a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent [Year A]
Matthew 24:36-44 and Isaiah 2:1-5
Based on what I’m seeing from what people are sharing on Instagram and Facebook these days, and from the different conversations I’ve had over the past week or so, people got a pretty good head start on their Christmas decorating this weekend. Some, I suspect, have already completed it. The boy scout who lives across the street from us, from whose troop we ordered our Christmas wreath, showed up like expected last Sunday to deliver it. We wasted no time in hanging it, no matter what they say about waiting until after Thanksgiving to do that kind of thing.
For you the key ingredient to Christmas decorating may be a wreath on the door, or a tree in the family room, or even an elf on a shelf, but for an increasing amount of people these days a key ingredient for setting the holiday mood involves watching a Hallmark Christmas Movie. These relatively low-budget-but-high-quality, made-for-TV-format films are shown primarily on the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels. And they have become immensely popular. Don’t believe me? This year alone those two channels will air 70 new Christmas movies between October and New Year’s Day. The genre has become so beloved that they have made the Hallmark Channel the most viewed cable channel and, in order to get in on the action, Netflix will even produce six of their own Christmas movies, too.
The popularity of the of the Hallmark Christmas movie is deep and broad, the genre itself is very narrow, and people readily accept that every movie consists of the same plot with only slight variations. For example, the movie’s always about a love connection that fits the opposites-attract scenario. Their relationship overcomes various odds and obstacles but eventually turns out OK, and the couple end up happily together. The storyline almost always takes place in a small town somewhere, and it’s snowing in the final scene.
Confession: I’ve never seen a Hallmark Christmas movie, but I have seen the granddaddy ancestor of that entire genre: White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. And I love it. It, too, takes place in small town, involves a love connection or two, and has snow in the final scene. It was a regular part of my family’s Christmas Eve schedule when I was growing up, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since. We can all quote just about every single line as we watch it, and for some reason, even though we know exactly how the corny storyline goes, we still get a warm glow-y feeling at the big finale when General Waverly is genuinely surprised by the big bash his old army pals have thrown him. We still get a little misty-eyed when he straightens up his uniform and comes down from the stage to inspect his troops, who’ve assembled from far-flung corners. And the curtain goes up on stage at the very end to reveal the long-anticipated white Christmas no one thought would come…but yet everyone hoped would. I’m not sure why, but my hunch is we like these movies, we like these stories, because they speak to a longing we feel, especially at this time of year, for the familiar, the predictable. We don’t want too many surprises.
The truth is, Hallmark storylines, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, make for great Christmas movies, but probably not great Advent movies. If Jesus were to be the producer of a film for us to watch about that long-anticipated outcome no one thought would ever come but yet everyone hoped would, it would involve a thief breaking in to a house…at night. It would involve a flood that suddenly washes people away while they’re carrying on with their lives as usual. Its plot would contain a certain element of suspense that would keep us awake, even if the movie lasted far longer than we wanted it to.
Why? Because Jesus would want to prepare us not for some warm glow-y feeling, but for the day of his arrival. Jesus’ goal would be to inspire us not for some seasonal mood or atmosphere, but to live in world that is redeemed and set to rights. For to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man, which is what the word “advent” means, means reacquainting ourselves not with our dreams for the world and for our lives, but with God’s dreams for the world. And God’s dreams are grander and bigger than ours. When the curtain goes up in the final scene, it reveals much more than just happy snowfall.
A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a parent in the congregation whose high school age child had just received her first college promotional piece of mail. Talk about a wake-up call! This mother was a little shocked that they were already at this point in her child’s life, and even though it is typical for sophomores to be on college mailing lists, it was still a bit of a surprise, and the small piece of mail reignited all kinds of big questions. What kind of life do I really want for my child? What kinds of sacrifices are our family prepared to make to get her there? What if my dreams and plans for her future end up not being the same as her dreams and plans? I think many parents encounter this fear and anticipation for their children at some point, regardless of whether college is involved or not. And most parents I talk to eventually let their own dreams for their children’s future fade into the reality of whatever the child ends up choosing, or whatever is chosen for them by unforeseen circumstances.
