Year B, Advent 1 December 3, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…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.”
Welcome to Advent, everyone! It is a new liturgical year, our calendar starts today. The church year follows the cycle of life defined by Jesus. We have this time now, Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for the Incarnation, the prelude of the big event. Then there is the brief Christmas season, the festival of God’s light in the darkest time of the year. This is followed by Epiphany, that mirrors the prime of Jesus’ ministry, the shining of His light far and wide. Lent comes next, our season for fasting, our season of penance. We follow Jesus on His slow march to Jerusalem, then through Holy Week to the cross and through that dark night to the glory of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, and the 50 days our Risen Lord walked with us. The Spirit comes on Pentecost, and in Her wake and company, we have the Season after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, that makes up half the year. That is now, not Advent 1, but this epoch in history, the post Easter age, the time of waiting between when He ascended to when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Every year the wheel turns, and us with it, and here we are again, at the beginning, at the first Sunday of Advent.
I love the blue. Marian blue. Did anyone see our travelers yet? Mary and Joseph? Where are they? Keep an eye on them each week as they make their way to Jerusalem. Who has an Advent calendar? Did you start on the 1st or wait until today? We miss a couple of days of Advent this year. It starts today, not December 1. It is a new year, which we will spend largely with St. Mark’s Gospel. (This past year was with St. Matthew, next with St. Luke. St. John is sprinkled in here and there to keep it fresh). I love the lighting of the Advent wreath. We’re making them downstairs after Mass. It is quiet. I love Advent.
So it is a new year. We’re on to the next big thing, right? We’re making a fresh start, right? Christmas is right around the corner, all’s about to be right with the world… You wouldn’t know it by the scripture this morning, would you? We have Isaiah 64, written in the mean years after the return from the Babylonian exile. The Babylonians had done a number on Israel, and the Prophet called out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” Because YHWH didn’t seem very present. It was bleak to the prophet.
The passage from 1st Corinthians is pretty nice, it is the greeting at the start of that letter, but we get it over on the gospel side. We’re just coming off of several weeks of Jesus’ eschatological discourse in Matthew. Rough scripture. The end times. Being thrown into the outer darkness. The separation of the sheep and the goats, one to eternal life, the other to eternal death. The Reign of Christ was last week, we should be in the fresh new year getting ready for Christmas, so our first taste of Mark should be a sweet morsel, right? No, it is Mark’s Little Apocalypse. “…the sun will be darkened… the stars will be falling from heaven…” Three times Jesus exhorts us, keep awake! “You do not know when the master of the house will come.” That is not what most of us think about when we think about Advent, is it?
The following passage frames so well the essence of the First Sunday of Advent. “Contrary to the manner in which it is often celebrated in the churches, Advent begins not on a note of joy, but of despair. Humankind has reached the end of its rope. All our schemes for self-improvement, for extracting ourselves from the traps we have set for ourselves, have come to nothing. We have now realized at the deepest level of our being that we cannot save ourselves, and that, apart from the intervention of God, we are totally and irretrievably lost.”
That’s pretty heavy, but that is the story, isn’t it? When the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us, when Jesus was born, what kind of state was the world in? It was pretty rough, wasn’t it? The Romans were an unkind imperial occupier. (We all are). The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians were all squabbling. The Essenes were so disgusted by the corruption of the world that they renounced and evacuated to the Dead Sea. And all these stories, they came together in the wake of the desolating sacrilege, the destruction of the temple. Mark was writing maybe just a few years after what was the worst thing that ever happened in Israel. It was the dark night of that nation’s soul. Sounds timely.
Why did Jesus come? Why did God enter this world in this particular form, a fragile, vulnerable baby born to a peasant girl in a most extraordinary way, sure, but also in an extraordinarily bad time to be a pregnant peasant girl. Why did God do this?
Because God promised, right? There had been a time when things were really bad, people were doing everything they shouldn’t and nothing they should. What happened? (Hint: It was another time that the heavens were torn open as Isaiah alludes to). The Flood. Swept it clean. A big redux. But never again, God said.
So Jesus came because God promised, promised us a Second Covenant, but why did God promise that? Because we would need it, right? We would need saving, God knew that. There’s a pattern. We’d be with God and slip away. We’d come back, and be dragged off. We’d come back again, but then turn our back and walk in the other direction. Time and again God called us to return. God knew that we would need saving. And here we are. We need saving.
