A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37
Last weekend, after we returned from a trip to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, Melinda and I looked at the family calendar and quickly realized that if we wanted to do any Christmas decorating we were going to have to do it right then. We weren’t really ready to do any Christmas preparations. Emotionally we just weren’t there yet. We wanted to wait a bit longer. Also it was 70 degrees and sunny. I was more prepared to go to Lowe’s and get stuff ready in the garden.
Nevertheless, on Saturday and Sunday I found myself traipsing up to the attic and bringing down our boxes and bins and laying everything out on the family room floor. And that’s when it hit me: Nothing I do in the course of a year makes me feel more caught in a time loop than decorating for Christmas. Forget Groundhog Day! The real re-run holiday is Christmas. As I dragged the first box down I was sure I had just packed it and put it back up in the attic yesterday. When I was pulling out the cardboard that we lay beneath our trainset I knew exactly which two pieces we needed because it felt like I had just slipped them back in their storage place that morning.
Do you get that feeling this time of year, or is it just me—like the rest of the year didn’t really happen? And if it did, it suddenly collapses into the span of a few seconds once you start trying to wedge the Christmas tree into its stand? I think that’s especially true if you’ve lived in the same place for several years and you don’t move anything around. To some degree, this aspect of Christmastime is comforting to many of us. We like these traditions, we like these rituals and handling the artifacts of our families. They have an anchoring effect. I think it is engineered, in part, to impart a sense of timelessness, that things may change, but these aspects of our lives won’t ever be any different.
However, if the truth be told, that’s not really where we need to be. We don’t really need to be drawn back into a loop of the same-old, same-old, however soothing and reassuring it may be. We don’t really need to find comfort in hauling out the old boxes of memories and the rerun of our cherished moments. We don’t really need the sense of timelessness amidst a changing world. I know that can come off as kind of harsh and insensitive, and even a bit hypocritical since even here in the church we even prepare this time of year to run through our own list of rituals and time-honored customs.
When we take a good, hard look at the world around us, when we take stock of our own lives and our own brokenness, we find the best place to look for hope and comfort is not the attic, or the shopping mall, or the traditions that warm our hearts. The best place to look is outside of ourselves and our own endeavors—from outside of our world. The fact of the matter is we shouldn’t want everything to be the same as last year or the year before. We want things to be different. And I’m not talking about small incremental, quaint change. It needs to be dramatic, sweeping, unmistakable. What we and the whole world needs is for God’s power to return in a way we can understand once and for all.
If the truth be told, it’s the words of the prophet Isaiah that give us the best outlook not just for this time of year, but for any time. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” he cries. We can see him with his arms open in an act of pleading and apology: “as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil!” This is not “let’s get out the garland and tinsel and make things look pretty.” This is wholesale rearrangement of everything—action that has swift, clear results.
As it happens, these are the feelings, the perspective of the people of God a few thousand years ago after they returned from exile in Babylon. They had had high hopes for what going back to live in their old Promised Land home would be like. They’ve been there several years, gone through the rituals several times. They’ve gone up into the attic and lugged down the boxes, lit whatever candles of their Israelite traditions that are supposed to make things OK.
But things are not OK. None of their own efforts have really helped bring about the righteousness they’ve longed for. In fact, they’re own attempts at right relationships have become like “dirty rags,” Isaiah says. Enough of their own lackluster attempts at tax reforms and health care legislation and addressing the opioid crisis! Enough of their own half-baked platforms and diplomacies and strategies for governing themselves. Enough of the inability for men and women to treat each other and their bodies with respect.
And so they find themselves looking beyond their immediate control, looking to the heavens for a time when God will somehow break in and straighten everything out. The prophet Isaiah helps them realize that what they’re really waiting for is not a re-run of the best parts of the past. What we all need is for God to tear open the heavens and come down here among us. It’s like that song by singer-songwriter John Mayer from about ten years ago: “So we keep waiting for the world to change.”
