A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on Advent 1 [Year A] 27 November 2022: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 224:36-44
Recently, a statement a young seminarian made this past summer has been reverberating in my mind; and I think it says something about this day, this occasion, this Advent. The statement is this: “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.”
On the one hand, I offer this insight as food for thought on any and all New Year’s resolutions we might consider for 2023. In a time in which polarization passes for relationship and hatred erupts in unthinkable ways, we all could stand to learn more about one another before we start to draw separating lines. Learning another’s story demands both presence and respectful listening: Two vital steps that work to transform the world’s fragmenting centrifugal force into the hope and promise of Communion.
Then, also this statement and its truth about knowing another’s story also applies to Advent itself. I say this because I had the occasion this Thanksgiving to talk with someone who asked about our Advent wreath. She hadn’t a clue as to the reason we light candles to keep Advent time nor of the meaning of their light in the darkness of these times. Of course the point is not that people have no idea what Advent is about. The point is to ask how many of us who claim Jesus know what Advent is about and what place it can and does play in our lives with God and one another. Do we know Advent’s story? Do we recognize in Advent’s presence a transforming resource that allows us to live in the darkness without giving up or caving in?
In a nutshell, Advent describes our everyday life of faith. Advent describes what it is like and what it takes to live in-between Jesus’ death and resurrection and his return to claim all life as God’s own. How do we manage to do this “in-between living? For instance,
what is your response to the two mass shootings this past week and to what all these poisoned eruptions in our midst reveal? As followers of Jesus, with what do you and I address the darkness and the brokenness both among us and in us? Where is the hope? – the hope for change, the hope for healing, the hope for renewal? My point to you is that these questions are addressed in and through Advent – if only we will listen to its message and take its story to heart.
So, on this first day of the new Christian worshipping year, on this first Sunday of the season of Advent, in the face of so much separation and heartache, I want to direct your attention to a profound and surprising message of hope in Advent. From the very core of what this first liturgical season means and where it comes from, we have in Advent a tireless expression of hope in what so often is a dark and broken world. I want to speak to you about this hope as we begin our life together this Advent.
The first point I wish to make is to acknowledge that Advent is often hard for us to listen to -- especially as we first enter into its presence. It may be argued that listening to Advent is doubly hard because not only does its message demand more attention than we are wont to give; but when December itself is shrouded in all manner of distraction, our attention is refracted all the more. No, Advent can be hard to listen to and to hear from. With the constant beating of the merchandizing drum, stories such as the one we heard in this morning’s gospel lesson can simply be too much to deal with. So, we surely are tempted to turn a deaf ear to hard words of warning – even if they come from Jesus.
Let me get technical for a moment about this difficulty of knowing Advent’s story. Bear with me, please, as I ask this question: What did you hear in this day’s gospel? Specifically, did you hear it in terms of a story about the “end” of time? When Jesus describes this story’s point in terms of “one being taken and one being left”, did you hear this in terms of who will be “saved” and who will be “left behind”? And if you did, that’s the problem because Jesus’ comments are not about the end, and neither is Advent’s story. It makes a big difference to what we hear and what we listen to.
I suppose most of us have seen or at least heard of the bumper sticker with this message: “Warning: In case of the Rapture, this car will be unmanned.” Of course, by “rapture” the phrase refers to the “end” of time. Funny, but the term “rapture” is never mentioned in the biblical tradition; and I chuckle at the retort on another bumper sticker: “At the rapture, can I have your car?”
More seriously, in some Christian quarters, the “rapture” means that when Jesus comes at the end of time, he will take the faithful “home”. The others will be fatally “left behind”. Now I believe that it is important to stipulate that the “rapture” as made known by the bumper sticker, the “Left Behind films and literature, and by the early nineteenth century, Anglo- Irish evangelist, John Nelson Darby, are not biblical; nor is “the rapture” a part of the Apostolic tradition. Nonetheless, it has traction in our own time as evidenced by the interest in who is and who is not “Left Behind”, when Jesus comes again. I mention all this because this is not the trajectory of Jesus’ comments in today’s gospel. And here is that technical point I alluded to a bit ago.
