awareness of God’s presence? Take some time to pray and to be open to the still, small voice within. Let us see in the joy of the holiday season a reflection of the eternal joy. Let us reach out to those who are struggling with the love that is ours in Christ.
Advent is a mystical time, a right-brained rather than a left-brained time. It is a time of watching and waiting, of keeping alert,. “Someone God, wants to address us. Are we home? Are we at our address, ready to respond to the doorbell?” (Synthesis, Sedgwick Publishing, November 2008).
Advent challenges us to be ever more alert for signs of God’s presence. As a Franciscan nun says “God comes every day. Advent is a time to fine tune our senses.”
The fearful parts of life do not have the power to drown out the hope that is within us, do not have the power to destroy the Christ-light within. Christ is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Even in our end times, those times when the sun is darkened and the stars fall, Christ is present, and offers us a new beginning. Immanuel, meaning God-with-us- is always present to us, amidst the hopes and fears of all the years.
So keep awake, stay alert to signs of God’s presence. Live in love and faith, so as to be ready. When is Jesus coming? I don’t know. Is he here? Yes.