While God certainly has created a reality where we have choices and desires and opportunities for life and joy, a reality in which each of us encounters multiple options each day, each year, to design and build our livelihoods and fill our free time, the truth is that at some point God does make it clear that overall creation is heading in a direction God has planned. We can be lulled by our complacency and hunger for continuity. We can be satisfied with our appetite for the status quo, for the hope that things will carry on just as they are. God is our Heavenly Father who has in mind a way things are going to end and it is better than any of us can imagine.
“Swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” and “nation will not lift up sword against nation,” says the prophet Isaiah, reminding us of God’s dreams. Not just Israel, God’s chosen, will be included in God’s final vision. The prophets tell us all the nations of the earth, in fact, will stream to God’s holy mountain, which God will have established as the highest of all, towering over all the other idol-strewn hills on our landscape. These are glorious dreams and hopes that we may never think of ourselves or, if we do, they get often get overshadowed by other ideas which we, in our brokenness and self-centered-ness become fixated on.
When Jesus reminds his disciples of these dreams, when he gets them geared up to hear the plot of his Hallmark Advent movie, it can end up sounding like something from the Left Behind series from several years back, those books and movies about the rapture. The rapture is an unbiblical concept that came out of a fringe tradition about a century ago that makes it sound like one day God will just suddenly suck all the special, righteous people into heaven and leave the rest of us here to fend for ourselves in a time of threatening turmoil. Really Jesus is simply impressing upon his listeners just how surprising his eventual arrival will be, how drastically different the end will look from how things often are now. And there will be judgment to anticipate and fear. It will cut right through the happenings of each and every community and each and every heart. But the judgment God will make about the whole of creation and the part we’re playing in it has far more to do with the peaceful way God wants things to be for us than it does with where certain people are going to end up. The suddenness of Jesus’ advent might take us off guard if we’re not in tune with it.
We can choose to go on thinking, for example, that weapons and tools of war are just part of life as God sees it, that guns and bombs are just something we all need to get used to because they help keep the peace, for example. But the judgment is going to come as pretty surprising when it turns out God actually expects us to beat all our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks, our assault rifles into playground equipment. That’s the dream God has for us.
We can choose to go on believing, for example, that races and tribes and ethnic groups work better when they’re kept separate by borders or neighborhoods or school systems or creeds or whatever, but it’s going to be a pretty big shock to us when the kingdom comes in full and all nations and peoples have a place on God’s holy mountain. As it turns out, the curtain will go up at the end and we’ll see people of all languages and identities have been gathered there in peace and unity, because that’s the dream God has for us.
That’s the plot-line, folks, of the Advent movie. The trick is, we don’t know when the actual end comes, and neither does Jesus. That’s part of living within time—there are beginning and endings—and all humans have to deal with not knowing exactly when the curtain goes up. But the cross of Jesus has already revealed the good news for those who believe. On the cross, Jesus dies to the other dreams humankind has, dreams of violence and revenge, dreams of borne entirely of self-protection and maintaining the existing state of affairs.
On the cross, Jesus shows us that we ourselves won’t be able to build these glorious finales, that we ourselves won’t be able to bring about this wondrous vision through our own efforts, but that God has decided to take care of that himself. On the cross, Jesus has shown us with his own blood and suffering that God graciously gives us this future, bright and spectacular. God has poured out his love for this future and empowers us to take part in it, to live now in such a way because we know how it goes.
For now, that’s where we find ourselves—not just watching a movie unfold, but participating in it, ready for the end. And we’re the characters not just during Advent, not just in this time as we hang wreaths and drink hot chocolate, but all the time, each day of the year, each year of our lives. We are characters who know the good ending and start pounding swords into plowshares. We don’t necessarily know when the credits will roll, and to some degree it will probably surprise us no matter what. We understand there will be some obstacles, some bumpy roads, but there is glory and light and peace at the end. The General God will come out, proud and regal. He’ll step down from the stage and inspect his troops, lined up as we are from far-flung corners in our armor of light.
That day is near, sisters and brothers. Be ready. That hallmark day is near.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.