We are at the end of our rope. The world. That list is too ugly for the children to hear. Garrison Keillor, for goodness sake! Our lives. Relationships are strained, tattered. We drink too much, smoke too much, take too many pills, spend too much, eat too much, stare at our phones too much. And this after Easter. After Jesus redeemed us. Ordinary Time is the season of the holy spirit working in the world, life as it goes in a post-Easter world. And here we find ourselves, back at the beginning again, and what do we find? We still need to be redeemed. We still, still, again and again need to listen to God’s call to us, because we have been unable to do it ourselves. We cannot save ourselves.
Maybe that is all that needs to be said: We can’t save ourselves. That’s a step towards faith, isn’t it? That we need help. Maybe the first step is knowing that we are broken, Learning that, admitting that to ourselves. That’s the first step, knowing that we are all separated from God, we are all sinners. Maybe the second step of faith is realizing that we can’t do it alone, we can’t save ourselves.
Let’s take a pause for some of our younger folks here, our lectors and ushers and acolytes, all the youth Sunday folks. When I say sinner, that we are all sinners, that doesn’t mean that we are bad, that we are wicked or naughty or dirty. No, sin, being a sinner is a church way of talking about how things, the world, we are not as they should be, are not as God dreamed of us. We get cranky. We get mad. We hurt people. Other people do all these things too and for no good reason. We do things and say things that we know we should not. Sometimes is seems easier to do what we shouldn’t do, doesn’t it? That’s sin. Sin is the things we do because we don’t feel God in our hearts, and those things we do that keep us from feeling God in our hearts. It is why things aren’t as good as they could be, as the should be, as God wants them to me.
And God, Jesus, saves us from that sin. He heals our hearts, shows us that we are loved. And when we know we are loved, when we feel it, everything is different. Like when you fall and your mom comes and helps. It still hurts, but that doesn’t matter nearly enough when you know someone feels it with you. Jesus feels everything with you. That is one way to understand being saved. Being saved can mean a lot of things. Some people talk about it being saved from going to hell. Others talk about it being saved from suffering, from pain and feeling bad about things, about yourself and other people. I usually think about it more like everything being in its place. Everything going along as God wants it to go along. People getting along. The grass growing, the bees buzzing, the rain falling, the flowers blooming, everything in its time, in its place. It is like a river. It flows crookedly to the sea because it is supposed to flow crookedly to the sea. The fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience… all of those, when they come naturally, that’s what happens when you are saved. It’s a big deal. Do you think we can do that all by ourselves? Tidy up all the messes in the world on our own? I can’t even keep my desk clean! Heal ourselves? No, we can’t do this on our own.
The third Holy truth is that we can be saved. There is a way, a path. We are not condemned to the darkness, but are called, lovingly, gathered like a hen gathers her chicks around her, her wings out stretched, holding them all in together. Have you ever seen a chicken doing that? We had a hen lay a clutch of eggs out in the woods that somehow the foxes, raccoons, coyotes, cats and dogs missed. She showed up one morning with a dozen balls of fluff, and she would cluck, cluck all over them, trying to keep them all together. A border collie couldn’t do a better job of herding. God does the same for us, holds us, keeps us all together in one big, cute, fluffy clutch. We can feel it if we pay close attention. We can be saved.
And the way to being saved? Jesus. The Way. The Way, the Truth and the Life. This is what we are supposed to be getting ready for in Advent, the incarnation of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. But it is not so big a deal, Christmas isn’t, if you don’ think you need Him. So that is why we start this season like we do, with these dark passages from the Bible about hard times. With Mark’s little apocalypse. Reminding us that God came into the world 200 years ago because things weren’t so good.
Observing Advent is quite a practice of faith. We start by noticing, or remembering how hard it is, how hard it has been, how hard it might become. And you hold that in one hand. And you keep holding it. Then slowly, week by week, as you light the candles and it gets brighter, slowly brighter. You still hold it, the darkness, the things hurt, you hold that in your hand. But you also hold here, in the other hand, that little candy cane you find in your Advent calendar, or the little Advent Bible passage you read each morning, that sweet taste of what is to come, of Jesus, whom God promised to us. A tiny, helpless baby who is God. Who will be born, grow up, be baptized, will teach and preach and eventually get in all sorts of trouble, make lots of people mad and end up on the cross as fragile and helpless as He came into the world. And in that, in following Him on the path He lays out for us, we are saved. All things are put right inside of us, and with a world full of people like that, what a wonderful world it would be. That’s the Kingdom of God for sure.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the church, to the observance of a holy Advent. Have faith. It is bleak. We are sinners, broken and distant and we can’t save ourselves. But we can be saved, and Jesus is coming to do just that. Take your time over this season. Remember who you are and where you are in your life, hold that in one hand. And then remember what has been promised you, eternal life, hold that in the other. Jesus is coming, soon. Keep awake. AMEN