Ever since I became aware of the meaning of Liturgy and the progression of the liturgical year, Advent has been one of my favorite seasons. The readings contain some of the more majestic passages of the scriptures, the music, the poetry and the theology are impressive. But as I thought about it, I was struck by the many contrasts of Advent.
There is the contrast that in the world around us, Christmas is in full swing while we in the church with purple vestments keep a season of penitence and preparation. The readings for Advent, too, abound in contrasts. The theme of future judgement is prominent, with images of earthquakes and apocalyptic flames; but at the same time, our attention is directed to the way we live our lives day by day, and judgement is seen more as a process than a future apocalyptic happening.
But perhaps the biggest contrast of all, and the one I want us to reflect on for a while this morning, is between settled traditions of the past and the uncertainties of the future. Advent is part of a magnificent, established round of liturgical worship. For me it brings with it remembered years, and echoing strains of "Come, O come Emmanuel" sung by a superb choir in a vast gothic cathedral, and it has about it an emotional tone of continuity and certainty which is linked in feeling and memory to Christmas. Advent looks in two directions. It gathers up all the longings of the People of Israel for the coming of their Messiah and in that it is a preparation for our celebration of the advent, the coming, of the Messiah child in Bethlehem. More insistently, though, it looks to the future, to the final coming of God’s rule, and in this way, the message of Advent points up the uncertainty of social conventions and institutions that look as though they are set for ever in stone.
Without doubt, the readings for today direct out attention to the future aspect of Advent:
The Old Testament sees history as a finite process, a flow of events and people which has a beginning in the creative act of God, and moves to an End. All this is summed up in the Book of Revelation, "I am the Alpha and Omega, says the Lord God, who was and who is to come, the sovereign Lord of all." (Apoc. 1.8)
Many pictures of the end suggest great trials and terror, but they also assure the Christian community that if it is faithful all will, in the end be well. Paul, writing to the Christians in Thessalonika expects the end very soon, but he writes in a tone of confidence and counsels the community to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (I Thess. 3.12).
The same contrast of terror and trust is clear in the gospel passage from Luke. “People will faint from fear and foreboding”, but to the faithful community he says, “stand up, and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near. (Lk. 21.29).
Yet another contrast is between our theological positions which take for granted this future aspect of Advent, and our real feelings on the matter. It is one thing to long for the end and the establishment of God’s rule, it is quite another to live one’s life with the conviction that all our cherished institutions are transitory and passing away, even if they are not actually evil. After all, if one has a carefully worked out scheme of things, an organized religion, a clear code of law which tells you what to do and what not to do, do we really want a new heaven and a new earth which put in place an a totally God-centered rule a bring us into an open vision of God? Perhaps it is better to have God at a very safe distance. Later Judaism would not allow Yahweh, the name of God to be spoken, replacing it with surrogates like, “The Holy One” or “the Heavens”. In the Christian tradition we are not afraid to say “Yahweh”, but it may be that our theological schemata have made God into a safe abstraction, carefully enclosed in the Nicene Creed.
So, perhaps it is safer to stay with the order one knows; perhaps we are content to enjoy the poetry and music, and to treat this season of Advent as the preparation for the certainty of the Christmas message with its overtones of general good will and family reunions.
This would be fine except for the fact that it really isn't like that. As we are reminded again and a gain, much more than half the world cannot look forward to the joys of family reunions, warm fires and piles of presents. It is precisely the function of the Advent message to direct our thoughts to the future judgement of God, but also to keep us focused on the here and now. That is what Paul does when he urges the Thessalonians to continue and increase in love as they wait for the end. The paradox is that the One who is to come already stands in our midst; not only stands, but lies bleeding from snipers bullets in too many places in the world, lies emaciated with starvation in many parts of East Africa, and is rejected by society in our own culture.
Jesus tells us that we are in some sense to see him in each of his children. That, if you recall, is the central idea of the parable of the sheep and the goats. The parable tells of the time “when the Son of Man comes in his glory”, sits in judgement and separates the sheep and the goats. Jesus says to them "Anything you did (or did not do)for one of my brothers or sisters here, however humble, you did (or did not do) for me." (Mt. 25). This is to say, that Jesus meets us in a myriad of unexpected ways. It is to say that we cannot have the kind of solid, unchangeable certainties that a fixed religious system may give us so that all our inter-personal transactions can totted up on a calculator, and we can make sure that we keep our heavenly account in balance, or even with a bit of credit.
The Jesus who stands among us is greater than the Law and the Prophets, and makes more radical demands than the law calling us to move out of the certainties of our comfortable traditions. Might it be that the two-sided nature of Advent calls us to re-evaluate our attitudes as Christians to the kind of unbridled capitalism that floods over us at this time of year? We need to consider that this One who stands among us and is to come in judgement had some hard things to say. We must resist the temptation to sentimentalize his message. He makes immense demands; he says that he will bring division to households; he suggests that our every-day actions are to be judged by the way we treat others. This is the message of Advent. It bids us question our comfortable assumptions, particularly our religious ones, but reminds us that the Judgement of God is not some far off event that is no immediate concern; it is rather ever-present process that was initiated by the birth of that child in Bethlehem.