Homily for the First Sunday of Advent 2009
Jeremiah 33:14-16 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
Psalm 25:1-10 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD! Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Luke 21:25-36 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Slipping under the radar of most Canadians is the fact that this Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, and it is meant to signal a shift in direction. In the liturgical cycle, it is the beginning of a new year, and appropriately, we begin our new year by starting at the beginning of the Christian story, and celebrating the coming or advent of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
The traditional colour for Advent was purple, because Advent at one time was seen to be a penitential season, with a focus on serious themes like heaven, hell, death and judgement. The colour blue can signify many things, for one thing, a kind of lightening up of approach; blue is usually considered a spiritual colour so it may suggest a focus on spiritual practices designed to welcome Christ; it may symbolize an image from nature, of the light just before the dawn – a sign of hope; it is also the traditional colour of Mary the Mother of Jesus, whose choice to bear the Christ Child is a significant focus during Advent.
Advent is not a penitential season; it is a season of hope, a time of anticipation and preparation, and our seasonal customs like trees and lights and giving gifts can play into that sense of joyful expectation and wonder. Advent can also be an intentional time of becoming centered and receptive, identifying with Mary and others who opened themselves to Christ’s first coming, as a way of enabling the rebirth of Christ and the renewal of our hearts. It can be a helpful corrective to the barrage of advertizing and social pressure and mindless materialism that confronts us every year at this time.
Actually, as always, Advent can be a time and an opportunity for you to focus on whatever you need to, but the season, as observed by the Church, does draw certain things to attention. One is about the final coming of Christ – the culmination of all things. Christianity is a very future-oriented faith. It’s not just a matter of “whatever happens, happens.” From our faith perspective, life has a direction, a purpose, so we look toward a fulfilment – a goal or destination.
People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”
I was raised under the shadow of the Cold War and nuclear holocaust. As a child, I had dreams of the world desolated and of empty landscapes with nothing but gravestones. That sense of where the world was headed produced a deep fear in me, and since then I have seen that vision held up by many movie makers, novelists and scientists. As a culture, we have become afraid of the future and terrified of death. Life to some is a threat, not a gift or a blessing.
Few of us want to think of “the end” either on a personal level or in terms of all of existence, and for many, looking to the future produces worry and fear, so they engage in various forms of escapism, and there are plenty of diversions during the “festive season.” But Christ gives us a new way of understanding and approaching God, and that vision transforms the future from a fearful place to a welcome place, a place of fulfilment and completion – the great house containing many mansions, as John’s Gospel suggests.
There is certainly an aspect of accountability in that vision, in that we have to answer for how we have chosen to use the talents and means and opportunities given us. There is also a sense that our life means something – that it’s supposed to add up to something – and is not just random or meaningless. In Christ, as scripture says, we have confidence for the day of judgement and we look forward to it as a time when the overall picture of our life will emerge and be seen from God’s perspective. I for one am certainly curious to know what that will look like.
Christians are encouraged to look to the future in hope. In the meantime, in the present, we act with poise, with confidence, because in Christ, even chaos is a time when the kingdom of God will be near and accessible for those who believe.
We just sang the familiar hymn which suggests a bit of a paradox: “O Come, O come Emmanuel …” Come, Emmanuel (which means “God with us”). He’s coming but he’s already here! As the great Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart said: “God is present; it is we who have gone out for a walk.” God is not missing or absent, but we often are. God is present but it is a matter of opening to God more and more, allowing the divine spirit to penetrate to the inmost parts of our being – and in this Mary is our most perfect example. Mary’s womb is a metaphor for the spiritual heart or centre or soul in each of us. Again, Eckhart says: “We are celebrating the feast of the eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity … But if that birth does not take place in me, of what use is it? Everything depends on this, that it should take place in me.”
The world at this time of year can get very cluttered up, very scattered and frenzied. Many people find it overwhelming and depressing and just want it to go away. Many people new to our culture find our sudden and seasonal rush to buy things baffling and disturbing. I would suggest that our society, which has changed so much in the last generation, is in desperate need of a review and renewal of the way we have approached and prepared for Christmas. The Christian approach has been to see the season of Advent as an invitation into a deeper and more meaningful inner life, and so it can be a very rich time spiritually. We retell the story of how the divine life enters the heart of the world through a child, and through Christ, confronts the fear, ignorance and violence of the human heart with the radiant love of God.
