What an interesting Gospel reading for today, the first Sunday in Advent. We’ve roasted our turkeys, we’ve listened to Christmas carols in the stores for a couple of months now, we lit the first of the Advent candles this morning. We just sang about the spirit of the watchers. So now we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus. That’s what Advent is all about. Isn’t it?
Advent is a season of the Church calendar that marks a three- to four-week period before Christmas. It is the beginning of the new year in the Western Church calendar. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus meaning “presence” or “arrival.”
The world has become darker (especially when we moved our clocks back a few weeks ago), and Advent looks toward the coming light. I suspect it’s no accident that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the “Light of the World,” just after the winter solstice when the light
begins its increase, when (as my dad loved to quote from poetry) each day lingers a little longer the western sun.
Today’s collect begins asking God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” So we await for Christ to come among us.
But if we look to the lectionary for this Sunday or the next two Sundays for any hint of Bethlehem or wise men or miraculous births, we’ll be a bit disappointed. Of course if we look to either the first or last Gospel written, Mark or John, we won’t find any story at all about the birth of Jesus. Those birth stories we have, in Matthew and Luke, were created a couple of decades after Mark’s Gospel came along, and the two offer quite different, if not conflicting, accounts about what might have happened.
For example, the Gospel that we’re reading for these four Advent Sundays, Matthew, begins with a genealogy to show Jesus’ heritage from Abraham to David down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and then tells of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth without any reference to a journey to Bethlehem, just that after Jesus was born there, the Magi came to “the house” after their fateful visit to Herod in Jerusalem. Matthew makes no reference to a stable, manger, shepherds or donkeys.
Luke on the other hand provides no genealogy and instead focuses heavily not on Jesus but on John the Baptist as a foil to Jesus. The author goes to considerable length to explain the background and circumstances around John's birth before ever coming to the subject of Jesus. Mary is much more central to the story there than in Matthew with her visit to Elizabeth and her Magnificat. There’s a heavy focus on the naming of John before we’re ever told of Jesus’ birth.
Back in Matthew, I think the emphasis there on Jesus’ ancestry reflects the author’s desire to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's story. He highlights Jesus as the new David with his birthplace in Bethlehem and his links as a direct descendent through Joseph. Joseph hears from angels about Old Testament prophecies that are shown to be fulfilled in Jesus. The whole Matthew account is littered with references to the Old Testament, again highlighting Jesus’ Jewish roots. Finally, the Magi's role shows the importance of Jesus and his prominence as “King of the Jews.”
So why does the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent focus on Christ’s second coming? A second coming that we cannot anticipate the where or when of. As I read the lines about not knowing when Something’s Coming, I couldn’t get Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics out of my head from West Side Story:
There’s something’ due any day;
I will know right away
Soon as it shows
It may come cannonballin’
Down through the sky
Gleam in its eye
Bright as a rose!
So here on first day of the church’s new year, just when it feels there should be a little Good News about the coming of hope and peace and life this Advent, our friend Matthew strongly suggests that we are at risk. He says “…until the day Noah entered the ark, Noah’s neighbors knew nothing… until the flood came and swept them all away. So too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
For a post-9/11 world, his is a difficult passage for 21st century Americans. How can we make sense of it? How can we find good news in the prediction that “one will be taken and one will be left” when the Son of Man comes? How can we, who live in a culture of fear and regularly updated threat levels, hear Jesus’ words except through our fear?
You’ve probably heard of a series of books called Left Behind, where a “rapture” occurs. In this so-called “rapture,” Christians are suddenly taken away from the earth leaving their clothes behind. Both in Chapel Hill on the UNC campus and at Wesleyan down in
Connecticut, I’ve come across stagings of clothing “left behind.” They were probably placed there by some group of students making fun of the whole idea of the “Rapture” and “left behind,” a movement that sprang up in 1833 from an unusual Bible translation by John Nelson Darby. Most Christian churches don’t subscribe to rapture-oriented theological views, of course, but it’s out there.
Matthew does have a rather end-time – or apocalyptic – orientation, dividing history into a present, evil age and a new age (or Realm of Heaven). The older age seems to be all about Satan and demons, about idolatry, sin, injustice, exploitation, violence, and death. The new age will be characterized by the complete rule of God and angels, by authentic worship, forgiveness, mutual support, health, and eternal life.
I think most of us tend to take this apocalyptic language as figurative and as tied to a first-century world view (when most of the population was illiterate) that doesn’t make much sense to us today. Nearly 2,000 years have passed without the Apocalypse, and we don’t anticipate some singular event that will instantly transform the world.
In the season of Advent we anticipate the arrival of the Messiah on two levels. First, we seek to place ourselves in the historical shoes of Israel as they waited for centuries for the arrival of the Messiah. When we sing songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with its lyrics about “ransoming captive Israel” who “mourns in lonely exile here” we are remembering our forebears as they awaited the arrival of God’s Anointed.
On the second level, we’re told to anticipate Christ’s Second Coming, what the New Testament writers like Matthew and Paul refer to as His parousia [pa-ra-see-ya or pare-rau-zi-a]; His “arrival.” That word, parousia, is actually the Greek word that gets translated to Adventus in Latin. So it’s the original word for Advent.
A problem with this Gospel lesson is that it calls for readiness without telling us how to get ready. What must we do? In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives two answers. First, the Parable of the Talents tells us to use our God-given resources for God’s benefit. Second, Jesus says that feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner are activities that will be credited to us as if we had done them for Christ.
This two-fold emphasis is consistent with Jesus’ answer to the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” You remember Jesus gave a two-fold answer:
He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. A second likewise is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
So my takeaway from today’s lesson is that we can prepare for Christ’s coming by (first) loving and serving God and (second) by loving and serving our neighbor.
I think the message is that simple and that universal.
So Happy New Year.
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