O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O God, you are our Maker; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O God, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Human One coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Saviour, but only the Creator. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Will you pray with me? God who journeys with us, open our ears and hearts to your message; give us grace to listen with accepting spirits and to speak with ready words the message you have for us today. In all your names, amen.
Doom, desolation, and grief; earthquakes, fire, the end of the world—these seem like strange readings for the first Sunday in Advent! Aren’t we supposed to be looking out for joy, delight, hope, peace, a baby in manger with shepherds keeping watch and angels singing of heavenly peace? What happened to swords into ploughshares and Joseph’s dreams and a young woman expecting the anointed one, the child of God?
Jesus’ coming is exactly what all this—the earthquakes and fire and desolation and whirlwind and so on—are about. We who know that Jesus was born once are awaiting his return—and until he returns in that final glory, we prepare for that return by remembering his first arrival among humans, much quieter and unheralded, as a baby in a manger. But one day he will come again, and it will be in a firestorm, whether literal or metaphorical.
No one knows when—and Jesus emphasizes this—no one knows the time, not the angels, not humans, not even Jesus Christ himself—only God the creator knows when Christ will return. Many people have tried to predict it over the centuries. The early Christians thought it would be right away; then maybe after 100 years, then maybe in the year 1000. Various dates have been popular, including 2000, and most recently, October 21 of this year. Obviously it did not happen on any of those dates! But it will happen, and since no one knows when it will be, we had better act as if it has already happened, or is about to happen, so we will be ready.
What does it mean, to behave as if God’s realm had come on earth? We pray for it every time we say the prayer Jesus taught us. “Your dominion come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But what does that mean, to ask that God’s will be done on earth? What will God’s realm, God’s dominion, look like?
We’ve been hearing a lot about it in the last few weeks. God’s realm is like young women prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, the VIP; God’s realm is everyone being paid the same wage no matter long or short a time they have worked; God’s dominion is sharing our gifts and talents so they produce good results, it’s seeing Jesus in everyone, and serving him in them. It’s all those things—recognising God’s presence in the world, living open-handed with all that we have been given, because all that we have and are comes ultimately from God.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent; the first of the four Sundays that lead up to Christmas. Advent means “the approach,” in other words, it’s the time of preparation for Jesus’ arrival among us on Christmas. A journey is a powerful metaphor or symbol for Advent—after all, Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem for his birth, and Jesus himself travelled throughout his ministry, as did the early disciples and the apostles. Our lives are often described as journeys, too. How do you prepare for a journey?
First, you prepare for the trip. When you go on a trip, you don’t just go to the airport and see where the planes are going. You know where you want to go—Key West, or New York City, or Paris or Italy. You make reservations at a hotel or make sure it’s OK with your friends for you to stay with them; maybe you reserve a rental car. Maybe you are travelling for a family wedding, or a vacation, or for business. And so you pack what is appropriate for the trip—shorts, flip-flops, and sunblock for Key West; your best suit for a wedding.
Then you begin your journey—you head to the airport or finish packing the car, and back down the driveway and head off. You know you have what you need, so you start off with excitement and a sense of expectation and hope.
Third, you sometimes have a crisis in your trip—luggage is lost, there’s a fender-bender with your car, a plane is delayed, the hotel loses your reservations, your friend can’t pick you up at the airport after all and you have to take a taxi, or maybe you get lost in a strange city. Something happens to trip you up, to make it difficult to remember the purpose of your trip, to remember that hope and excitement.
And finally, you arrive at your destination—and sometimes it isn’t what you had hoped for. It rains for three days straight, you catch a cold, the show you had hoped to see is sold out, the hotel isn’t as advertised, you argue with the friends who are putting you up… But often it is—the wedding is beautiful, the weather is perfect, you reconnect with your friends, the hotel is so great you don’t want to go home. And you celebrate your journey, your trip to this place, to this time, with these people, the love and happiness and joy of your arrival in the place you were meant to be.
We’ll be exploring all those phases of the journey in the next few weeks, but today let’s look at preparing and packing. Naturally, once you know where you are going and why, a lot of decisions are made easier. Key West means no sweaters or gloves; a wedding means your suit, and so on. You don’t need to rent a car on Key West, once you are there; nor in New York or Paris. But if you plan to tour the Tuscan countryside, you had better make arrangements for a car! If you hate to fly and are going to drive yourself, you make sure the oil is changed and the tires are in good shape. You prepare.
So where are we going, this Advent, and what will we need when we are there? In common with every Advent, we are heading to the realm of God, wherever that is and whatever it looks like. Even Jesus couldn’t describe it except in terms of metaphors and parables. “It is as if…” he says. Or, “The realm of God is like…” It’s not that he doesn’t know what it will be like, but more that the human language does not have the words to describe it.
It will be a—well, we can’t really say place, because it is out of our time and space, isn’t it? It is where our human failings are gone—all those miscommunications, all the times we said one thing and meant another, when someone said or did something hurtful—maybe for the best of reasons!—when we hurt others or were hurt, where hunger and injustice and pain and illness are no more, where there is perfect understanding between people, no fear of judgement or conflict or hatred or anger. Even predators will be at peace with their prey—Isaiah says the lion will lie down with the lamb.
Wow. I can just barely imagine a place like that. How do you—we—prepare for a place like that? How do we pack? What will we need to bring with us? What should be in our suitcases?
First is confidence and reliance on God’s love for us. We belong in God’s dominion; the decision does not lie with any human being, but with God and God has welcomed all creatures into God’s realm. So begin with that sure knowledge that we are welcome there and no one will reject us or tell us to leave—because we belong there and no one doubts it. With that confidence, then, we do not need to bring fear or anger. Nothing can harm us, we cannot harm anyone in God’s realm—so there is nothing to fear. No hate—hate comes from fear and anger, from a lack of understanding that God created all beings good and loves all that God has created. Even those we hate or fear or are angry with—the parent or boss or sibling or friend—may well be present in God’s realm—remember, the decision is God’s, who most truly knows each person’s heart; the decision doesn’t belong to us humans, who can only judge by what we see on the outside, and so do not really know the other person. If we want to be forgiven by others, then we must also forgive.
What else should we bring? Wonder—the wonder of a child, a phrase we often hear around Advent and Christmas. Children don’t doubt—the day a child begins to doubt her place in the universe is the day she is no longer a child. Sadly, that day comes too soon for many children, made to feel less than, unwanted, rejected. But unless and until that day arrives, children have a certainty that they belong, and the knowledge that God loves them, and that amazing things can happen if we can keep that certainty of God’s love for us in our hearts.
Well, my friends, it’s time to get ready—pull down your favourite suitcase or backpack or bag from the closet or under the bed, and start packing. Put in all your wonder, all your certainty that God loves you, your forgiveness, and your hope. Leave behind your fear, your anger, your doubt, your uncertainty. Pack it up, get ready to go on this wonderful Advent journey. The taxi will be here soon; are we ready?
In the name of God who journeys with us, amen.