Happy New Year! Here we are. The first Sunday of Advent. Does it take your breath away as it does mine? Or is shortness of breath just a fact of aging? Time flies faster each year. Reminders surround me. Among the comic strips I keep posted on my refrigerator is a Non Sequitur frame from 2002. It shows two identical looking street prophets with long beards, shaggy tunics and sandals carrying placards and meeting face to face at a street corner. The placard of one reads: “Rejoice! Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The placard of the second reads: “Repent! This could be your last day!”
I never tire of that strip because it sums up the tension in my life. Here we are: The first Sunday of Advent marking the beginning of a new year for us, a chance for another new start as we begin our walk to Bethlehem and the coming of the Christ Child once more in our lives. I love the phrase “being on the tiptoes of anticipation” to describe our journey during Advent. It recalls my childish anticipation for Christmas morning. It took a bit more maturity for me to claim I stood on the tiptoes of anticipation for the second coming of Christ – the end times, the apocalypse.
But here we are. These pesky Advent readings reminding us that as Christians we live these next few days not only in anticipation of the coming of the Christ child, the babe in the manger for whom angels sing, but also in anticipation of the second coming of Christ: the apocalypse. Well, that could put a damper on things. End times. Life as we know it on this planet blown to smithereens, as it were….particles of matter blowing out into the universe and meeting God face to face.
Have any of you experienced a time when you thought the world was coming to an end? For me, that time was early 1968. Fred and I had returned from two great years as Peace Corps volunteers in Chile. Being apolitical was no longer an option in my life. So, it was hard resettling in our U.S. culture with its seeming non-interest in other cultures. While the threat of nuclear holocaust had abated since the early ‘60’s, the war in Viet Nam dragged on. The Civil Rights movement was churning things up everywhere, including our new home city of Louisville. Close by, coal miners in Appalachia were struggling for reform. The women’s movement was turning some apple pie and mother myths on their heads. University administration buildings were under physical attack. The world as I knew it had turned upside-down in the two years we were gone. It was necessarily a bad thing, just very unsettling. Then in a short time, MLK and RFK were assassinated. That did it for me. I believed the end was near. It was frightening and overwhelming. I felt apocalypse now. I went into hibernation.
Then a wonderful thing happened. On the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels in 1968 our daughter Katie was born. I was given a God-graced lesson in hope in a time of darkness. Talk about putting on the armor of light. That is what I did. It was not as if the darkness did not exist either in the world or in me. But I understood once and for all that darkness will never, never overcome the light. That is the promise of Advent. We sing the hopefulness in our Advent hymns. I love Charles Wesley’s lyrics in #66: “Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Born thy people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king. Born to reign in us for ever, now thy gracious kingdom bring. By thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by thine all sufficient merit raise us to thy glorious throne.” And every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember the !st coming and proclaim our belief in the 2nd: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
We are promised that every day offers a new beginning through God‘s mercy, love, grace and forgiveness. We need to listen to and learn our stories from Adam and Eve to the present. And while we are to learn from the past, we are not to dwell there. We are not to dwell in the future either.
Today’s readings reflect the place where those 1st century Christians found themselves. They believed that Christ was going to come again immediately. But as the apostles and the first generation of followers began dying off, what Jesus meant by his second coming had to be reconsidered. Matthew is writing to a community that apparently was stuck in looking to the future and not living their discipleship in Christ in the present. And before Matthew’s Gospel was written down, Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica whose members by 55 CE were engrossed in the idea of the second coming as well. They had given up their regular work and lives and were waiting around for the second coming of Christ. Paul certainly anticipated the second coming, but knew there was life in Christ in the present and much work to be done. In his last letter to the Romans which we heard today, he writes: “The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Put on the Lord Jesus Christ indeed.
The phrase “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” appears in our collect, our gathering prayer for the first Sunday of Advent: “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.” This prayer was composed for the 1549 Prayer Book and from 1662 until our 1972 PB revision it was ordered to read daily during Advent. Not a bad idea to resurrect.
It seems we Christians have always found it too easy to live in suspended animation between the first and second coming of Christ as opposed to living Christ like lives in the present and seeing Jesus as one who comes to us not once in the past and once in the future, but time and time again, day after day in the very ordinary events of our everyday lives.