In its historical context, what Jesus speaks to in this lesson is not in reference to the “end time” but rather what will happen to the Hebrew people and to the Temple in particular at the hands of the Romans, if – if the people continue to ignore their covenanted life with God. Throughout Jesus public ministry, the urgency he expressed about the need for “repentance” was based on what we could call a “Hebrew Nationalism” – a perspective that used tribal Jewishness to fight and defeat Rome and its oppression. As in our own time when the American flag can be the nationalistic altar cloth of the cross, so too in Jesus’ time was there a fatal movement to seek “salvation” through military and political liberation. Both in Jesus’ time and in ours, the liberation that is needed stems from our willingness and ability to receive the new life that only comes from God. Like giving birth, paying attention to and striving for the God-life and its liberation entails labor pains. The issue at hand is whether we will face the birth pangs or not.
There are many scriptural references to these hard birthing times, and it is easy to find some of the gospel warnings overwhelming. And we often hear of these passages in Advent, which is one large reason we don’t or can’t hear about Advent’s story and the hope it offers. It too often gets drowned out amidst the darkness and turmoil and the misplaced expectations.
The specifics behind Jesus’ challenging words (some of which we heard in today’s gospel lesson) – the specifics behind Jesus’ words are in fact about the destruction of the Temple in which did occur in 70 A.D. The futility of playing power politics with Rome reached its terrifying crescendo with the Temple’s destruction: a dreadful line in history’s sand that marked the end of biblical Israel – an issue with consequences that still fester in our own time.
When Jesus speaks about “one is taken and another will be left”, he is not referring to the faithful being taken to heaven, while the unfaithful are left in time’s dustbin. No, the specific warning he gives is that the one who is taken is taken by the Roman soldiers. It is they who are to be pitied, not those who are “left behind” as refugees in their own land.
Here is the technical yet very important point: we must be careful not to confuse what is formally a matter of eschatology – the study of the “end time” and what is formally a matter of the apocalypse – that is, an uncovering of what God sees now. Advent is about the apocalyptic, the unveiling of what God sees now, which surprisingly also is the source of Advent’s message of hope.
Biblical scholar and faithful voice, Walter Bruggemann, has written about Advent’s hope, stemming from the unveiling of what God sees in us and among us, Bruggemann writes this: “The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, by the grace of God.” Let me repeat this because its message is initially so jarring that we easily can miss its promise and its hope. “The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, by the grace of God.”
This is Advent. What we conceive and what we build and what we even want are being taken away. And the frightening response many make is fearfulness and violence, attempts to prevent the passing of life on our terms. But this is an unveiling, the purpose of the apocalypse. This hard but truthful message is expressed memorably by the words of one of our Collects of the Day, one we heard in late September. It says, “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure…” And there is the hope that Advent portrays. It is a hoe that says that life is much more than we make of it. Thanks be to God.
In terms of the end of time, it is completely orthodox to recognize that when God completes creations’ enterprise (that is to say, when created life corresponds completely with the life-giving will of the Creator), time and history will also be fulfilled; and with great thanksgiving we will all have life on God’s terms. (There’s a lot of room for imagination on this subject, to be sure.) But issues concerning the end are neither what Jesus speaks to in the gospel nor what Advent focuses on; and we must be careful not to confuse eschatology with the apocalyptic, not to confuse the mysterious fulfillment of all life in Jesus’ promised return with God’s uncovering of what lies beneath the headlines of the day.
What I mean is that in terms of the apocalyptic experience, we are shown what is truly going on in our lives, not as singular condemnation, but as a Godly vision which provides strong, resilient hope for change and new life. Advent speaks of the hope that we might discern what is in fact passing away and do so “without shame or fear” (that wonderful phrase for Advent’s celebration of Holy Communion).
We may not like what seems to be the harsh side to Advent, which causes us to turn away from its message and from it much needed hope. Yet, what feels harsh is merely a sobering reminder that we need more to our lives than we can provide and that changing our life’s orientation from self-centeredness to God-centeredness is not for the faint in heart. With God and the life God gives, there is always hope for such transformation and repentance. In the place of fear and guilt and shame, God provides us with a new way – a way beyond our fear and confusion into a grateful way of being present and steady and hopeful – even in the darkness.
And to reduce the stress of it all, God begins the hope with a baby’s birth. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 20, page 234.