Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Proper of theDay: The First Sunday of Advent

Today, the beginning of the church year and the First Sunday of Advent, we at St. Thomas's beginn preparing for the Coming of the Babe in the manger and also for the Second Coming of the Lord of Heaven and Earth in the last days. Here's what I offerred at the pulpit today:

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
Advent 1B RCL 2008
Isaiah 64:1-9; Ps 80:1-7,16-18; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

In the Name of Him who will come again in power and great glory, Amen.

I’m sure everyone here has heard about the poor Walmart employee who was literally trampled to death on Friday morning when the store opened. It happened not far from here, relatively speaking – many of us know lots of people who live on Long Island. And all the news this week has also covered the horrible terrorist incident in Mumbai, India, where among others, a young rabbi and his wife from Brooklyn were deliberately killed in a horrible and intentional attack. Not too far away from us again. I could go on and on. So could probably any of us. The world that I and perhaps you as well, have known, a world of relative safety and security – that world seems to be not just crumbling, but out and out collapsing. It seems like Isaiah’s lament from the first reading, “You have hidden your face from us, you have delivered us into iniquity” is as true in our own day as it was in his.

Today is the first day of the season of Advent. This is perhaps the least understood and also most difficult of the seasons of the church year. You know of course that the most important season of the year is Eastertide, the Great Fifty Days of celebration over the Resurrection of Our Lord. And before that is the season of Lent, a period of six weeks where we are urged to prepare anew for what will come after the drama of Holy Week. And the second most important season is Christmastide, which begins on Christmas Eve and lasts through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation, when God became man so that we might come divine. And just like for Easter, early Christians began to observe a period of preparation for Christmas, too. This season became known as Advent, from the Latin Adventus or “Coming.” During these four Sundays before December 25, we take time to look backward at the events leading up to the First Coming of the Lord at the manger in Bethlehem. And we also look forward to the time we recite each Sunday in the Creed when we say, “and he will come again in glory, to judge both the living and the dead.”

The looking back part is easy, but it’s the looking forward that is hard. It might seem like we’ve been in Advent for weeks now, because we’ve been dealing with some of the hardest of the hard words in Matthew’s gospel. We shift now to the Gospel of Mark, and over the course of this new church year, which begins today, we’ll delve deeply into the particular point of view and emphases of this evangelist. Today we hear from the famous or infamous “Little Apocalypse” of Mark. “Apocalypse” simply means “revealing,” or “revelation,” and this is a passage where Jesus seems to be talking to his disciples about what will happen in the future. And since he is, as we recalled last week, Lord of Heaven and Earth, he should know, right?

There’s a lot going on here, but it seems to me the most important part of this reading is not the images of the angels flying around out of heaven or the gathering of the elect from all the earth. Notice what Jesus says in verse 32: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” This has always been a very comforting verse for me. I’ve found apocalyptic language, like what we are hearing today and what the entire Book of Revelation is about, to be problematic for me personally and spiritually. I admit I don’t understand it very well, and I often have difficulty seeing how it might speak to us today in the 21st century, especially since it’s usually using images and catchphrases that are very time bound. They would have been understood by Mark’s readers and hearers, but even then it was puzzling at best. It was never meant to be taken literally, although many Christians try their best to do so. And so we get to all these exciting predictions about starts falling from heaven and such, echoing today’s reading from Isaiah. And then Jesus says, in effect, “Don’t get excited too much about what I’m telling you, because the only person who really know what’s going on and what’s going to happen is God the Creator anyway.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think this means we can simply dismiss out of hand what Jesus is talking about. And in fact he will tell us in a moment not to do just that. But I think it’s a welcome tonic for the obsession some Christians have with end times. There is a lot of weird stuff being preached out there. and a lot of people spend a lot of time and effort trying to predict the future from these obscure passages from today and scattered throughout the bible. It’s ironic, perhaps, that in this season of the year, when we actually take time to reflect on the relative importance of the events of the world around us compared to God’s grand scheme, that the first thing we hear, right at the beginning of the season, is essentially, “Don’t get too hung up on it all.”

