November 30, 2014
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
I Corinthians 1:3-9
I’m impressed every year when Clem and Sally and assorted helpers manage to move our ginormous Advent wreath from storage in the chapel and hoist it high above the lecturn. As we light one candle each Sunday we are waiting and preparing for the Advent, that is, the Coming of Christ.
For many people that preparing consists mainly of decorating our homes and buying gifts for friends and family. There is nothing wrong with making our home reflect our faith, since we often have trouble going public with our commitment to Jesus Christ, having believed the culture that tells us it is bad form to talk about our faith in Jesus at the office and at sporting events.
There is also nothing wrong with buying gifts for others as a way of living in gratitude for the gift from God of our savior Jesus Christ. We give to others, as a way of also giving back to God.
The problem comes when we take the Advent Wreathe too literally and imagine that the Christian life is a circle, going round and round to nowhere.
I had a persistent dream as a college student that I was going down a spiral staircase but after each turning I would end up at the same place I started and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get anywhere—either up or down. I was trapped on a circular treadmill—sort of like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, in which no matter what he did during the day, from trying to kill himself or to changing a tire for a car load of old ladies, each morning at 6 o clock brought him back to exactly the same point he’d been the morning before.
If we think Advent is telling us life is going from Christmas to Easter to Christmas again, then repeat, over and over, then we have left Christianity and ended up in some other philosophical system that is “a tale told by idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
Advent most certainly is meant to help us once again, like all the years before, to prepare to engage with the mystery of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity in Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth. This mystery is infinitely rich and profound. I’ve lately been exploring the work of some 20th century theologians (like T. F. Torrance and Karl Barth) who agree with some of the early Church bishops (like Athanasius) who said the Word of God took on, not perfect human nature, like that of Adam before the Fall, but fallen human nature, and lived inside the same reality you and I live in every day.
I’ll let you know how this investigation goes, but it is exciting to ponder the reality that Jesus really was one of us, from our troubled minds to our broken hearts, and yet was also God coming to us in order to heal our troubled minds and broken hearts. The saying in the ancient church was: what Christ does not assume, does not take on himself, he cannot heal. If Christ did not become fully human then the humanity we are is still alone in the universe waiting for God or maybe Visa or Master Card to save us.
So, yes, Virginia, every year Advent is a wonderful time to prepare for the First Coming of God with us and God for us. I hope we will listen to the Christmas carols with a renewed curiosity and wonderment, so we, like Mary, will ponder them in our hearts.
But we also have to be aware that God comes to us in Jesus for a purpose beyond decorating and shopping year after year. That this journey of life we are on has a meaningful purpose and end that calls us to participate with God in the Kingdom of God’s appearance on earth.
So Advent is not just about the first coming of Christ but also the second coming of Christ—like when we say, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”
Of course we thoughtful Episcopalians have trouble with this idea because our imaginations have been hijcaked by the 19th century theology made popular in the Left Behind books which tell us that the second coming of Christ is for the purpose of beaming up into heaven the good Bible-believing Christians and leaving everyone else to suffer as creation is destroyed.
This is a vision based on a misunderstanding of Biblical imagery that I will talk about in my forum today and it is especially a misunderstanding of the goodness and purpose the Creator God has for creation.
This may sound like counting angels on the head of the pin until you consider what happens when this distorted vision is taken seriously, like when Bishop N. T. Wright was lecturing in Thunder Bay, Ontario in the early 1980’s. He said many in that place of trees and water who have bought into the Left Behind scenario said to him “there was no point worrying about trying to stop polluting the planet with acid rain and the like. Indeed, isn’t it unspiritual and even a sign of a lack of faith to think about such things? If God is intending to bring the whole world to a shuddering halt, what was the problem?” Surprised by Hope, page 119
The problem is, as Wright says, “that history was going somewhere under the guidance of the God and that where it was going was toward God’s new world of justice, healing, and hope. The transition from the present world to the new one would be a matter not of the destruction of the present space-time universe but of its radical healing.” Ibid. page 122
After all as Isaiah tells us today, “O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.”
Saint Paul writes to the church in Corinth: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Notice here Paul uses the phrase “revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” not his coming. “Coming” has taken on the meaning that Christ is coming from a place far, far away called heaven. Paul, however, uses the word “revealing” because heaven is close and is interlocked with our reality, hidden from our sight by a thin veil that does not limit God’s power and presence.
Christ will be revealed to us, not to kill but to heal, not to destroy but to make new.
That’s why Jesus tells us that we are like those servants waiting for the return of their master—always on alert because at any moment he will come walking up the driveway and we will certainly want to run out to greet him who is Lord and Master, just like Roman citizens would run outside the gates of the city to welcome the returning Caesar in order to usher him into the city. For Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not!
God’s new creation breaks into our world through the womb of Israel in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and therefore our role is to do our part, empowered by his Spirit, to live in faith, hope, and love, offering God’s forgiveness to the whole world, inviting everyone to join in the Kingdom that has come and is coming. We are like diplomats on foreign soil, working on behalf of the King who will shortly come to complete the healing of the world.
This is the work of the church this and every Advent.
So as N. T. Wright says, “Jesus is coming, plant a tree”.