It’s Advent. Advent means chocolate calendars, silly animated videos of Hershey’s kisses and dancing reindeer, premature Christmas carols, lights in the window, happy conspiracies over gifts, sparkly clothes, holiday sweets.
And now, this, courtesy of Scripture: Grim confessions. Apocalyptic prophecies. Human sin and divine anger. The Psalmist’s desperate plea for rescue: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.”
What is that about? Where is the joyful expectation? Where is the good news? On this first Sunday of the year of Mark, couldn’t we have heard the first verse of that Gospel? “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Apparently not: in their wisdom the editors of our lectionary decided to delay that good news announcement until the second Sunday of Advent.
Just when we were getting comfortable with the holiday routine, finalizing our lists, brushing off our decorations, we receive a jolt, as it were, from heaven itself, a reminder that Advent isn’t just business as usual, that this season holds within itself a promise that should fill us with equal measures of hope and terror. O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, O God. Well, be careful what you wish for, because today we are no longer living in what the church calls ordinary time.
Today we are hearing about a time that is difficult, suffering, fearful. We hear a longing for God to turn the world upside down. Three of today’s Scripture passages are written in a historical context of exile, defeat, despair, destruction. Humanity demands an intervention, a breaking into a world that has gone terribly wrong. Much of that rings true for us today. Much of our world seems to be falling apart. Men whom we have trusted to tell us the truth, to entertain us, to govern, have fallen from their pedestals. How interesting that in a time when “fake news” is the prevalent slogan and lies the currency of public discourse, women are finally finding the courage to come forward and tell a truth that has been suppressed for decades, the truth that powerful men have routinely used their power to treat women as sex objects. In the midst of all this grief and confusion, a light is shining out and growing stronger, and we need that light and that truth.
Advent is our time to prepare for Christmas. But the incarnation, the eruption of God into our world, is more than a chorus of well-loved carols and a daily glance at a calendar. It is an end, and it is the beginning: the end of a world that has lost its way, that is self-destructing on a cosmic scale, the people of God eating the bread of tears. This is a time for judgment of all those who have fallen short in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. This is the Advent of a new creation where God’s presence will be constant and God’s countenance will shine forth, where truth will be told and justice rendered, where the faithful people of God will know salvation and the promise of life immortal.
Advent is no season of passive waiting. We are to be actively preparing our hearts and the world for the coming of Christ in glory. We aren’t sitting in the doctor’s office, flipping through magazines that we would never buy, feeling bored and idle. We are waiting for the wedding day to arrive, and there’s a lot to do, cleaning house, cooking special dishes, making sure everything is absolutely at its best for the honored guests. That kind of waiting can feel all too short: we aren’t killing time, we are using every moment we have to be as ready as we possibly can for the big day.
And meanwhile, we are attentive to the signs that God is already at work, that Christ has already come to us and set in motion an inevitable chain of events. Those signs give us the hope and the determination to do what we need to do, to serve and work and proclaim as people of good news, people of Advent hope.
The promise is contained within a grim reality. The premise of apocalyptic literature like this part of the Gospel is that the worse things get, the closer we are to a new heaven and a new earth. Some extremist evangelicals want things to get worse, to force the arrival of the crisis and the end of the world as we know it, to precipitate the second coming of Christ. And we can see that things will likely get worse before they get better. More millions will die in war and from preventable diseases. Living standards will decline in the developed world. The poor will get poorer. The weather will get more extreme. More species will become extinct.
But look what happened after Mark’s prophecy of the end times: the message of Jesus, the good news of God’s unconditional love, grew, spread, prevailed, and persevered for 2000 years. It is a message that outlives human sin and faithlessness. It survives persecution and ridicule. It persists despite the worst that humanity can do.
Now, we can’t force God’s hand. We don’t know when the end and the new beginning will come. We must simply be, watchful, hopeful, confident that God’s promises are sure, and alert to the signs that God is at work.
If you’ve been following the investigation of Russia’s interference in our electoral process, you know that journalists are watching every move the Mueller team makes and they read significance into every twitch. Anyone in community leadership knows that a small action or off-the-cuff remark can be pounced on and given significance. I remember preaching in Advent years ago and describing this as a pregnant season. Almost immediately a rumor went around the church that I was expecting a baby. So, we need to be careful about how we interpret the signs of the times.
I’ve heard it said that St Paul’s focuses too much on serving those outside, to the neglect of those inside. People in the congregation see us offering food and showers to our neighbors in the Park and they say, “What about me?” “When is someone going to care for me?” I could speak about the Stephen Ministers, Eucharistic Visitors, and small group ministries that flourish here and are available to everyone in our cathedral family, but let me also suggest that, instead of waiting for someone to take care of us, we can adopt an active ministry and start caring for others. In my experience it’s when I grasp the opportunities to share God’s love, actively participating in the transformation of the world, that I most receive love myself.
In a time when we are all suffering from crisis fatigue, it’s tempting to metaphorically put our heads under the covers, and withdraw from active resistance. It’s so tiring to keep working for justice and liberation when all we see is injustice and oppression. But this is discipleship. This is the way of the cross. This is what we signed up for.
We are called to pursue our mission of reconciliation, of building community, of opening a space for real conversation, real lament, real transformation. We are to speak the truth. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the isolated, and care for each other within this community too. Above all, in this Advent season, we are to shine a light in the darkness and keep hope alive for those in danger of despairing. That was the purpose of the apocalytic writings in Scripture, and we surely need that hope today.
This will be our Advent way of waiting, our response to God’s love and compassion that we ourselves experience every day, witnessing to our confident hope that God’s justice will prevail, that love will conquer fear, and that Christ will, some day, come again in glory.
Dec 3, 2017
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges