And so it begins. A new liturgical year; another Advent. The wreath is out, the first candle has been lit, we’ve hung the greens, and if you haven’t started preparing for Christmas - and by preparing I don’t mean the deep spiritual work of repentance we here in the church associate with Advent; I really just mean shopping - then you’re probably already feeling a little stressed out. Am I right? Yeah.
Well, relax. Advent is not Christmas. Advent is not about “parties for hosting and chestnuts for roasting and caroling out in the square.” Advent is about slowing down. Advent is a time for dreams, introspection, and quiet anticipation. Advent is about waiting… patiently - without knowing the how or the when - waiting patiently for Jesus to come.
So there’s no need to have it all figured out already. By my count you still have roughly 28 days, 13 hours, and 28 minutes left to trim the tree, decorate the house, bake the cookies, send out the Christmas cards, arrange the menus, figure out what you’re going to wear, make your travel plans, and find a perfect gift for everyone on your list.
28 days! Ok? Ok. Unless you’re shipping over seas, in which case you might want to get on it. But for the rest of you, please…right now, I just want you to sit back, relax, and join me in contemplating the coming apocalypse. Yeah, the apocalypse; because that is what we here in the church do during Advent.
It’s strange, I know; but the wisdom of our tradition leads us back to certain readings every year, and apparently the men who assembled the lectionary felt no celebration of Christ’s first coming would be complete without a few words about his second.
Perhaps their logic runs something like this: If hosting all of your relatives live and in-person for the first time in three years has got you down, I’m sorry. But hey, at least it’s not the end of the world.
We know that Christmas is coming:
“But about that day and hour no one knows,” says Jesus, “…For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man…(So) Keep awake…” says Jesus, “be ready… for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Ah, the time of Noah. Not a particularly bright moment in the history of humanity. I know you can’t hear the name Noah without thinking about all the animals entering the ark two by two, but Jesus is not referencing a children’s story here. Indeed, I‘ve never really understood why people think the story of Noah’s ark is appropriate for children at all, but I digress…
No, Jesus is talking about a time when human society became so incredibly corrupt and destructive that God, in despair, wiped the whole thing out and started over with nothing more than one human family and a handful of animals.
Jesus calls our attention back to the time right before the flood, a time when the world was a complete and utter mess of violence, hate, and injustice. And yet, in spite of how awful things had become, the people of Noah’s day went right on eating, drinking, marrying, and celebrating like they didn’t have a care in the world.
I don’t mean to be overly grim here, but it sounds a bit like Christmas in America, doesn’t it? That magical time of year when people behave as if everything is good … even when it isn’t, everything is fine … even though it is not, everything is “A-Okay!” …when the reality of our circumstance is anything but.
I mean sure the polar ice caps are melting, our landfills are over flowing, and war is raging, but act now and you can get 20% off a new flat screen TV, and doesn’t that make you feel so much better?
No? Me either, which is honestly why I cherish these four weeks of Advent– dare I say, even more than I love the celebration of Christmas – because during Advent we acknowledge our present reality for what it is: cold, empty, dark, sad. And we acknowledge the world as it is: broken, burning, and desperately in need.
Friends, Advent is the first movement of the Christian imagination. Years ago, when the church fathers mapped out the seasons of the liturgical year, they chose to begin here, four weeks before Christmas, for a reason.
We start, not on the 22nd of December when the winter solstice has passed and the sun once again begins to gain ground or even on the 25th with the birth of Christ, but a few weeks before all of that, while the sun’s light is still receding. We begin the liturgical year in the time of deepest darkness, when the nights are long and only getting longer. We begin our annual journey as people of faith while the days are cold and only getting colder. We start four weeks before Christmas, with the realization that something is not right, with the understanding that something profound needs to change.
Do you doubt me, when I say this? Do you doubt that the world is broken? I don’t know how you possibly could. I don’t even have to look at the statistics: the number of people who die every day from gun violence here in America, the number of people dying every day in Ukraine, dying every day while protesting for basic human rights in Iran, or dying of hunger in Ethiopia, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
It takes just one story; one story of hatred or abuse, another mass shooting or another species facing extinction, to make me wonder how God can put up with this world and all the horrible things we do to each other.
And I am sorry if I bumming you out right now. It seems somehow inappropriate to talk this bluntly about the challenges and horrors running rampant in our world given the fact that there are animatronic snowmen in every department store from here to China singing, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”? And yet, I think we need to acknowledge all of this. I think we need to say it out loud.
Because, you see, in order for us to understand “the true meaning of Christmas,” in order for us to appreciate the significance of the “true light, which enlightens everyone, the true light coming into the world,” we must first look the darkness of this present world full in the face and understand that this is not the world as God meant it to be.
“You do not have to sit outside in the dark,” says Annie Dillard. “If however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is required.”
My friends, Advent loses its power over us if we skip to the end of the story, if we only focus on the celebration of Christmas Day, if we don’t take the time to experience what it means to long for Christ’s light, long for Christ’s peace… what it means to long for Jesus to finally rule in our hearts and in our world. “Advent” means “coming.” We are waiting for Christ’s coming. And if we are waiting for him to come, by extension this means that he is not yet fully here.
And so we read and we remember the visions of prophets like Isaiah, beautiful words about all the nations of the world flowing together like a stream up to the mountain of God to be judged, to be instructed, to be made right; visions of peace and equity for all people. We read these visions of peace so we know what to hope for and what to work toward.
And we read apocalyptic warnings about Jesus showing up, not as a hero, but a thief. A thief who might just break into your house and steal - what exactly? I’m not really sure – but steal something if you’re not paying attention. We read these weird, freaky little apocalyptic passages to keep us on our toes.
Because sometimes you have to mess with people as they are in order to remind them of who they can truly be. Because sometimes you have to mess with the world as it is to remind people that it could be so much more.
Because sometimes you have to shake things up if you want people to “wake up,” and that seems to be Jesus’ ultimate goal in this passage – waking us up because - unlike the time of Noah - God is not going to give up on us this time. God is not going to wipe us off the map, but has chosen instead to come to us and keep coming through us in an effort to heal the world.
We don’t necessarily know how and we won’t necessarily know when. Which means that as Christians, we can still eat, drink, marry and make merry. (A little good news for you there).
You’ll notice that in Jesus’ prediction of the end times there is really very little difference between the lives of those who are taken and those who remain. They are all doing the same things.
Which I think means that we can still celebrate, we can still work, we can still live our lives right up to the end. Only we are to do so with our eyes wide open - waiting and watching and ready to respond to the work of God in our midst.
In her “Letter to a Young Activist,” Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes:
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.
It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.”
That, to me, is the meaning, the message, the true work of Advent:
to wait with a fierce hope and glad expectation,
to stand at the ready, eyes open and heads held high,
to look the reality of this world full in the face
and still dare to believe that a better world is possible,
because Christ has come and will come again,
because Christ has come and is coming even now,
coming through us and for us,
in small acts of great love,
because God in us and through us
still longs to save the world.
May it be so. May it be soon. Amen.