First Sunday of Advent Year B 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Here we are at the beginning of a new year for the church. The beginning of Advent marks the start of our liturgical year usually bringing us from a bright and celebratory Feast of Christ the King to this sobering, darker time, filled with talk of waiting and staying awake. Our readings continue this theme of the end of all things, but take on a tone of finality. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus talks about the unraveling of creation in a way that stands as a reverse of the creation narrative in Genesis.
We are told over and over that it’s time to wait, time to watch, time to stay awake and be alert. Honestly hearing directions like that seem somewhat old hat in this time of a Global pandemic. Who isn’t watching, waiting, and staying alert? Who isn’t watching their lives and their worlds unravel? Frankly, who isn’t struggling to stay awake when it looks like midnight at 5pm? But then we are also propelled into the oddest ‘holiday season’ most likely in living memory.
If this were any normal year, we’d be singing verses of ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ and ‘On Jordan’s bank the Baptist cries’. I’d be admonishing you to be careful about getting swept up into the holiday insanity, and you’d hear lots of reminders that Christmas doesn’t start until the sun goes down on December 24th and lasts until January 6th. While those things might be true or important, they seem to pale in comparison to the wakeup call we’ve had this year about watching, waiting, and vigilance.
But even with things the way they are, the world pushes on with its holiday frenzy, with its political jockeying for blessings on the rich and powerful. It pushes on in the easy, simple notions of religious platitudes and ego-indulgent pseudo theologies. And like people who have lived by the train tracks too long, we no longer hear the sound of the train. We no longer here the command to stay awake, to watch, to keep faith in God’s return. While we might certainly be physically awake, driven on by the caffeine from our hot chocolate, or the decorating, or the Zoom gatherings with family, it is easy to look around and see a church and a people that are fast asleep.
Who can blame the church? After nearly two thousand years of watching, waiting, staying awake, who could be blamed for not hearing God’s call as the same message begins to blend into the background of our lives? In the midst of that a lot of folks, including the disciples and the early followers of Jesus who misunderstand when Jesus says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Sometimes I think out of sheer frustration that this doesn’t make sense we get complacent about the watching and waiting, and most of all, staying awake to the presence of God in our world.
Advent is one of the oldest recorded seasons of the church year. The very concept of waiting for Christ’s return, really keeping faith in Christ’s return, was far more present and palpable to Christians centuries ago. Anymore, if someone tells us to beware that the end times are soon, well, we pretty much expect to see a documentary about how that didn’t turn out so well for them a year or two down the road. We expect that sort of ideology more from those on the fringe. But I’m here today to tell you that it is no less important now than it was five hundred or nearly two thousand years ago.
Our Gospel lessons over the last few weeks from Matthew have focused on Christ’s parables of the Kingdom of God, the Eschaton, and the lessons of what our work is to do before that Kingdom is fully realized. The most important point that came out of those parables is Jesus’ consistent admonishment to have faith in God’s mercy and grace, and the promise of God’s return. Those lessons reach their fever-pitch in the image of Christ reigning on high, the triumphant king surrounded by light and power. It’s almost as if someone has flipped the lights off, and we now are muted, darker, and more primal in our wait for the triumphal day.
We start in darkness, we light one candle on the Advent wreath, and we imagine a time right before the incarnation of the messiah, a time for God’s people to be rudderless, without a prophet to guide them. We start Advent at the darkest but most hopeful point in the narrative of God’s people. It reflects to us both a time before Christ’s birth, when the world was praying for the messiah to come, and now, after Christ’s ascension when the world is watching and waiting for his return. We are called to stay awake to this tension, to the subtle, distant thunder of what is to come. And most of all, to hold faith and hope in that Kingdom.
That isn’t just an Advent admonition either. This is a part of living out our discipleship all year round. We follow the path of the messiah who preached forgiveness, love, reconciliation, and all of that takes a whole lot of heart. We cannot be dulled to the compassion and love that are required of us because we spend all our time overwhelmed with the stresses of life. We are not excused from Christ’s command to love your neighbor even when they are refusing to wear a mask and spreading death like Typhoid Mary. Compassionate faith requires us to struggle with this divide. On the other side of the coin, we also cannot spend all our time immersed in pleasure and escape, either pretending that nothing is different or only spending all of our energy on the feasts and ignoring the fasts. Neither of these routes offers us a way that makes room for the heart to be present, aware, and ready to behold a vision of the Kingdom of God.
Off the Southwest coast of Ireland, about seven and a half miles out to sea there is an island called Skellig Michael. More recently the island has gained a lot of attention as a place where several scenes from the newest Star Wars movies were filmed. But originally this tiny little island was the home of a monastery of Augustinians, probably founded in about the 8th or 9th Century. The monks chose to call this place home because to them it felt like the edge of the world, a desert like place to remove themselves from the distractions of the world. They sat as the edge, watching and waiting for the return of Christ, dedicated their church to St. Michael the Archangel, and hoped and prayed for the Kingdom to come.
Advent is our call to awaken to that hope. It is a call for us to return to the cornerstone of our faith; to refocus on the hope and grace of God that Christ proclaims. It’s not just about kindling light in the darkness. It isn’t just about celebrating feasts in the bleak midwinter. It is about preparing for the Incarnation of God, the whole focus of our chosen faith, to return again to us for the finality of God’s kingdom. To stay awake, and have faith that the Gospel we proclaim is true, and that one day, maybe even today, Christ returns in his glory and the Kingdom of God will reign forever.