Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Are You Ready?"

First Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Are you ready? When you hear those words this time of year, particularly in the period after Thanksgiving, with X shopping days until Christmas (by the way, there are only 27 more shopping days before Christmas) – most of us think, “are you ready for Christmas?” But no, I don’t mean “are you ready for Christmas?” I mean, “Are you ready for Advent?”

What’s the difference, you may ask. After all, Advent is the season before Christmas. The time to prepare for Christmas. Isn’t it? As my seminary New Testament professor would have responded, “it’s more complicated than that.”

Yes, Advent is often understood as Christmas’ Lenten counterpart – preparation for a particular feast, namely Christmas. A season of anticipation and expectation of the coming of the Christ child on Christmas Eve. A season of preparation for that blessèd event. We may view this season as a time to add a little religious touch to offset the increased secularism and commercialization of Christmas. A way to interject a little holiness into what, at times, can be a less than holy experience – particularly if you dare to brave the stores on Black Friday and the days the follow. Our readings show that this is far more than just a period to give a sense of holiness and solemnity to counteract the insanity of the Christmas shopping season, the frenzied activity of decorating the house and wrapping the presents, the added stress of preparing for and attending Christmas parties, and juggling already over-packed schedules to get in obligatory holiday visits with family and friends.

Our Scripture readings throughout this season give us a different perspective of what this period of anticipation, expectation, and preparation are all about. In fact, you may have noticed – I hope you noticed – that as we begin this time of preparation for Christmas, today’s scripture readings did not mention one word about the coming of the Christ child.

The readings in Advent prepare us to not only receive a new baby, but also a new world filled with God’s justice and mercy. A new world that will begin to be ushered in with the birth of Jesus, but which will not be completed until his Second Coming. Because of this, the season of Advent, which means “coming,” actually deals with the two comings of Christ. The first at his birth and the Second Coming at the end of the ages. It spans the entirety of time between these two events, including the time in which we find ourselves now.

During the season of Advent, we take a disorienting trip through time. We start at the end, with the eschatological – the end times which will be characterized by the Second Coming bringing judgment. We then move backwards in time to the coming of John the Baptist warning, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mt 3.2-3). From there we move forward in time to John the Baptist in prison, near his death, when he sends his own disciples to Jesus with the question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11.3). And then, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we jump back in time again where Joseph, engaged to Mary, receives a dream from the Lord telling him of the impending birth of the Son of God, in fulfillment of another prophecy, that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Mt 1.23). It is only on the final Sunday of Advent that we even hear of the Child whose coming we await, setting in motion all that follows – through Advent and beyond.

While it may seem counterintuitive to our way of thinking to make this leapfrogging back through time, it is necessary for us to grasp the full magnitude of why Christ came in the first place. We need to understand the goal, the endgame, to appreciate what this is all about. To appreciate the event we will celebrate in a mere four weeks.

So our Gospel reading from Matthew sets the stage. Shortly before his death, Jesus warns his hearers of the “coming of the Son of Man” at an unexpected hour. The Son of Man is an ancient title give to an eschatological figure who had been part of Jewish expectation for several centuries – the title of the one they had been awaiting to bring salvation. In this, Jesus declares that he is the Son of Man and that, yes, he will come again, as promised. Of course, he will first need to die. A tragic event that we don’t particularly want to think about as we are just now anticipating his birth. But necessary nonetheless. This Second Coming will be a sudden, unexpected event that will bring judgment and salvation to the people – a people who are so wrapped up in their daily lives that they are not even aware it will happen. In giving this warning, Jesus urges his hearers to be alert. We are to expect the unexpected. We are to prepare for the unexpected, which could happen at any time. We are to begin living our lives as if the time is upon us.

Our other readings for today place this in the larger context. Both on a universal and a more personal scale.

Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah offers a prophetic image of the future Zion – the City of God. It is the image of the intersection of heaven and earth, resulting in a much hoped for world at peace. This is not just a dream on the part of the people – one we even now long for. This is God’s ultimate vision for all humanity, for all creation. This is what all of salvation history has been moving towards from the beginning of time. A vision that is only possible through one who will be able to usher in this new era. Through Emmanuel, God with us, the coming together of humanity and divinity in a single person, Jesus Christ.

And then our Epistle reading from Romans moves us from the universal to the personal. Here, Paul tells us that “the day is near.” Paul believed that Christ was going to come at any time, bringing the end of the world and final judgment. So he writes to the church in Rome to urge the believers to be alert and to live according to what they have been taught. To make what they have learned from Jesus their own, in word and action.

All of our readings on this first Sunday of Advent give us the sense that we don’t know what time it is. That we may not yet be ready. And because of that, that we need time to prepare. And we need to do it now. Over the next couple of weeks, our readings will more directly address what this means for us as the followers of Jesus. Of how we are to specifically prepare. In the context of what happens at Christmas, but more so in the context of the Second Coming. For the Second Coming always overshadows Jesus’ first coming at Christmas.

Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox priest and theologian, poignantly characterizes Advent and what it means for us in these words: “The two comings of Christ are held together in Christian thought, action, and prayer at all times. They cannot be separated. When they are, it is the end of Christian faith, life and worship. The first coming without the second is a meaningless tragedy. The second coming without the first is an absurd impossibility. Jesus is born to bring God's kingdom. He dies to prove his kingship. He rises to establish his reign. He comes again in glory to share it with his people.”

The season of Advent spans the entirety of time. We begin with the future and the end of the ages. We then move to the past, revealing the means by which we are to meet what awaits us – through repentance, but also by embracing a baby who grows to manhood and who grows into the role as Son of Man. The one who causes “the blind [to] receive their sight, the lame [to] walk, the lepers [to be] cleansed, the deaf [to] hear, the dead [to be] raised, and the poor [to] have good news brought to them” (Mt 11.4-5). And in between, we live in the present. We do this by embracing his teachings and his example. We do this every time we gather together, when we hear the Word of God and partake of the body and blood of Christ – feeding us and nourishing us in body, mind, and spirit for what is inevitably to come. For the time for which we expectantly wait. So I ask again, are you ready?

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