Luke quotes Jesus as telling his followers that when things become uncertain and chaotic, instead of ducking and running, or denying there is a problem, or just throwing up our hands in helpless despair, it is instead a time to “raise your heads.” In the midst of chaos we are to know we have the grace to rise above, to be centered and solid in the calm that comes from a deep connection with the Prince of Peace. This brings to mind for me the powerful image of Jesus sleeping through the terrible storm on the sea, while his disciples became more and more panic stricken and afraid. In the midst of chaos and certain death, Jesus calmly rises and peace radiates from him. Chaos is a time for faith, not panic, a time to rely more deeply upon God, and not to abandon ship, a time when God is not far, but near. As Emerson said, “He who is not every day conquering some fear has not learned the meaning of life.”
In Advent we are reminded that we are not alone – we are not powerless. God comes to us; God is with us. Advent is a season that invites us to open the doors of perception to the new reality, the new creation. We do so by being focused, paying attention, taking time to be still and look within, instead of being mesmerized by all the novelties and tinsel of life, and enervated into manic activity. As Jesus suggests, if you are prepared to look, and to be open to what you see, you can see signs which can tell you what’s going on. So it’s important to pay attention to the signs of the times, and be able to stand up to them, and not merely get caught up with it all, like a jellyfish in the tide.
So we begin a new year, and it is always difficult to know how it will unfold. Like children hoping for something unrealistic for a Christmas gift, we need to caution ourselves against imposing particular expectations on the season and on life, and be open to receive and deal with what comes to us.
Years ago I was riding my bike home from church when an amazing sight unfolded ahead of me. A man was coming out of his house with his new best friend, a puppy. This was no ordinary puppy; it was enormous – a St. Bernard or something – and so it seemed that perhaps this man had in mind the beginning of a very big and beautiful friendship. He had his bike and leash all ready. It appeared this was an inaugural event, and he may have thought that this was going to be the beginning of many happy times. As a dog owner, I thought, this should be interesting!
As I watched it unfold, right off the bat, the puppy didn’t cooperate – as soon as the man got on the bike, the puppy jumped away in fear, causing the man to have to swerve to a stop, and almost fall on the pavement. They got going again, but almost instantly the puppy ran around in front of the bike, so the leash got caught in the wheel and the fender, and the bike pitched forward so the man spilled over the handle bars onto the road. I was just drawing up to them at this point, and it was obvious that if there hadn’t been a witness around, the dog would have been in for it. The man made a motion toward the dog like he was going to kick it into the middle of next week, but seeing me, he relented. He hadn’t made it to the next house on the street, and he was already furious, almost out of control, and struggling to keep his composure. But he got the leash and the dog unravelled, and got back onto his bike and started going again.
I passed by them but I wasn’t a block away when the dog went past me like lightning, dragging the leash. His owner was behind, screaming obscenities and threats, and riding frantically, trying to catch him. As they headed off toward the horizon, I felt fortunate that I didn’t see how that story ended.
Dogs, like cars, are such an extension of our ego that it is infuriating when they disappoint us. It applies to other things as well, like our sense of direction in life, and how our children should turn out, etc. Years ago, I was told by a very wise person: “Don’t try to contrive your future; trust in God to unfold it.” That may sound rather passive, but it has turned out to be very good advice. In a world of goals and mission statements and desired outcomes, that seems seriously counter-intuitive, probably ridiculous, but I happen to believe it is God’s way of doing things.
I am sure God must wonder sometimes, as I did about the guy with his new dog, at the way we attempt to contrive or control our future. We have great expectations, but we want it to be a certain way. And it almost never ends up that way, which is part of the adventure of life that really irritates some people. The trick seems to be not to place a lot of pressure on achieving particular outcomes or results, because then we are disappointed or annoyed when that doesn’t happen. The unexpected can be as much of a gift as that which we crave. Simply to be aware that God is with us, and that even in the midst of apparent chaos, God’s order is not disturbed, only ours, is a great spiritual gift. And if we can find that still peaceful centre, even when everything seems to be going to hell in a handcart, it is a gift of the spirit that will bring more happiness than anything else.
We do not know what the future will bring, but we do know the spirit in which we are to face it. During Advent, we are called to wait, and to maintain a still centre of calm and poise, despite all the false promises and misleading persuasions of life around us, and allow God, who resides at that centre, to give us again the gift of the Christ Child. May Advent bring many blessings and an opportunity to be born again by allowing the Christ Child to be born in us.
(The Rev.) Grant Rodgers