Advent begins today. And while the sanctuary is decorated with greenery, garlands, and bright red poinsettias, we need to remind ourselves that Advent is notChristmas. Christmas Day begins the 12-day Christmas season, but Advent is the way of the Christian life.
The early church didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. Focused on Easter, the first Christians gathered to pray, to serve the poor, and to share a communal meal which became the Eucharist. In doing so, they both prepared for and lived in Jesus’ presence. Reports of a Nativity feast didn’t even begin to surface until the third century.
Of the four canonical gospels, three seem relatively uninterested in Jesus’ nativity. Mark, the earliest gospel, opens his story with an adult John the Baptist calling people to respond to an adult Jesus who is already creeping around on the margins. Matthew tells us about Joseph’s dream, but then jumps straight to the visit of the Magi, who would have visited not an infant in a stable but a toddler in a carpenter’s modest home. John, the latest gospel, starts out with abstract theological musing: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” Then John, like Mark, throws us straight into the presence of an adult John the Baptist.
Only Luke records a nativity story, and he prepares us very carefully. Before the “good news of great joy,” Luke forecasts the birth of John the Baptist by telling the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Then comes the story of the Annunciation and Mary’s consent. Next, Mary visits Elizabeth, and after Elizabeth’s prophecy, Mary sings her prophetic song of praise.
Elizabeth’s child is born and named John by a doubt-muted Zechariah who, when his voice is restored, makes his own prophecy about God sending a “mighty savior [to] guide our feet into the way of peace.” Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s son will prepare the way for this savior.
At this point in Luke – chapter 1, verse 79 – John is an infant, and Jesus is not yet born. There are years of waiting, decades of hope-in-the-midst-of-hardship before these prophecies begin to stir once again in people’s imaginations. Thatis the feeling we’re after in Advent.
Advent asks us to stop and mull over all these prophecies. At its best, the peculiar Christian tradition of Adventhumblymakes the audacious claim thatGod incarnates God’s own self in a particular human being, in a particular religious tradition, and in a particular place, time, and socio-political environment. These four weeks call us to examine our own hearts and minds, our own spiritual communities and fellowship, and our interactions with our own social, political, and economic circumstances. That’s why Advent begins with texts like Luke 21:
25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (NRSV)
It helps to back up and look at this passage in the context of Luke’s wider story, which doesn’t end with the Ascension, but continues all the way through the book of Acts. Like Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s prophecy preceding the births of their children, Jesus’ prophecy – his entire prophetic life – precedes his passion, his resurrection, and Pentecost. Always engaging political and economic as well as spiritual and religious realities, Jesus’ words can make us uneasy.1And to be sure, Jesus speaks of political distressand confusion. He speaks of chaos in nature. And by calling such things signsof the coming of the Son of Man,Luke presents Jesus as an apocalyptic figure – someone speaking about the end times. But there are at least two voices at work in this passage: Jesus, the prophetic Word of God, and Luke, the first century narrative theologian.
As the first voice, Jesus – the Son of Man– points toward the completion of God’s redemption of the Creation, God’s gracious gathering up of all things into God’s Self. The apocalyptic tradition in Judaism describes a disruptive grace, dramatic and even tumultuous changes in the world.
A caution for us: Every human attempt to define or identify some culminating, apocalyptic event has proven wrong. (And we needn’t think only the Judeo-Christian tradition. Interpretations of a much-discussed Mayan Calendar predicted that the world would end on December 21, 2012.) Sometimes human effort has proven just plain silly. (Think of Harold Camping and his multiple failed predictions based on preposterous numerology.2) Occasionally, some have tried, with horrifying and deadly futility, to force the issue. (Think of the Crusades in Medieval times. Or currently, think of particular Christian Zionists who even now want to kindle all-out war in the Middle East because they believe it a prerequisite for Jesus’ return.)
As the second voice, Luke wrote in the early-to-mid 80’sCE– that means ten to fifteen years after the fall of Jerusalem in 70CE. The distress, confusion,and chaosof the Jewish rebellion and Rome’s over-powering response lingered like the smell of smoke around a fire-ravaged home. Having a long history of suffering conquest and occupation, those with Jewish roots would still feel that fresh wound and remember ancient ones. They would be wrestling with God’s goodness and providence as they squirmed under the heel of Roman rule, still waiting for good news, still preparing for deliverance.
Only Luke knows for sure, but maybe he was trying to say, in and through Jesus’ words, that he expected some imminent and apocalyptic act of redemption. And as followers of God the Son, we proclaim that in and through the Luke’s story (indeed, through the broader gospel story), God the Holy Spiritreveals to all with eyes to see and ears to hear, that God the Father’sdeliverance has come. It has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was born some 85 years earlier in the town of Bethlehem. And to process news like that we have to embrace a paradox. We prepare for the arrival of the Christ, for the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption, by already living our lives in the realm of Incarnate love here and now.
Because Christmas proclaims the gift of God’s eternal presence in, with, and for the Creation, Advent, instead of being a time of busyness and acquisition, is best observed as a time of contemplation and release. It’s a time to create space to receive anew God’s ongoing apocalypse of grace in Jesus. The more we clutter our lives, the more “weighed down [and trapped] with…the worries of this life” we become, and the less “alert [and prayerful]” we will be. And the less able we are to recognize and welcome what God offers in Jesus.
Christmas is the moment, the headliner. But Advent is the way of life. Without Advent, this time of year is, even for Christians, nothing more than “The Holidays.”
As you come to the table this morning, may you come with open hearts and unclenched fists so that you may truly receive the signs of grace. And instead of helping you to escapecreation’s suffering and struggles, may this sacrament send you out to live as sprouting fig leaves, as incarnate signs of God’s healing presence and redeeming love at work in a grieving and anguished, but beautiful and beloved world.
1Like so much of scripture, especially prophetic and apocalyptic texts, Jesus’ words often get misused. Many people find grace a bit fluffy and fragile, and turn to fear (judgement, shame, etc.) as means of proclamation. The gospel, then, gets lost in human efforts to make grace a merited and measurable commodity rather than a gift. The gift of scripture comes with the endless challenge to handle them with care.
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
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