Jesus actually borrows this kind of imagery when he speaks to his own disciples about how they’re to live once he is crucified and risen. They’ll be waiting for the world to change, living in anticipation and expectation for God’s power, not just replaying the best parts of the past. Jesus talks about himself in the language ancient Israel had used to describe the end of all time. They will look to the heavens and see the Son of Man descending from the clouds, this great deliverer who will establish his reign of righteousness on earth.
All this confusing talk of the four winds and the elect and the clouds is not necessarily meant to be taken literally. It is the best way Jesus can explain at that time that true redemption is not going to be something they themselves can drum up. God alone, through the compassion and mercy of Jesus, can bring this about.
When I think of the “Son of Man coming in clouds,” I think of how every week I probably see no fewer than five sunrises or sunsets on social media. As modern as we are now, there is still apparently few things as awe-inspiring and other-worldly to us as clouds arranged dramatically across the sky. People are captivated sunsets and sunrises. I am one of them! I posted one this morning before church started and it already has twenty likes. True and complete deliverance will get worked out when Jesus returns, and it will be from God’s realm once more breaking into ours, and this imagery is something even Jesus’s audience found captivating.
The good news for us is that Jesus says he is at the gates. It’s not much longer now. In the ancient world, and for much of human history, people who lived in cities new they were protected by large walls that surrounded them. Depending on the size of the city, there were several gates in that wall leading in and out of the city which were typically kept closed. When a coming delegation or army would approach, the gates would be closed. However, if they knew what was good for them, they would go ahead and prepare for those gates to be opened. Even though the delegation wasn’t actually inside the city—and in many cases couldn’t even be seen as they encamped outside—the residents of the city had to begin living as if the gates were open and the advancing army was already among them. They needed their life together to match what it eventually would be.
Jesus says that’s how his followers are to live as they await his final arrival. Know that he is near, at the very gates. Begin living now, inside your city, as if Jesus, in all his power and glory, is right outside the gates. Keep awake, stay alert, put your faith into action.
As some of you know, one of our members lost her brother in a tragic, sudden death two days before Thanksgiving. He had been living in another state far away, and so she and her parents had to travel quite a distance in order to take care of his final affairs and arrange, if possible, a memorial service for him. Unfortunately, they did not know anyone out there and our member’s brother did not have a church home. Through some contacts here in Virginia, the family was able to set something up at a Lutheran Church in that city.
Everything, as you might imagine, was very last-minute, and as it turns out, one major complication was that the women’s group at that church had already set up the entire sanctuary for their annual Christmas tea. Hosting this memorial service for a group of out-of-town, mourning family members who was quite literally at their gates of their church was not on their agenda. It meant all the decorations had to come down and all the tables get put up before they were supposed to. But they did it without complaining and gladly, as if it were on their agenda. Because they were waiting, ready. Ready to put faith into action. In the matter of a few hours, the church was prepared for the memorial service and they welcomed these strangers at their gates in with open arms. A member of the church choir offered to sing a solo for the service, and the assistant to the bishop of that synod even showed up to lend support to the grieving family and to help lend vocal support to the hymn-singing.
We cry out for God to stir up his power and we have faith he is at the gates. We live now in the world as if he is already among us at the end of time, full of grace and truth. We lend support to the singing, keep alert, we move tables, we feed the hungry, we wrap the presents, and if we have to, we put up the decorations, and we take them down.
But we know it is only for a brief spell. Our tea time, all our traditions, will abruptly come to an end. And those who have come to know this King, who may have been baptized—we are no better than anyone else, but we do know we really have no fear of him as he stands at the gates, like a sun just before it peeks over the horizon.
We have no fear because he is the one who first came for us on the cross, who has already laid down his life for us, who sought us out in our brokenness, in our waywardness, and gave us mercy. He is the one, above all else, who brings us comfort, who doesn’t just make things OK but who makes all things awesome, makes all things new—who promises to hold us in his potter’s hands today, this year, and until the last time loop has come to an end.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.