An Advent Meditation

December 3, 2017

Bible Text: Mark 13:24-37 |

Series:

When Cynthia was pregnant with Henry, about two weeks before his due-date we were just like any first-time parents: nervous and excited – putting everything in order. Each night before we went to bed we went through a little checklist. If Cynthia went into labor during the night – we were ready. Days went by. Same check-list, every night. Three days before the due-date there was a full moon, and everyone told us, “Maternity ward is always full during a full moon.” We were ready. But… the moon waxed; the moon waned, with no hint of baby. By the time we were two weeks past the due-date we’d go to bed at night without even discussing it: Goodnight, honey. Good night. We knew it wouldn’t happen that night, because it never happened. I knew that she couldn’t stay pregnant forever, but in my heart I’d given up hope that there would ever be a baby tonight. I couldn’t maintain perpetual expectation.

And how much more so is this the case for the church, after 2000 years of being told that Jesus is returning soon? In varying ways we believe it conceptually. But which of us can claim to be heeding Christ’s warning in today’s gospel reading, “Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come…and find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!”

After 2000 years it seems reasonable to suspect that he’s not coming tonight or tomorrow, because all we’ve ever experienced is Jesus NOT returning.

So are we really expected to believe in a literal second coming, when Jesus comes “with great power and glory, [when he] will send out the angels to gather his elect from the ends of the earth”? It seems so apocalyptic. Are we really supposed to believe this?

Yeah. I think we are. What will look like? Now that I don’t know. The language in scripture is apocalyptic, which means it is exaggerated and metaphorical. It seems to suggest a second coming that is universally recognizable, but even saying that makes me nervous. After all, the faithful in Jesus’ day were certain of what the Messiah’s coming would look like, and they were entirely wrong.

And yet, it seems reasonable that if we want to know what to expect of a second coming, the safest place to look is his first. And what did we discover of God in Jesus’ incarnation? What was it that all the religious folks missed? God came with modesty.  God came with mercy: compassion for the sinner and the outcast.  God became one of us, even sharing in our death.

Whatever form Jesus’ coming again shall take, surely it will be consistent with the first, that God will continue to unfold the eternal plan of redemption. And if that is too difficult to believe in, surely it’s not too difficult to desire. If all you can muster is the admission that you desire Christ’s love and redemption, then that will be sufficient for today.

Receive as gift the heritage of Advent: these four weeks to give ourselves over entirely to our universal longings for the end of suffering and sin and death; for wholeness and unity; for the triumph of love in its purest form.

  • Are you divorced and still feel the pang of that severed relationship? Then Advent is for you.
  • Do you avoid reading articles about politics in America or famine in Yemen because it’s too hopeless to confront? Then Advent is for you.
  • Does the threat of mounting credit card debt keep you awake at night? Then Advent is for you.

The genius of Advent is that it does occur immediately before Christmas. It invites us to stand with one foot in this disoriented and pain-filled world, and with the other to step with confidence into the hope of what Jesus has already begun. By his first coming we have perceived the nature of his love. And with the second we will see it complete.

This church year begins afresh with our looking to the hope of our future. The remainder of the church year, beginning with Christmas, will be a series of seasons that look back – that recall the history of God’s saving works. But we start by looking forward. It’s like going on a trip: before you start you pull out your map and point out to each other – this is where we’re trying to end up. Whatever happens in the journey to come, be it good or evil, we begin our year with a clear articulation that our destination is to be gathered into God and God’s redeeming. In the words of Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century mystic, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Whatever our futures may hold, whatever doubts we may stumble through, or pain we may be forced to endure, our end is this, that all will be well, for all will be gathered into God through Christ.

But accompanied to this message is also the exhortation: Do not wait passively for a future event beyond your control, but prepare and make ready Christ’s coming. We prepare by choosing now to live like Christ – to repent of areas in our lives that are inconsistent with God’s call and intention for us.

That is the message in today’s gospel. Live now in such a way that, if Jesus were to appear today, he would find you ready. He would find you choosing mercy now. He would find you loving your enemy now, choosing generosity now.

