Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Shock of Advent

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 29, 2009

Year C: The First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
(1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
Luke 21:25-35

The Shock of Advent

We’ve known all along that this day was coming. We’ve known all along that Advent was coming. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in my sermon that we would be saying good-bye to the green vestments of the long season after Pentecost and putting on the blue of Advent. Last week Lauren preached on the Feast of Christ the King, the relatively modern feast we celebrate on the final Sunday of the church year. Downstairs in children’s chapel, each Sunday they’ve been moving the arrow on their church calendar, moving closer to the blue strip, representing the first Sunday of Advent, and the start of a new church year.

We’ve known all along that Advent was coming, and yet Advent still comes as a shock.

Part of the shock of Advent comes from the fact that this year everything just seems a little off, doesn’t it? I know some people around here chalk it up to Labor Day being so late, throwing us off balance and making all the autumn events seem to come up so fast.

Part of the shock of Advent comes from the fact that Grace Church been pretty busy too. Just think about the past few months, or take a look at the past couple of issues of The Messenger – the clothing sale, the auction, the blessing of Grace Hall, Halloween Concert, Costume Sunday, First Fridays, soup kitchen days, Habitat for Humanity build, acolyte festival, Far Out Fridays, the talent show, and much more…plus at least one church service every single day.

There’s been a lot going on at Grace, and for many of us there’s been a lot going on in our lives outside of church – deaths and births, illnesses and recoveries, unemployment and new work, decisions to be made and decisions made for us.

Part of the shock of Advent comes from the fact that it is completely off the calendar that the rest of America follows. Last time I preached I described us as living in an in-between time, somewhere between Halloween and Christmas, summer and winter. Well, as far as the rest of America is concerned, that in-between time has come to an end.

As far as the rest of America is concerned, once that last mouthful of pumpkin pie is eaten, and really even before that, it is Christmas. You probably remember those horrifying stories last year of people being trampled in stores on the so-called Black Friday. Instead of trying to tone down some of the craziness around the day after Thanksgiving, as I’m sure you know, some retailers simply tried to spread out the craziness by opening their stores on Thanksgiving itself.

But I think all of these reasons still don’t entirely explain the shock of Advent. Even for those of us who are regular churchgoers, part of the shock of Advent comes from the content of Advent.

Even for those of us who are regular churchgoers, we often think of Advent as simply the lead-up to Christmas. When we think of Advent, we often still have Christmas pageant images in our head, Gabriel appearing to Mary, Joseph’s dream, Mary visiting Elizabeth. And there is some of that. One side of Advent is the anticipation of Christmas – we might call that the blue side of Advent.

But there is another side of Advent – the purple side. It’s the side of Advent that calls us to look ahead to the end, rather than to look back at the birth of the Messiah. It’s the side of Advent that challenges us to listen, to prepare, to be alert for the last day.

The shock of Advent is actually the content of Advent – we are challenged to both look back to the birth of the Messiah and to look ahead to the end, to look ahead to the judgment that we will all face.

Maybe we’d rather be at the mall, after all.

But, we’re here - and look at the gospel the church offers us today. It’s taken from the Gospel of Luke and it comes from a section of the gospel in which Jesus makes prophetic predictions.

The first set of predictions which we didn’t hear today (but you may remember we did hear Mark’s version a couple of weeks ago) involved the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel was almost certainly written after the Romans in fact destroyed the Temple and so the accuracy of Jesus’ prediction would have impressed the first readers and hearers of Luke.

But then there’s this second, impossible to verify, set of predictions. Jesus predicts cosmic events and events on earth that will point to the arrival of the Son of Man and the day of judgment.

And this section of the gospel concludes with Jesus warning us to “be on guard” and “to be alert” so that, unlike Advent, these cosmic and ultimate events do not come as a shock.

Taken by itself, this little snippet from the Gospel of Luke is pretty challenging and scary. I know I’d rather be talking about Christmas instead of the day of judgment. But, of course, we don’t have to take this little snippet by itself – we have the whole gospel available to us.

We have the whole story of divine love so great that God came and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth. We have the whole story of Jesus’ life, his teaching, and his sacrifice on the Cross. Finally, we have the whole story of Easter – the story of God’s love being more powerful than death.

Just in case we found this little passage from Luke frightening, today the church also gives us a hopeful little snippet from the Prophet Jeremiah. The setting is the 6th Century BC, Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple have been destroyed, and much of the people of Israel are living in exile in Babylon. It must have seemed like everything was lost. Yet, in the midst of this fear and suffering, Jeremiah presents this promise of God’s presence and God’s love.

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the House of Judah.” “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”

And in Jesus Christ, you and I have God’s promise to be with us even to the end of time.

Advent may still come as a shock, but there doesn’t really need to be a scary side to this season.

However, Jesus’ call to “be on guard” and to “be alert” is real, serious, essential, and very difficult. All of the noise and all of the distractions of the world make it very difficult to pay attention to how God might be at work in our lives.

It’s difficult, but absolutely essential to pay attention.

The other day I was listening to the radio and I heard about the National Day of Listening. It’s sponsored by Story Corps, the organization that has set up booths around the country where people can record interviews with friends and relatives. Since 2003, more than 50,000 interviews have been recorded and stored in the Library of Congress.

On the National Day of Listening we are invited to take the time to have a deep conversation with someone else – and to really listen to what they have to say. And, I’d add, we might very well discover God at work in and through that other person.

When is the National Day of Listening? It was on Friday, on “Black Friday,” when the world was calling us to something very different than listening.

The good news is the church offers us more than a day of listening. Advent, the start of a new church year, is a time to prepare for Christmas and to look ahead to the day of judgment. But maybe the true shock of Advent is we are given this special time to pay attention, a whole season to listen for God.