Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This beautiful and powerful collect for the First Sunday of Advent calls to mind both the first and second comings of Christ and prays that we might direct our energies and lives away from evil and toward the light of Christ brings to our awareness the central themes of this season and orients us to the scope of history and the history of salvation. We live as Christians between that time of Christ’s incarnation, his death and resurrection, and the consummation of our final hope in Christ’s return. As Christians, we have experienced the first fruits of Christ’s transforming work, but we live in this world, in this time, enmeshed in the powers of darkness and evil that surround us and seem to hold sway.
While the world around also is caught up in the frenzy of holiday preparation, is already celebrating all of the excesses of the season, this collect, this Season of Advent, reminds us that we as individuals and as the body of Christ, have work to do before getting to that celebration. There is preparation, yes, but it is of the sober, rather than the celebratory variety, as we wait, and watch, and hope.
The liturgical year, for those of us who follow it, often puts us out of step with the culture that surrounds and impinges on us. At no time is that incongruity more clear than now on the First Sunday of Advent. From the Church’s perspective, today is New Year’s Day. We begin a new lectionary cycle which will have us reading the Gospel of Luke. Our liturgy changes—at 10:00 we will be using language that was approved by this summer’s General Convention for trial use beginning today.
The Church’s advent focus, is only in part on the coming of Christ at Christmas, as the collect for the first Sunday of Advent suggests. In fact, while we are tempted to join the culture in our early celebration of Christmas, our lectionary directs us beyond Christmas to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
The Second Coming is not something Episcopalians like to talk, or preach about, even though we express our faith in it each time we recite the Nicene Creed, each time we recite the memorial acclamation in the Eucharist: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” It’s a doctrine that makes us profoundly uncomfortable both because of the way it has been used and abused by conservative Christians as well as by the fact that after two thousand years, the notion that Christ might come again to judge the living and the dead, seems just a bit farfetched, if not absurd.
Still, we have to reckon with this doctrine if only because, as our readings from Paul and from the Gospel of Mark both remind us, the notion of Christ’s return was at the very heart of the early Christian message. We have to reckon with it as well, because the culture in which we live is both oblivious to the meaning and significance of Christ’s second coming, and at the same time, with the constant wars, human suffering on a vast scale caused by hunger, earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons, the horrific fire that took the lives and destroyed the homes of so many California, and the scenes from the border last Sunday of asylum seekers and refugees being teargassed, we seem to be living in a world that is nearing destruction. Our sense that the world as we know it, even human life on this planet might be nearing the end of its history has been brought to our awareness again with the dire report on climate change that was released last week.
This litany of suffering and danger, so much of it brought on by human evil, or exacerbated by human evil, may seem to leave us hopeless, if not for ourselves, then for our children and grandchildren, generations unborn across the globe. It is a fate we have brought on ourselves and on each other, and none of us, our politicians or elected officials seem willing to take the necessary steps to make the changes to avert ultimate catastrophe.
For me to even say these things on the First Sunday of Advent may offend you for wouldn’t it be better, at least for an hour or an hour and a half, to forget about everything that’s going on in the world, and listen to beautiful music in a beautiful space and worship God without care or worry, to be reassured that, even if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, when I die, I’m going to be fine, experiencing eternal life in heaven.
Our Christian faith, the Christian tradition, has fallen prey time and again to the temptation to look away from the realities of the world toward a salvation that offers rescue from the tribulation of the present. It has also time and again, fallen prey to the temptation to focus on our individual fates and not on the fates of the whole of humanity or even the fate of the universe. Those temptations are a misreading of the notion of the Second Coming and Advent offers us an opportunity to regain a robust understanding of what the Second Coming means.
The gospel reading offers us several elements of such a robust understanding. It comes from Luke’s version of the text we heard from Mark last week, the so-called Little Apocalypse, which the gospel writers place in Jesus’ mouth in the last days of his life as he is teaching in and around the temple. He predicts the destruction of that very temple, an event that would take place some forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was a cataclysmic event both for Judaism and for Christianity.
Mark was very likely written shortly after the temple’s destruction, and his version of this apocalypse shows urgency and immediacy. Luke, writing at least 15 years later, has a longer perspective. Clearly, the destruction of the temple did not inaugurate Christ’s return, so Luke leaves out references to wars and rumors of wars, references to people fleeing the destruction and fleeing persecution. Instead, he mentions signs in the skies and stars, and in the seas, nothing so specific as an earthquake.”
Jesus offers words of caution: “Be on guard, be alert!” These words caution us against complacency as well as against the ever-present temptation to turn away from the world and to seek solace only in our selves or in whatever methods we use to dull our senses to the realities around us. We can’t blind ourselves to those realities. We can’t deny their truth even if everything in our culture and our political system encourages us to do so.
But alongside those words of caution and warning are also words of hope. The fig tree to which Jesus refers reminds us that even in the midst of the cold and dark of winter, spring is coming. Though all may look bare and lifeless, the fig tree will sprout; summer will come.
Such signs are not just signs of hope that everything will turn out ok. They are not simply promises that the world will continue in much the same way, in spite of everything happening around us. When you see these signs, know that “your redemption is drawing near.”
Our hope as Christians is not that everything will turn out ok or that everything will continue as it always has. Our hope as Christians is that our redemption is drawing near, that when Christ returns, he will make all things new, bring a new heaven and a new earth. Our hope, our faith is that Christ will usher in the reign of God’s justice and peace, where there will be no suffering, no violence, no grief.
In our fear, our anger, or pain, or despair, it can be difficult to look up and to look around, to search for signs of Christ’s coming among us. Yet such signs do exist. They call us to hope; they call us to know that our redemption draws near. As we wait and watch may we prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming and may we have the courage and hope to know that in spite of everything, God is making all things new, God will make all things new, that God is transforming the world, just as God transforms our hearts to welcome Christ’s coming.