Happy new year! No, I haven’t skipped over December, as much as I’d like to. Nor am I suffering from post-Thanksgiving stress syndrome. Advent is the beginning of the church’s year, so gloriously out of synch with the world’s calendar. The world is counting down to the end, and the church takes us back to the beginning. How appropriate!
The word “advent” means “coming” or “appearing.” It was used for the coming appearance of a king or a god or a king who thought he was a god. A big event. I can’t think of any non-liturgical uses for that word today. We got that one all to ourselves, people. Best take advantage. Be sure to say “Blessed Advent” to all those cheery politically-correct cashiers wishing you a “happy holiday.” Tell them Christ is coming soon, at an hour no one knows, to judge the living and the dead, and aren’t you really excited about that! It might be the start of an interesting conversation.
Advent is a season of preparation – not for the hectic holidays – but for the holy Day when the Lord appears without warning like a thief in the night, lighting the sky from horizon to horizon with His glory, rousing the dead, changing the living in an instant, laying the judgment of His cross upon all of resurrected humanity. That’s something to look forward to, watch for, wait for with anticipation.
Advent is a fast before the feast of Christmas. Now there’s a novel concept! Fasting before feasting. Follow that and you won’t have to wallow in the annual hangover of post-holiday guilt and the phony baloney of dieting. Advent is a somber time of intensified prayer and devotion. It’s theme song is that mournful hymn to Emmanuel, the God who is “with us.”
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
The hymn is speaking about you. God’s church in her Babylonian captivity, exiles in a foreign land of shopping malls and syncretistic civic religions and spiritual shallowness. That’s you and me. Waiting, watching in lonely exile. “Until the Son of God appear.” Quiet, restrained, sober joy.
Emmanuel will come to you,
That’s the good news of Advent. Emmanuel will come to you, Israel. He came once by crib and cross. He comes now by water, Word, bread and wine. He is coming soon with the clouds, with the trumpet of God, with the angels, to raise you and gather you. And now your job is to watch and be alert and wait.
Oh, we hate waiting, being put on hold. “You’re call will be answered in the order it was received.” The doctor’s waiting room is an exercise in the patience of the patient. “Please take a seat. The doctor will see you shortly.” Waiting in line, waiting in traffic, waiting at airports for flights delayed.
The time of the end, this time in history in which we live, move, and have our being, is like a man who gives his servants their assigned tasks, tells the one at the door to watch, and nothing more, and then goes away. Employers know about that. You never tell them when you’re coming back, because you know what would happen if you did. They’d start playing poker in the warehouse, sleeping on the job, arriving late, leaving early, taking a few “personal days off.” “When the cat’s away, the mice will play?”
If the servants knew the day and the hour the owner was coming back, they could procrastinate to their heart’s content. Hey, there’s always tomorrow, right? Put your feet up, relax, take it easy, chill.
That’s not the kind of church Jesus is looking for in the end times. He knows how it is with us, with our flesh weighed down by lazy old Adam. He knows the religious spirit is oh, so willing, but the flesh is mighty weak. His own disciples couldn’t even keep their eyes peeled open a single hour to pray with Jesus in the garden.
Jesus knows how it is with you, how easily you get bored, distracted. The season of Advent is a manmade preparation. God never said to set aside four weeks before Christmas. Come to think of it, God never said anything about Christmas either. The church didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth for nearly 400 years. They didn’t celebrate birthdays, only death days.
The reason we start the church year in vigil is to remind us that each and every day of a baptized believer’s life is a day lived as though the Lord were about to return. We’re like those servants going about their assigned duties with one eye on the door, watching, waiting, listening for the Master of the house to return.
Jesus takes the last string of God’s revelation and he tightens up the tension so it will sing. “Keep watch. You don’t know the day or the hour, and I’m not telling you. You’re going to have to trust me. It could be at nine in the evening after the kids go to sleep, or midnight, or three in the morning when the rooster crows, or when the sun comes up at six.” Jesus wants His people on the edge of their pews – upright, alert, ready. Only a church caught in end times tension is able to sing out into the darkness, the despair, the death of this world.
Wouldn’t it have been better for us to know? Then we could time things properly. Arrange for a suitable parade. Warn the world. We could get a haircut and take care of last minute shopping. We could stock up on a few extra religious good works, just in case we might need them. Think of all the good we could do, if we only know when the last Day will be. We could hold a special church service (candlelight would be appropriate), hire some musicians (trumpets would be nice), invite all our friends and those family who never come to church (if we can convince them to change their holiday plans). We might even track down a few lost souls from this congregation, before it’s too late. We could be ready, all dressed in our end-of-the-world finest, ready to greet Jesus in style, on our best behavior.
Ah, you see, if we knew when, we wouldn’t need to trust Jesus, would we? No need to cling to Baptism and His word of forgiveness. No need to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood with the promise of our life and salvation. And you know what Jesus would be greeted with if everyone knew the day of His appearing? The very thing He doesn’t want – Religion. A big fat bunch of “look at all the wonderful things I’ve done for you” religion. That’s why Jesus never said when His advent would be. He wants to catch the religious world with its hand in the cookie jar.
Watching, waiting. The image of Adventis a pregnant woman, a mother-to-be near the end of her eighth month. Can’t wait. Baby’s coming soon. That’s Advent. Time pregnant with the Promise of salvation; the new creation ready to break chaotic waters. Wars, rumors of war, earthquakes, famines, hurricanes, floods, fires, pestilence. These are the labor pains, Jesus said. The contractions of the new creation are getting closer. Baby’s on the way, any day now. Any hour – nine, midnight, three, six in the morning. Are you ready? Prepared?
What St. Paul once wrote to the Corinthians applies equally to all of us here this morning. “You do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” You have all that you need for the Day. You are baptized; you believe by the gift of God; you have His word of absolution; you have His Body and His Blood, which He will not deny, either now or on the last Day. You have His promise: “He will sustain you to the end, blameless in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You are clothed with Christ, covered with His perfection, washed with His blood, clothed with His robe of righteousness. God is faithful, true to His Word. By His Word He has called you to communion with His Son Jesus Christ. You are ready for the day.
So what do you do as the Day of Jesus draws closer and closer? Panic? That’s hardly way of faith! Get religious? That’s even worse. Back to the parable. You do what God has given you to do. Do your calling, your vocation – father, mother, son, daughter, citizen, baptized believing priest to God. Do what is given you to do. Tend to your work, your family, all those boring, mundane, annoying, frustrating chores of life. Worship – receive the gifts of Christ, that’s your vocation too. To receive the gifts of Christ. That’s why the Spirit called you by the Gospel and enlightened you with His gifts, so that you might be on the receiving end of God’s salvation gifts. Witness – tell those around you of their salvation in Jesus, prepare them, give them something to look forward to this Advent season.
Live out your vocation with an eye fixed toward that coming Day of salvation. Work in the quiet confidence that the One whose advent you watch and wait for, is the same Jesus who bore all of your sins on His cross, who joined you to His death and life in your baptism, who feeds you with His body and blood, who richly and daily forgives you, who reigns over your sin and death as Lord and Savior.
And the world is wrapped in fear,
He will shield you with His mercy,
And with words of love draw near.
Come, Lord Jesus.