ADVENT SUNDAY, 2016
Sermon for St. James’ Cathedral, Chicago, Illinois
Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
This time of year, I always feel as if I’m caught between two different calendars, grinding against each other like two tectonic plates moving in opposite directions. One is the public calendar that’s hustling us from Thanksgiving to Christmas. It’s very goal-oriented. The tension of preparing for the great day builds and builds—until !boom! it’s all over in just a matter of hours. I confess I’ve come to hate that calendar for cramming way too much into one great climax and consigning the remaining 12 days of the feast to weariness and oblivion.
The church calendar version of this season carries us on a very different time scheme. Advent, too, is pointing us toward December 25th. But instead of plunging us into a goal-oriented scramble, it starts with a strange reverse flow of time. Advent begins far, far in the future with the End of All Things before drawing our minds and hearts back to an event now thousands of years to the past, the birth of Jesus. Luckily, Advent takes its time about this maneuver; otherwise, we’d all have whiplash. But why? Understanding this strange calendar of ours can give us some help and guidance for how to pray and live the four weeks ahead of us.
We begin, as I say, at the End of the World, at the Last Judgement. Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, tells us about it. It is unforeseen and unpredictable, he says; “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.” It’s unpredictable and it is sudden, he says, like the flood that swept people away in the time of Noah. It’s unpredictable; it’s sudden; and it is seemingly random. “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
It sounds like a summary of our worst fears. And all Jesus tells us here, in the face of it, is “Keep awake.” That’s where Advent starts—with the unknown, the daunting, the uncertain, and the advice to stay alert.
Some years it’s been hard to take all this too seriously. Life was sailing along on an even keel, and apocalypse seemed no more than a topic for the movies—scary, but potentially entertaining. Not so much this year, following an angry and disturbing electoral campaign and during the first weeks of a transition in government that seems to many dauntingly uncertain. And this is not even to mention Syria, the Brexit, global warming, and all the other upheavals in the world around us.
The Last Judgement suddenly sounds more relevant, doesn’t it?
But what, after all, is it intended to accomplish? Our usual reflex answer would probably be “punishment.” But that’s wrong. Contrary to the libelous claims made by generations of religious zealots, God actually takes no delight in punishing. If the Last Judgement occasions suffering, that is a byproduct of its true goal.
The true goal is a very simple thing, really: the ultimate unveiling of all hearts. What God already knows about us, we, too, shall learn in that opening of souls. We shall know it for ourselves and know it inescapably. And it will be unpredictable. It will be sudden. It may well seem, to our eyes, random. What distinguishes that man taken out of the field from the one who is left? this woman taken while grinding grain from the one who is left?
Still, it all seems quite daunting. What ancient bishop or monk, we might well ask, had the perverse sense of humor to put something like this into the calendar a scant four Sundays before Christmas? But there’s more to it. The Judgement is not an end in itself.
We heard about it from the prophet Isaiah this morning:
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains. . . ;
all the nations shall stream to it.
It was not in some happy, peaceful, safe era that Isaiah uttered this prophecy of hope. It was in a time of multiple threats, a time of change and uncertainty—a time like ours.
And then Isaiah reveals God’s purpose in this hope filled future:
[God] shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah and Jesus are not in conflict here. God’s goal, the goal of the New Jerusalem, even in judgement, is to see all nations beating our armaments into tools that will sustain human life and the world around us.
The Last Judgement, whenever and however it comes, comes to show us who we truly are. Parts of that revelation may be painful; parts of it may be occasions of joy and thanksgiving. But whatever the Judgement shows us, it is granted to us precisely so that we can wake up and become part of the cloud of witnesses, the saints of this world, who are building the Holy City for everyone, transforming our thirst for enmity and destruction into love—love for God and God’s world and one another. The Judgement by which we see ourselves as we are frees us to join in God’s great work of creation and restoration.
And, yet, as we know, we live now in the in-between time. The Judgement is not yet. We are still trying to figure out where we can get the strength, the hope, the love to live through the present time. And that is where we turn from the Judgement and the New Jerusalem to another much humbler time and place—Bethlehem. No, it wasn’t mentioned in the readings. Those cranky old bishops and monks were too clever for that. Don’t show your hand all at once. Build up the tension before you get to the heart of the story. But they knew what lies four weeks off. And they knew that we would know, too.
This is really all about Bethlehem.
Here comes to birth
the One who birthed us all.
Here lies the Upholder of all,
too weak to raise his head,
God, choosing helplessness instead,
has left the throne of deep tranquillity
to live in human poverty—
Has come to earth.
We speak today about the Last Judgement and the New Jerusalem in order to say that this is a world God has risked entering into. God has not sat back in the throne room of the universe, looking on while we struggle with fear and hope, blessings and disasters, failure and success. God has chosen to experience all this with us, alongside us.
I suppose God had the same thought that occurred more recently to the songwriter Eric Bazilian: “What if God was one of us?” “Risky,” God must have thought, “but worth the danger and the sacrifice. That’s what I choose to do.”
Our times are difficult. We find ourselves caught in deep national conflict, in a changing world order, in a crisis of ecology, and in a time when religion has again become, as it has sometimes been in the past, a stimulus to violence. We also find ourselves uncertain of our direction. Perhaps that’s why we follow the public calendar of feasts so intently: we find the distraction comforting.
The sacred calendar is trying to help us find our footing. If we start with acknowledging who we are, both our failures and our hopes, our weaknesses and our gifts—in other words, with the Judgement—we shall also begin to see ways, large and small, in which we can contribute to the New Jerusalem and grow into our citizenship there—citizenship in the city of peace.
Yes, there’s much to be done in the next four weeks as we prepare to greet the infant of Bethlehem again. But the great truth we encounter there is that God has already come more than halfway to meet us: “has left the throne of deep tranquillity/to live in human poverty.” And the God who was willing to take that risk that will stand with us in our time of struggle here and now.