Advent 1 / A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
1 December 2019
With Thanksgiving behind us for another year, here’s a question that just may strike some fear and trepidation in your heart: What does your time look like between now and Christmas? Is your calendar for the next four weeks a jumble of “must do’s”? A growing list of “have to get done’s”?
There is no argument that Advent – these four weeks that precede Christmas – Advent is a hectic season! There’s all the shopping, the wrapping, the shipping, and delivering. There are the Christmas cards. There’s the tree to be bought, set up, trimmed, and watered every day. There’s the inside decorating … and the outside decorating. There’s whatever baking you might hope to get done. There’s a school band and choir concert, and the annual family gathering, and a neighborhood caroling party to be fit in somehow. There’s the Sunday School Christmas pageant, and the obligatory office Christmas party. There may be people to pick up at the airport. And maybe there are some December birthdays thrown into the mix, just for good measure. And don’t forget the church services: Advent Sundays, Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
It’s all there on your calendar, be it paper or digital. And it’s all got to be accomplished on time – within the next 23 days!
And then . . . there’s God’s time. God’s time - not contained in a calendar, or a schedule, or a to-do list, but within the circle of the Advent wreath, the wreath that appears each year on this first Sunday of Advent, with the first candle burning brightly. Today marks the beginning of the Advent season, the start of a new church year, that big wheel of time that every year moves us through this first liturgical season the church year, the expectancy and preparation and waiting of Advent, and into the joy and wonder of Christmas.
Over the next four weeks, each Sunday morning, here in this space, at this time, we step outside the limited, finite, secular advance of time and enter – for an hour or so - into the infinite and expansive span of God’s time. This first lit candle marks the beginning of the time we will spend with the prophet Isaiah, that ancient prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures known and trusted and often quoted by the writers of the New Testament.
The light of this one, lone candle infuses and illuminates today’s readings. Isaiah implores his listeners to walk in the light of the Lord, enter into the kingdom where people do not learn how to make war, but instead turn their energies toward peaceful pursuits, cultivating the earth and not destroying it.
Paul echoes Isaiah’s vision when he urges his listeners to wake up, to leave the works of darkness behind, and to put on the armor of light. And Paul also echoes what he heard that Jesus had said to his disciples: “Keep awake, therefore.”
Next Sunday morning the wreath’s light will double as we will light the first and the second candles, and Isaiah will speak again, reminding us what is triggered by the light: new growth, a green shoot from a dead stump. Paul will remind us of Isaiah’s prediction about that dead stump of David’s line bearing new fruit in the person of Jesus. And in the Gospel, John the Baptist, the one Isaiah predicted would come, will appear in the blinding sunlight of the desert, telling us to prepare the way for the one who will use water and fire to make us his own.
On the third Sunday, when we light three candles, Isaiah will tell us about deserts that bloom, the blind who see, and the lame who leap. James will remind us, in his letter to the earliest Christians, that it takes time and patience for the earth to bloom. He will use the prophets as examples of those who waited patiently for their faith to bear fruit. And Jesus will confirm John the Baptist’s suspicions about him: indeed, he is the one whom Isaiah predicted. Through him the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the people hear the good news of the coming of the kingdom.
And on the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, all four candles will burn, a reminder that the time of Advent waiting has nearly passed, and the promises made will soon be fulfilled. Isaiah will tell us about a young woman who will give birth to a son and name him “Immanuel”, “God with us.” Matthew will set Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph in the light of Isaiah’s prediction. And Paul will tell the Romans that Jesus fulfills everything the prophets promised us.
Finally, on Christmas Eve and morning, we will hear John begin his gospel with those mysterious and powerful words: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth.”
And so, God’s time, represented in the four candles and the circle of Advent time, will have gone around again. But Advent is not a time when we just go through the motions of retelling an old, familiar story whose ending we already know. It’s worth remembering that we begin our journey around this wheel this morning looking to the future, with Jesus’ own prediction of how he will come to us once again. Advent is about Jesus having come once – 2,000 years ago, as we measure our time; and Christ’s promising to come again – in the twinkling of an eye, in God’s time.
This time of Advent is about the light shining in the darkness, but not obliterating the darkness. It is about the Kingdom having already come near to us, but not yet having been fulfilled. Advent is a time for remembering that there is much work left to be done – and not contained just in all the “must do” tasks we face over these next four weeks. Advent is a time of expecting and preparing and waiting. There is much to do. But you know what? Christmas always comes, whether we get it all done – whether we are perfectly prepared and ready – or not.
I wonder: Will the Kingdom of God come in a similar inevitable way? Will the Kingdom come, whether we are ready or not? What will we have done to hasten its coming? Will we recognize it when it comes? And just who are we? Which farmer in the field? Which woman grinding meal? Will we go about our pre-Christmas tasks, marking out our own time, and forget about the Advent stories of God’s time?
Or, perhaps, can we overlay these two arcs of time, taking good care of the tasks that will make for a special holiday season, and, at the same time, staying awake and alert, watching for the signs of God’s Kingdom – in God’s time – breaking into our time?
Because it is not that we shouldn’t enjoy the hustle and bustle of the secular season of “X-number of days until Christmas” – even though some preachers are known to guilt us into thinking it is less-than-Christian to fall for this month’s commercialism. Last year, about this time, the Rev. Mary Luti, who is a United Church of Christ pastor, wrote in her blog that she was “simply getting tired of listening to sermons in Advent that draw a sharp line between the bad world of getting and spending which barely acknowledges or even notices the reason for the season, and another good world in which none of that goes on and into which Jesus is born properly, cleanly, almost antiseptically, to the sound of angels singing, not cash registers ringing.”
But that second, perfect world, she reminds us, doesn’t exist. We only have one world – this world we live in, this one world in which God comes to us, finds us, and loves us because of our longing for something beyond ourselves. Jesus never asked us not to be human, Luti points out. Rather, Jesus became human, became like us, and came into the chaos of this world to show us how to navigate our way through it, using love and compassion as our guides, mercy and grace as our touchstones.
In a book of prayerful poems called “Being Home,” Gunilla Norris strives to live in the overlap that exists between our time and God’s time. She wants to be a good steward of her everyday tasks in such a way that allows her not to despise the din and activity of the world and its tasks, but to enjoy them, and use them as a portal that transports her into deeper living with Christ.
In a poem called “Polishing the Silver” she prays:
As I polish let me remember
the fleeting time that I am here. Let me let go of
all silver. Let me enter this moment
and polish it bright. Let me not lose my life
in any slavery – from looking good,
to preserving the past, to whatever idolatry
that keeps me from just this –
the grateful receiving of the next thing at hand.
So, happy Advent! In these four weeks that lie ahead, as this wreath and these candles mark our progress, may we know:
The blending of our time and God’s time.
The blending of our world and God’s Kingdom.
The blending of our will and God’s will.