As for the 1st coming, we all know how hard it can be in our commercial culture to keep the Christ in Christmas, remember the reason for the season, and so on. As for the second coming, although Jesus says many times not to worry about what the ‘morrow will bring, many Christians have spent a great deal of time speculating and indeed announcing the date of the end of the world. “Rapture” literature has made a lot of money for a lot of writers and a lot of preachers. Frankly, I like the bumper sticker that reads, “When the rapture comes, can I have your car?” Its tongue in cheek humity cracks me up. I do believe in the second coming of Christ, I just find it ironic that so many who demand a literal rendition of scripture use the word “rapture” as if it occurs in scripture, which it doesn not.
Be as that may be, what do we learn in today’s lessons? Today Jesus says that God alone knows the time. To speculate about the time of the second coming is a spectacular waste of time. To be prepared, to watch, is the order of the day. Jesus’ reference to Noah is a reminder to never become so immersed in kronos, clock time that we forget kairos, God’s time. Worldly affairs are necessary. We have families as well as strangers to feed and nurture now, but we must never forget life eternal. We must never forget that we have a God who loves us, a God who came and lived among us and thus showed us how to live. And we need to live that life as best we are able with God’s gracious help.
Today’s lessons also tell us that to live without watchfulness, mindfulness, invites disaster. Today’s parable of the house owner is not an admonition to put in a new security system or build a higher fence to protect all that precious material stuff we have accumulated but can’t take with us anyway. Nor is the parable an admonition to live a life in fear of the thief who comes in the night. It is simply a lesson reminding us to live life mindfully, to be aware of God’s presence all around, to be prepared but at the same time to hold on to our things lightly. Because, what we have comes from God. Every Sunday we say at the offertory “of thine own have we given thee.” We need to believe that, live it. We need to remember that we are stewards, not owners. It is in our community as in healthy families, we learn to use the pronoun “ours” not “mine.”
Then there is a final lesson. One of the plagues of my life is my ability to procrastinate. A tattered and faded sign hangs over my work desk. It reads: “If not today, then when?” Still I am a master of procrastination. Believe me, I know that an addiction to just about anything – alcohol, money, TV, sex, eating, you name it –allows procrastination, encourages it. Scarlet’s oft quoted line, “tomorrow is another day” is any addict’s mantra.
Today’s lesson says, the spirit that leads to disaster is the spirit that says there is plenty of time. There is the old story of the three apprentice devils who are completing their training. They are chatting with Satan about their temptation plans. The first says, “I will whisper in their ears that there is no God.” Satan replies, “That won’t delude many because many believe there is some sort of God.” The second says, “I will tell them there is no hell.” Satan replies, “That’s not going to fool many since many sense there will be hell to pay for certain actions.” The third devil says, “I will tell people there’s no hurry.” “Go,” says Satan, “for that will be the ruin of thousands.” Amen. That would be me.
Paul reminds us to put on the light of Christ but not just when we think we need it. Darkness always resides in the world and in us. But this light of Christ arms us, allows us to live each minute in the present. Our life is not a philosophical showdown in a comic strip. Each day is indeed a new day and should be lived as if it were our last. It is a way of life, a rule of life. It is living life today to the fullest in Christ Jesus: It is not being bogged down with self recriminations over the past; Nor is it worrying obsessively about what tomorrow will bring.
Perhaps our most formidable challenge as disciples is to relieve that tension between Christ’s first and second coming. Our task is to be Christ to others and to see Christ in others here and now in our often very ordinary daily lives. This is indeed the season when the days are becoming shorter. It can seem as if darkness is overcoming the world. It is the season when store clerks are worn out and cranky, when the homeless are colder, when the poor are more vulnerable, when strangers are more harassed, when the widowed and orphan are more alone and isolated. It is the season when we are most tempted to give in to our personal demons. And so it is the best time to practice being Christ and to intentionally seek Christ in others. Let’s try it. Repent! This could be your last day! Rejoice! Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Put on the light of Christ! With God’s grace, repent and rejoice, indeed! Amen