Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Casting Our Lot With Hope
Come, Lord Jesus. Take our minds and think through them. Take our mouths, and speak through them. Take our hearts, and set them on fire. Amen.
Today is the first day of Advent, the period that starts four Sundays before Christmas, and today we begin a new church year. We often think of Advent as the season in which we prepare for Christmas, and of course that’s true: our English word “Advent” comes from the Latin word for “arrival” or “coming,” and during Advent we look back to the first coming of Christ, when God became incarnate in Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem. But Advent means much more than that. Advent is the season in which we reflect on the Lord’s coming in its many dimensions – not only on God’s historical coming in the past, but also on what we might call God’s existential coming to our lives in the present, and above all on God’s coming at the end of time in some unknown moment in the future. (1)
Advent is a season of longing and hope. “O come o come, Emmanuel” – that is the great cry of Advent. Come, Lord, not only as you first came long ago, when the divine took human form in a baby. Be with us here today, as we go through our mortal lives. And come again on that great Day in the future, when, as today’s Collect puts it, “in glorious majesty [you will] judge both the living and the dead.”
Advent invites us to ask big questions about what lies ahead. How do I view the future? What do I dare to hope for? What is my final destiny as an individual person? And what about the final destiny of the world? The destiny of the whole cosmos? Where are we headed? Will human history come to an end, and if so, when and how? And what is the best way for us to live in the meantime? These are the kinds of questions that Advent sets before us, questions we may not often ask ourselves. But how we answer them will deeply affect the way in which we go about our daily lives, and whether or not we live with a sense of purpose and hope.
I don’t have to tell you that we don’t always look to the future with hope. We may be so busy putting one foot in front of the other and taking care of the immediate tasks at hand that we have no time even to think about the future. Or when we do think about the long-term future, it may be with the uneasy sense that the end of human life – if not the end of life on this planet – is a not-too-distant possibility, whether it comes from nuclear holocaust or ecological collapse.
So Advent may come as a bit of a shock with its insistent message that Christians dare to look toward the future with expectation and hope. It’s not that Christians deny the reality of endings. Christianity has always been realistic about the fact of limits, the fact of death. Everything mortal will at some point die. Everything created will at some point pass away. Christianity has always seen human beings as pilgrims on the earth, and eventually that pilgrimage will come to an end. “All flesh is grass,” said the prophet Isaiah [Isaiah 40:6], and I assume that that goes not just for our individual life but also for our existence as a species. No one knows how long human history will continue. The ending may come at some indefinitely remote time or it may come soon, in the very near future. Christianity accepts the fact of endings, though it does not speculate about the length of human history. As theologian Paul Tillich once put it, “Scientists speak today of the millions of years that human history could continue. Millions of years, or thousands of years, or tomorrow – we do not know!” (2)
But if Christianity does not speculate as to the length of human history, what Christianity does provide is deep insight into history’s meaning. It gives us a vision of our common destiny: at the end, all things will be gathered up in God. All things will be brought to their fulfillment. The One we name God is both the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One Who creates all things and the destiny toward which all created things are drawn. Since the days of the early church, Christians have longed with passionate and fervent hope for the second coming of Christ, for the final consummation when at last evil will be transformed into good, when everything that was injured or broken will be healed, and everything that was destroyed or distorted will at last be made whole. (3)
The Christian vision of the end of time is a vision that is charged with hope. It is a vision that is based not on our trust in the success of human effort and striving, but rather on our experience of the power of God. It is a vision that proclaims that God’s promises will be fulfilled. Whenever we proclaim every Sunday in the Creed – “Christ will come again” – we are casting our lot with hope.
In the light of God’s intended future, what might we keep in mind this Advent? Today’s Gospel reading from Luke offers three suggestions. The first is: Do not be surprised by suffering. Luke’s Gospel is very clear: before the end comes, there will be wars and persecution on earth, and there will even be cosmic signs in the sky, “signs in the sun and moon and stars” that cause such distress that “people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” [Luke 21:25,26]. Don’t be surprised by suffering, Luke is telling us. Don’t take your suffering or the world’s suffering to mean that God is powerless or that God doesn’t care or that God has abandoned us. To use the image that St. Paul gives in the Book of Romans [Romans 8:22], the whole creation is groaning in childbirth. Do not be surprised.
Second, Luke’s Gospel tells us, do not be afraid. As everything breaks open, the Son of Man will come “‘in a cloud’ with power and great glory” [Luke 21:25-27]. This apocalyptic image, which was taken from the Book of the prophet Daniel, expresses Christ’s mysterious and triumphant return. And though many people “will faint from fear and foreboding,” Christ’s followers should take heart. “Now when these things begin to take place,” says Jesus, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” [Luke 21:28].
Stand up, because the one who is coming to judge you is also the one who has given his life to redeem you.
Stand up, because the one who is coming in majesty and glory is also the one who loves you to the end and who gave his life for your sake.
God’s judgment will pierce me – and you – to the core, sifting out whatever is evil and distorted, but God’s grace will always embrace us. And so we dare to meet our Judge with heads raised high in joyful expectation, for in him we also meet our redeemer. Do not be afraid.
Finally, Luke tells us, do not fall asleep. It is so easy to slip into absorption with the pressing tasks of everyday life, and into all the ways we can dim and dull our awareness: too much food and drink, too much shopping, too much worry, too many things to do. Such ordinary preoccupations can cloud our awareness, so that we forget the urgency and decisiveness of each present moment. At any moment, at every moment, we face the possibility of the end of time and the sudden coming of Christ.
I have to tell you that I find something thrilling and sobering and enlivening in remembering that. I agree with the theologian who commented that “. . .This world looks different when seen from the End. The neutrality goes out of it. It is as though the beam of a searchlight has been turned upon it, immeasurably deepening the contrast between light and shade. The flatness is taken from living. A new edge and tone is given to it. The common round becomes charged with fresh moment and decisiveness.” (4)
In other words, when seen from the End – the end of time, the end of our lives – every moment matters. What we do matters: whether or not we said the kind word; whether or not we took the time to pray; whether or not we made space to listen to God in silence; whether or not we did that brave thing we should have done long ago but somehow always put off to some other day. So keep the searchlight turned on! Do not fall asleep.
Here on the First Sunday of Advent we remember Christ’s coming in the past, and we wait with eager hope for his coming in the future. Past and future meet in this present moment, for all time is equally embraced by God: Christ has come, Christ will come again, and Christ is here – right here with us, now, in this room.
May Jesus keep us steadfast and faithful and abounding in love for one another and for all, until his coming in glory. Amen.
(1) Paraphrased from Preaching through the Christian Year: Year C, ed. Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 1994), p. 3.
(2) Paul Tillich, “Man and Earth,” The Eternal Now, p. 74.
(3) See John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, 2nd edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966, 1977), p. 365.
(4) John A.T. Robinson, In the End God, quoted by Owen Thomas, Introduction to Theology, p. 221].