In the Name...
An atheist was complaining to his boss that it was unfair discrimination to allow Christians, Jews, and Muslims to take time off work on their religious holidays while atheists didn't get that same privilege. "Well, that's a good point," his boss replied, "You can have April 1st."
Well, Happy New Year! Yes, today marks the beginning of the season of Advent, the Christian New Year. And, every Advent we're told we should use the time to prepare our hearts for the great celebration of the Incarnation, the coming of the Christ into the world. But, really, aren't we just preparing, as always, for yet another heart-breaking battle with shopping lists, traffic jams, over-eating, and anxiety? That's what characterizes, for me, what I'll call the "Consumer Advent."
And for those who religiously (ahem) observe it, "Consumer Advent" is usually a prelude to disappointment because "Commercial Christmas" hardly ever measures up to the hype. Even for those who manage to have some of their Christmas wishes fulfilled, it's all over so quickly that one wonders what all the fuss was about. No. If we allow ourselves to get caught up in the "Consumer Advent", we'll easily find that instead of singing "O Holy Night" we'll be living one unholy nightmare.
But, the Advent we celebrate in the church is something completely different. The lighting of the Advent candles, symbolic of light scattering darkness, is an act which invites us to dream dreams, not about sugar-plums dancing in our heads, but, of a better world. Advent invites us, and I like this phrase, "to fill the cup of today with a full measure of tomorrow.” "To fill the cup of today with a full measure of tomorrow"
When the prophet Isaiah thought about the advent, the coming of God, he envisioned a world transformed. "Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that God may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths." For Isaiah, the coming of God would be like a beacon in the night which leads us to consider, is the essential work of Advent stringing lights or is it shedding light? Is the essential work of Advent buying gifts for ourselves or preparing a gift for the Child whose birth we say we're celebrating?
In the Gospel reading for today, the disciples are talking to Jesus about the Second Coming. They want to know when it’s going to happen so they can be ready. In reply, Jesus reminds them that way back in the days of Noah, it began to rain when people were eating and drinking and marrying and celebrating, just doing the normal routines of life. There was no warning. When he comes back, he tells his disciples, it’s going to be the same. Life will be going on as usual, with people doing what they normally do, buying and selling, working and playing. And he will return like, he says, a thief in the night. Hold on. Like a what?
A thief in the night? Excuse me if I don't find that a very comforting image because I've been the victim of thieves in the night. I've gotten up in the morning and found an empty space where my car was parked the night before. I've come home and found a door broken open and personal valuables missing. Any of you, who've experienced that, or something like it, know what I mean; the feelings of anger, loss, helplessness. A thief exposes some very sensitive emotions, like how unprepared we really are for the unexpected.
Surely, there are more appealing images Jesus could have used - the good shepherd who tenderly cares for each defenceless lamb, or the father willing to forgive even when we have prodigally squandered all he gave us. We want to think of God as our personal friend, an encourager, an affirmer. And yet, five times in the Gospels, God is referred to as a thief, as one who steals, and the truth is, it's true. God is a thief and, when you think about it, in Advent we're praying for him to come and steal from us, like the Grinch.
Thieves steal the material things we value and, because those can create a false vision of happiness, God also wants to steal them out of our hearts. It's ironic to be reminded at this time of year, when such emphasis is put on acquisition, that a new plasma TV will not enhance our prayer life. A new cookware set will not increase our knowledge of the Scriptures. A new dress or bracelet will not make us more forgiving or compassionate.
The disciples asked about the timing of the Second Coming, but, Jesus said that was the wrong question. Their question should have been what they were supposed to do while they are awaiting his coming. And so it is with us. The important thing for us, in this season of Advent, is not when Jesus will be coming again. It’s what we've been doing in the meantime.
At this time of year, I always enjoy watching the Salvation Army bell ringers because it's amazing to see how generous, how cheerfully generous, people are at this time of year. I've seen parents come up with their children and hand them the money to put in the kettle. That's teaching. And it's very hopeful because it means that in the midst of all the Consumer Advent stuff there's still a glimmer of Christian Advent shining through. People are thinking; how can I make the world better?
Advent invites us to look to the future, to the Kingdom of God on a renewed and restored earth, but its most demanding challenge and most exciting promise comes in its reminder that the present is the Kingdom, too. Elsewhere, Matthew uses a single word to make this point – Emmanuel, God with us. Not God has been with us; not God will be with us; but, God with us, right now, today. "Emmanuel" is, in fact, a challenge to consider; how will the world be a better place these next four weeks because of me?
Advent is the time to look at our priorities and possessions. Are they the possessions and priorities of the Kingdom? Jesus has told us that the kingdom of God is "breaking in" (interesting choice of words) and Advent reminds us that God "breaks in" to our lives just as unexpectedly.
So, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, as the song says. But, are we getting ready for the right one? I think that’s why there are four Sundays in Advent - so that we can have every opportunity to fill the cup of today with the full measure of tomorrow. Happy Advent! Happy New Year!
In the Name...