Isaiah 64:1-9; ark 13:24-27
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
The season of Advent is designed to remind us of why Christ came. The lessons and hymns during this holy time of year; they’ve been carefully curated to help us avoid the mistake of rushing from the conclusion of our Thanksgiving feast to Christmas morning with nary the time to ponder why we needed God to intervene in our lives in the first place, and fail to consider what we must now do to in order to be ready for when he comes again. In other words, it’s not laziness or a lack of what one might refer to as “The Christmas Spirit” that is reflected in the absence of carols, twinkling lights, poinsettias and jingle bells in our liturgical décor this time of year. What you are witnessing, instead, is a grand display of liturgical restraint. Look closely. I challenge you to find an elf or reindeer in sight…though I can’t vouch for the camels. This restraint, it’s found in what your eyes behold, in the hymns you sing and the lessons you hear. The theme which resonates is this: Holy, hopeful, waiting. Advent is a season of preparation. Oh, go ahead and decorate your house—but be certain, in the midst of the activities which run riot this time of year, not to neglect to prepare your heart.
Let’s face it, Advent—for the uninitiated, it’s a perplexing season. The readings we’re faced with aren’t filled with light and joy and they fail to conjure up images that flow well with the hard work occurring in Santa’s workshop this time of year, or, for that matter, in Mrs. Claus’s kitchen. If there is a smell associated with these readings it would be less redolent of cinnamon and gingerbread and more suggestive of the reek of Sulphur. For, indeed, the readings we are confronted with today, speak to us of the end times.
In the lesson from Isaiah, the prophet cries out to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Later, in the Gospel Jesus says: “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory’”.
Are these readings unsettling? Only if you’re listening. Are they frightening? Perhaps. But there is also this. These readings are honest. What these Advent readings declare in stark terms is this “Our world is not okay”. And, what’s more—God’s absence in this world—well, that isn’t okay either. We are surrounded by evil and suffering, and there are moments that we’re not certain our faith can endure what our eyes reluctantly witness each day as we turn on the news or pick up the paper. Sometimes hope itself can be something of a grind. We are confronted with human –suffering appearing to us on an unprecedented scale. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that we are now witnessing the highest levels of human displacement on record with an unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world forced from home. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights. To put this in terms we can understand, imagine everyone in the following states: MA, NY, NE, RI, NH, CT, PA, OH, MD, VA, and MISS suddenly homeless and needing to fine somewhere else to live---now. There are thousands of people who have lost loved ones, homes and businesses due to environmental disasters ranging from hurricanes to earthquakes and wildfires. This year we have witnessed increasing numbers of domestic atrocities of mass shootings and terrorist killings by vehicle. Daily we read of deaths due to opioid addiction. We are faced with political uncertainty in our own country and abroad as leaders play fast and loose with nuclear armaments. We listen to the news and are uncertain who to trust to tell us the truth. We are losing faith in the institutions which, for years, we have relied upon as the touchstone for our national way of life. What are we to do? Where lies our hope?
One of the gifts this season of Advent gives us is the permission to look beyond the tinsel and glitter that bedecks most everything this time of year, to see the truth. Not the truth that we would like to see, but the truth as it is—even if it is laced with sorrow. And then, we are to wait. And this waiting—well—it too is a gift. Because this type of waiting doesn’t mean that we sit idly by doing nothing. This is a waiting which is inherently productive. Eugene Peterson calls the Christian life “a long obedience in the same direction.” This, I believe, is the type of waiting toward which the season of Advent is striving —a waiting which orients the trajectory of our lives. And that trajectory is oriented toward the coming reign of Christ. Not the infant Jesus, born in a manger, but the Jesus we encounter today in the Gospel of Mark: The Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
Allow me to suggest to you that this image is less frightening, and far more hopeful than it first might appear. Because these words that we encounter in scripture this morning, well…. they were spoken to people (rather like ourselves) people who were living in uncertain and frightening times. These words and images, then, they are reminders that God is coming—not on a timetable that we might recognize, but one in which we must find ourselves ready and able to respond to Christ when he arrives. And so, the time to be prepared is now.
Once asked what he would do if he believed the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have responded, “I would plant a tree today.” Like Martin Luther, we can also be confident of God’s love and sure of God’s promises about the future, and still invest in the present, in the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and causes all around us. As people of faith, we can look to the future with hope, in the certainty that there will come a time in which God indeed will draw all of God’s creation not just to an end—but to a good end. Yet in the meantime—in this uncertain and even uncomfortable in-between time, we wait—with longing, certainly, but also with intention and with purpose for that better world to come. In Jesus’ name. Amen.