But that’s not all Jesus tells us. “Be aware, keep alert. Keep awake!” he says in the very next verse. Just because we don’t exactly know what will happen or when, doesn’t mean we can simply slack off and do nothing. Jesus tells a much abbreviated version of the parable of the talents that we just heard two weeks ago as a reminder that while we are waiting, there is much to do. Last week we were commanded in no uncertain terms what that work is – making sure that those around us know of the tangible love of God in their lives, that we proclaim it to them not only with words but most especially with actions. And while we are waiting and working, we are called to be alert, too. What is this being alert anyway?

To be alert means to be aware of what is going on around us. It requires an openness to using all our senses, to listening, to watching, to feeling, to tasting, to touching. It also requires a stillness on our part, a quietness. If we are talking, we can’t be listening. To be alert means to slow down and be quiet, so that we actually can see and hear and touch and taste what is really going on, instead of what we think or assume is going on. And so the message of this Advent, and every Advent, is to reground ourselves in the world around us, and in what God is calling us to do and be. And we can’t do that if we are running around, constantly busy, continually buying into the message of the culture to do more, to be more, to buy more, or else you aren’t good enough. That insidious voice wants to keep us busy so that we can’t hear the still small voice of God trying to break though into our hearts and souls, just as the tiny baby will once again break through the gloom and doom of the entire cosmos in a few short weeks.

So what to do this Advent? Slow down. Be quiet. Be alert! Let me suggest some practical ways you can practice being alert this Advent season.

Can you not do just one thing you might usually do this Advent? Maybe it’s a Christmas party, although we know they are really holiday or Advent parties, because Christmas doesn’t come until December 24th. Instead of going to that one more thing, stay at home with your family. Have a meal together, or order in if you’re tired. Take some time and simply be present to one another. No need to rush around and get stressed out.

You might use the Advent calendars that are compliments of the parish as part of a daily Advent observance. You can read iteach day in the morning. Get some markers and color in each day after you’ve read it, as a visual cue about how close you are getting to Christmas. I’ve got mine hung up on the wall next to my dresser, so I can’t help but see it as I’m getting dressed.
You might get an Advent wreath for your home. If you have a child in Sunday School you should be receiving one. Like we do here, light one more candle each week until you have all four lit on December 21st, the 4th Sunday of Advent. Light your wreath anytime anyone sits for a meal, even if it’s only for a quick breakfast in the morning. Say the prayer of the day from Sunday as you light the candle. You can find it on the front of the scripture insert each Sunday. The Advent wreath is a great way to bring the spirit of Advent here from our community Sunday worship into your own homes.

Or, perhaps you can spend five minutes a day, just 300 short seconds, simply sitting. You might look at a cross or a candle. Or your Advent candle if it’s nearby. You don’t need to do anything else. No need to read. No need to pray as such. Just sit. For five minutes. It’s not long, although the first few times will seem like forever. Set a kitchen timer if that would help. I know one very good friend who does this in her bathroom. She has a chair there and a five minute pause has become part of her morning routine. This is actually the spiritual practice I am going to adopt this Advent, although not perhaps in the bathroom.

We can’t escape the ongoing clamor of the world around us. Horrors like the tragedies in Long Island and Mumbai continue to assault our senses and our sensitivities. We can get worn down by all the incessant noise and demands on our attention and time and energy. But Advent isn’t merely, or even mostly, a time to get ready for Christmas. It is, of course, but even more it’s a time of sacred waiting, a time to allow the noise of the world to recede just a bit, a period to reflect on what our true priorities are, as opposed to what the world says they should be. And so, I invite you to enter as fully as you can into the spirit of Advent. Oddly enough, the less you actually do in these next twenty five days this season, the more you will be actually doing so!

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.


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