a sermon for the 1st Sunday of Advent
What would you do if you knew the world was ending tomorrow?
Most of us live as if the things we have and the things that we know will last forever. We live with a false sense of security. We live in the strongest and richest country on earth, and we imagine that it will always be so. We have the most advanced technology, the most powerful military, and the strongest economy in the world. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus confronts us with the question, “what would you do if everything you see, everything your life depended on, disappeared in an instant?”
Jesus and his disciples lived when Rome was the dominant power in the world, just as the United States is today. Rome had the most powerful military. It was by far the most advanced culture of Jesus’ day. One day, he and his disciples were walking around Jerusalem. The disciples were struck by the awesome power and majesty everything they saw – grand and glorious temples and palaces; signs of the wealth and power of Rome. They imagined that things will continue to be as they always have been. But Jesus wanted to shake them our of their complacency. He knew that he was near the end of his earthly ministry, that he would soon be arrested by the authorities, and he wanted them to wake up! So he describes a terrible apocalyptic scene: stars will fall from the sky, the sun will be blotted out, and heavens will shake. It is a dark prediction of chaos and destruction, like the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it.
Of course, some people take these kinds of predictions in the Bible very seriously. They look at current events and try to interpret them as signs for the Second Coming. But you don’t need to be a bible scholar to understand what Jesus is talking about. Our security lulls us to sleep, and we imagine that our families will always be safe and sound, that those we love will aways be healthy, that there will always be time enough, and money enough, for us to achieve our hopes and dreams. But then something happens – we get laid off from work, or we get a diagnosis that something just isn’t right, or we get a phone call at 2:00 in the morning – and everything changes. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
In the midst of all this uncertainty for the future, what are we to do? We light a candle on an Advent wreath. It seems so silly. What can lighting one candle possibly mean in the face of so much darkness and gloom?
For centuries, the season of Advent has been marked by lighting candles arranged in a circular wreath. And for most of that time, the candles were purple. In fact, purple was the color for everything in Advent – the candles, the altar frontal, my vestments. This was because purple is the color of penitence. The theory was that Advent should be a short season of penitence because in order to prepare ourselves for the second coming of Christ. The purple reminded us to get our hearts and minds right for the day of Christ’s return; the candles on the wreath were a kind of count-down clock for Judgement Day, when the stars would fall, and the sun blotted out, and Jesus came back to judge the world
Now, I do not want to discount the Second Coming of Christ. As Christians, we believe that the world will end one day. But while the picture Jesus paints for us is dark and violent, is not necessarily something to be afraid of. Instead, Jesus sees it as a time of new life and the start of a new world order.
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 [the Lord] is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
In other words, these are very hopeful signs. Jesus is holding up one candle in the darkness. This life will someday pass, he says. We may lose our job, or may get bad news from our doctor, but through Christ all things will be made whole. Through Christ, all things will be restored to God.
This is why the Church has come to believe that Advent isn’t really about penitence, it’s about hope, and why the candles have changed from purple to blue. Blue is the color of hope. Advent is still a time of preparation, that’s true. But even more, it is a time of watching and waiting; a time of longing and hoping. Hope for the new life that will inevitably come after this one. Hope that causes us to live in the moment, because we dare not take an single second for granted. Life in the moment isn’t about wallowing in the uncertainty of our future. It is about living in the certainty of the present. It is about spending as much time with our family and our loved ones as we possibly can. Advent reminds us to live life in the present, because God only knows what the future will bring.
Does that seem a little dark, coming just before Christmas? You bet. But as folk singer Arlo Guthrie once said, “without the darkness, light wouldn’t have anything to stick to.” It takes both – the darkness and the candle – for us to find our way back to Christ, the light of the world. Darkness can only be vanquished by the light. We may have trials and challenges in our lives. We may loose the things that we believe are permanent. And yet, through all of the dark news we might hear tomorrow, Jesus says to watch and wait. Stay awake, and listen to what God is already doing in your life, and in the world.
Our Advent hope is not based on wondering whether Christ will return. Our hope is based on the certain fact that he has promised to come again – it is hope in the face of certainty. Over the next four weeks, I ask that we all make time in holy preparation – waiting and watching, being alert and ready – all for the Christ who has come as a child and who will come again. As we prepare ourselves for the certain fact that Christ came and will come again, we will light more candles, and stay awake in the darkness, and watch for the return of Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God.