Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2013
The book of the prophet Isaiah reveals a developing sense of the world beyond Israel – beyond Judaism – that recognizes that somehow these other nations and peoples are included in the scope of God’s plans. So Isaiah represents something of a paradigm shift in which we can see the beginning of a more universal and inclusive awareness and approach – an awareness that the universe is not just about Israel, and that there other people in the world who can serve God’s purposes besides Iraelites.
“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” The ultimate aim is to draw all people together – to unify – on a pathway leading to the place where God dwells – a place of absolute fulfillment. For an 8th Century BC Jew like Isaiah, that “place” would of course be Jerusalem, as a present day Muslim might name Mecca or a Roman Catholic might name Rome as that place where they would expect God to draw the whole world together.
Even though as much as 2800 years ago, Isaiah’s insights were beginning to point the way out of a tribal or parochial view of life, it’s amazing how little that ancient insight has penetrated into our consciousness. In fact, many people today seem even more inclined than ever to believe that the universe revolves around them, and even less inclined to see how other people and nations matter in the scheme of things. Seeing ourselves in perspective and context is always an important aspect of a meaningful spirituality.
One day, one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s assistants runs in breathless and says to him, “Your grace, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?”
The Archbishop says, “Give me the good news.”
The assistant replies, “I’ve got Jesus on the phone for you.”
The Archbishop says, “And the bad news?”
“He’s calling from Salt Lake City!”
I will be seriously shocked if Jesus’ return will have anything at all to do with Salt Lake City. But the point is, who knows? The story reminds us of the unexpected aspects, warns us not to count on things being as we want them to be, and teaches us to avoid the arrogance of believing that God is somehow tied to our wants and wishes. During Advent, it is always good to re-establish that God is not Santa Claus.
We all have an existing “paradigm,” which is a picture or story about the nature of things, a sense of how things are supposed to work and what things are supposed to mean. What Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel is a paradigm shift – a massive change that will come upon people quickly and unexpectedly. These massive shifts do happen periodically, and in fact, we may be in the midst of one now. The frustrating thing is that it is virtually impossible to know when that might happen.
As Jesus says, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In fact the Gospel stresses the unknowable aspect of all that. We don’t have all the answers – these things are not known even by the angels, nor even by Jesus himself. Only God knows the answer to that one, so it suggests to us that our abilities to predict and manage and control are limited; according to the insights of scripture, they are limited by God. It’s a way of saying be ready, but it’s also a way of saying everything is in good hands, so don’t give way to anxiety about it. Don’t feel you need to play God.
Recently, on a TV news show, one of the news folks made the comment, “only 29 shopping days left til …. holiday.” We don’t even know what to call it any more but Christmas has been transformed from a celebration of peace, hope and good will into a kind of judgment day and opportunity for insecurity and self-hatred to run wild. Did I buy enough? Will they like it? Will they like me better for giving it? How will I ever pay it all off?
The Good News of Advent and Christmas is a message about liberation from the tyranny of death and the fear of judgement, yet the irony is that we are never more restless, unfocussed and anxious as a society than at this time – a time that, in the Christian tradition, is dedicated to peace, joy, hope and love.
During the so-called “holiday season” we are pressured to look forward not with hope but with anxiety – the days are getting fewer, the squeeze of time gets tighter, the to-do list gets longer and the anxiety mounts day by day. Many look ahead to Christmas the way a condemned prisoner looks forward to his execution date – with dread. Anxiety about the future can consume us, and our society, by turning us into consumers, or economic units, rather than persons and communities, has raised the anxiety level considerably (witness the fist fights and police opening fire and the deaths during shopping season, which began in earnest this past Friday — no wonder they call it Black Friday).
Advent urges upon us a different mentality, which liberates us from the oppression of a fearful future and opens our minds and hearts into eternity. Johannes (Meister) Eckhart said: “There exists only the present instant… a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.”
In all the anxiety and rush about getting presents, we are seldom present. The story tries to pull us back to a centered and calm life, deeply connected within, but our world is constantly trying to pull us outward and persuades us to define and judge ourselves according to externals, a process in which we gradually lose all sense of perspective and even any sense of who we are.
Not only do we not have to look to the future with anxiety, God in Christ is always coming to us and is becoming more and more present to us, removing our anxiety about the future, releasing us from the guilt of the past, allowing us to be in the Now (the present moment) with integrity and authenticity, and enabling us to dwell in the present in a spirit of peace and compassion.
So, in Advent, we say in earnest: “Amen, Come, Lord Jesus, come!”
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
Psalm 122 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem built as a city that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.
Romans 13:11-14 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Matthew 24:36-44 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.