A Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent Year C at St. Martin’s Providence from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs.
Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
It was an insultingly cold, wet and windy day when I met a friend for coffee downtown late one afternoon about three weeks ago. My shoes were soggy and my feet were freezing, so it was nice to go into the warm sanctuary of the crowded shop.
We ordered our mochas and squeezed into our seats among the many folks seeking refuge from the nasty weather, and we caught up on the latest personal news. Then, our friendship having begun through church work, the topic inevitably turned to preaching, and to the gospel text for this week’s sermon. And so began an energetic conversation about the end of the world.
He told me, in his clear take-no-prisoners Baptist-upbrought voice that he is firmly convinced of the second coming of Christ to this world, and he eagerly looks forward to that time when everything that separates him from God will be stripped away in the “hot soapy water of judgment.”
My friend’s firm conviction took me a little by surprise. When I was growing up, other than in the recitation of the Nicene Creed, there wasn’t a lot of talk in church about Christ’s return and final judgment.
So I had to confess to him that the idea of the Second Coming is something that I have always struggled with. Today’s Gospel account of Jesus’ apocalyptic words strikes me as Luke’s way of trying to visualize a time—an end of time—that can’t easily be put into words, and when I do try to visualize it my vision fails. For some reason I have no trouble visualizing the mystery of the Incarnation, the miracles of Jesus, the Resurrection and the Ascension, but when it comes to the Eschaton, as it is known in Greek, I have a different perspective. What if we thought of Biblical time and Creation as encompassing the entire sweep of cosmological history from the Big Bang—that time when God spoke Creation into being from an infinitesimal singularity, expanding outward and forming the heavens and the earth. The source of God’s Beloved Creation from a singularity means that every speck of matter and energy is in relationship with one another. The Incarnation—the First Coming– of Christ was the culmination of the first part of all Creation’s—not just humanity’s– relationship with God. And now all of creation, not just humanity, is in a mind-blowing arc of ultimate reconciliation with God at the end of time. That’s hard to visualize. Apocalyptic writers through history have sought to encapsulate their vision of God’s final triumph in the best way they knew how. And the images they chose are in turn comforting, disturbing and easily misunderstood. Apocalyptic literature is the product of political and social upheaval of the time in which it is written, and it is ripe for misuse by those who stop at a literal reading and thus believe they know the mind, and the calendar, of God.
So I confessed to my friend that I don’t find these texts to be as comforting as he does.
We went back and forth for a while, talking politics, history, the Bible, Judgment, visions of apocalypse: It was great. Then at some point I looked around. The formerly crowded coffee shop had pretty much emptied out. I guess arguing in public about Jesus will do that to folks.
It’s too bad, though. Because conversations like this can be enlightening. We learned from each other. I found my friend’s honest and eager expectation of Christ’s return to be an embodiment of what the First Sunday in Advent is about. I had never seen Advent Expectation as vividly as in the way my friend expressed it.
In return, he seemed to have learned something from me. He hadn’t considered the awesome grand sweep of cosmology and theology that I tried to articulate from my perspective.
It was a great exchange; two friends talking about God; asking questions, questioning answers, over coffee on a cold inhospitable day.
Inhospitable is a term that can describe the world right now. We live in what has been referred to ironically as ‘interesting times.’ We cringe or weep when we open the newspaper, turn on the television or click on the headlines, yet we dare not turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to the world outside of our sanctuary. We need to be awake –to raise our heads, as Jesus says–to our world. We need to equip ourselves as Christians to negotiate these ‘interesting’ and sometimes fearful times. What does it mean to live faithfully in a time that seems to be chock-full of signs of the End times?
I suppose we can take solace in the fact that such ‘signs’ are woven into all of human history. Luke’s Gospel was written not long after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. When Jesus speaks of the Son of Man coming with the clouds he’s alluding to the apocalyptic visions in the Book of Daniel that we read last Sunday. Daniel was written during a 2nd century BC time of horrendous oppression in Israel, which prompted the writer to depict yet another tumultuous time; the Babylonian Exile of the 7th century BC. All of these events were perceived to be world-ending for those who experienced them. Over and over throughout history the world has been on the verge of Apocalypse, according to signs and portents in the earth, the calendar and in politics. But we need to understand that our measurement of time is not the same as God’s time. Using the Bible as a calendar or calculator has proven repeatedly to be misguided at best. And at worst it results in Scripture being used as a weapon that divides people and turns them against one another: Christians vs. Muslims. Us vs. Them.
How do we live faithfully in a time that often feels inhospitable, especially to people on the margins? How should we encounter Scripture that is inspired but also multi-layered and complex?
As people of faith, especially participating in the Anglican tradition, we are invited, indeed it is our responsibility to use our reason and hearts to engage, wrestle, confront and be confronted by scripture. And we are called to do so in order to engage, wrestle, confront and be confronted by a troubled World. It is our vocation as disciples to be a community that embodies, not fear of the end, but hope for the future.
This hope isn’t a naïve outlook that seeks to stick a bandaid on the critical wounds of this world. Christian hope is best exemplified by looking again at the fig tree in Jesus’ parable. Yes, the sprouting leaves portend summer. But look closer as summer gives way to autumn. When leaves fall they leave behind buds. The new life is already there before the leaves even reach the ground, and it’s present throughout the harsh winter. This is mystical hope—the certain and sure expectation that the wind will blow and the snow and ice accumulate, but life abides within it all and will bloom again in time. In God’s time. This is the hope and expectation of the First Sunday in Advent. It is this hope and expectation that is the ground of our faith.
Beginning today, we are embarking on a new journey together. We are trying a new schedule, which is intended to allow families to worship together and to facilitate learning for all ages with a new Formation Hour. Our community will have the opportunity to learn more about our ecclesiastical and biblical traditions, addressing questions of our identity as Anglicans, as Christians, and as disciples. This is what the word, “formation” means: we are being molded as Christians, not just loaded up with information. We are being formed, not simply educated; and this places us on the verge of a rich and exciting adventure.
This is not to deny the anxiety that naturally arises when encountering major changes. There’s a Jay Sidebotham a cartoon—a group of parishioners saying, “Fr. Smith, we are a parish in search of transformation—we just want to find it without changing anything.” Change is disruptive and sometimes scary. But a wise person once said to me, God doesn’t call you into your comfort zone.
Meanwhile, back at the now-quiet coffee shop: My friend and I continued to talk as the sun went down and the pavement outside glistened in the cold rain. The wind still gusted and grabbed at coats and umbrellas that went by the window. It was still inhospitable out there, and we knew that soon we would face it. But inside, for a time, was sanctuary. Just two friends asking questions, wrestling with the answers; listening and learning about God. Together.