You know, as much as I love the Episcopal Church, I have this one critique. We are good at proclaiming a merciful God. But unfortunately, that often translates into a kind of laziness on our part. We’ve set aside our unhealthy fear of God, but along the way, given up our commitment to know and become one with the love and holiness of God.

God beckons us to leave behind our false selves: our selfishness, our fear, our contempt for those who differ from us. “Come, my beloved. Love me and love one another as I have loved you.” This must be our choice if we are to be followers of Jesus.

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Now you all know I tend to be a fairly visual person. I can find a theological symbol in anything. And since it’s been many years since I’ve done so, I’d like share my interpretation on these windows (pointing to the clerestory windows) – these insignificant, narrow windows far above our normal sight-level.

I don’t know what the architect intended when he designed this space. But for me, these are Advent windows.

To start with: look at the colors: they’re all the Advent colors: Purple, blue, and pink.

  • Purple is the most traditional Advent color. It is a sign of royalty, signifying Christ the King for whom we wait. It is also a Lenten, penitential color. Part of our piety during this season is to recognize our sins and our complicity in the brokenness of this world.
  • Here at St. John’s we use blue at Advent. It’s a little “lighter” than purple; a little more hopeful.  For, that too is part of our Advent expectations: we are hopeful, that Christ is coming with healing.
  • And pink?  Pink shows up as the third candle we light in the Advent wreath.  That’s the “Gaudete” candle.  “Gaudete” is Latin for “Rejoice!” because on the third Sunday of Advent the liturgy invites us to rejoice, that Jesus is near.

Purple, Blue, Pink: all the colors of Advent are here in these windows.

But it’s not just the colors that speak of Advent. It’s the way these thin panels of light seem to pierce the wall, streaming down towards us, like water down the window when it rains. It’s the arrival of Christ, piercing our world with his life-giving water.

And look how the number of windows increases in each section. When you first enter the church, there’s just one – then another. Then there’s three, then four, then five.  It’s like a storm that begins with just a spattering of drops and then, pretty soon, it’s pelting down.  So these windows are a prayer of sorts: So may your coming be, O Christ – may you saturate this world with yourself, for you are our water of life. 

Maybe it’s not water you see streaming down the walls. Maybe they’re shooting stars – streams of light shooting through the darkness, ushering in the Light of the World. The further you walk down the aisle, the further you journey into the church, the further you journey with Christ – the brighter his light becomes, the more you desire his light to come, the more you discover how much his light has already filled this world – that Christ is everywhere!

And then there’s another mystery in these windows. If you’re seated right under them, which is the closest you can get to them, you can’t actually see them at all. Isn’t that just like life? In the midst of crisis, when we’re stumbling under the burden of this broken world, it is very hard to see that Jesus is here at all. But, when the crisis is over and we gain a little distance and a little maturity, we discover that he was there all along. Maybe it’s not even a crisis that conceals him. Maybe it’s simply the monotony of the mundane. That is why spiritual guides have always counseled the wisdom of retreats: to get away and make space for renewal and reflection, that we might step back from the wall and see all that light streaming into this world.

I remember getting away to pray some time ago. “Jesus, draw me more fully into your ministry,” I prayed. It was just one sentence. When I began the prayer what I meant was, “Jesus, in the context of St. John’s and the various things that are going on in the life of the parishioners, draw me more fully into partnership with you in caring for these people: Jesus, draw me more fully into your ministry.” But an amazing thing happened. Somewhere between the first and seventh word, I was simultaneously praying something more: “Jesus, draw me more fully into your ministry for me. May I recline more fully into your grace and the knowledge of your pleasure in me.”

And it’s that simultaneous reality that beckons us in Advent: Let us prepare for your coming by becoming more like you – sharing in your heart of compassion for this world. But let us also prepare for your coming by settling more fully into what is already true – your deep and abiding love for us that speaks to the deepest places of our souls.

God is the potter. We are the clay. My prayer for us this season is that, by God’s grace and our attentiveness to it, we would feel God’s hands pressed intimately upon us – pulling and pressing us – molding us into the shape he desires us to be. And so may we become the vessels of God.