Advent 1, A
There are those in this world, including some lifelong faithful Christians, even cradle Episcopalians, who consider Christianity an irrational, patched-together, illogical mish-mash of traditions, scriptures and human interpretation – human interpretation being a dicey business at its best. This season does nothing to dispel that notion. Today would, in fact, be a particularly good time for that point to be made, if one chose to make it. Consider: Today marks the first day of Advent – that extraordinary time in the Christian calendar wherein we as Christians celebrate the arrival of the New Year during the final weeks of the old year through a prayerful contemplation of the apocalyptic end times, which must be considered before meaning can be imparted to the birth which happened 2000 years ago, but for which we nonetheless urgently wait…again…
It sounds better when poets say it – T. S. Eliot:
“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.” (Four Quartets, Section V)
We have become comfortable with Christmas, with the birth, the baby in swaddling clothes – one could easily argue too comfortable – the story has been sanitized and cutified beyond recognition.
There is simply no way to make today’s Gospel cute. “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” These are the sorts of stark passages that give rise to the biblical dooms-dayers – always searching for the signs, the portents. They gave rise also to the notion of the rapture – made popular in the recent “Left Behind” series – in which, before the 2nd coming of the Christ, the good and faithful are to be whisked away into, well, somewhere good, leaving the rest of us sinners here to suffer the wrath of God’s judgment.
(On a side note, the notion of The Rapture did not exist prior to 1830 when Plymouth Brethren founder John Darby took a handful of cherry picked verses like this from the Gospels, Revelation, Daniel, and Thessalonians – possibly combined them with a vision experienced by 15 year-old Margaret MacDonald during a healing service, and established the entire notion.)
Some persons of faith embrace the coming of the end times with diligent attention and care. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency, when waiting for an event of great global and personal import, to live in a state of perpetual anxiety. All of life is subsumed in a fight or flight anticipation, unable to function in the world as it is now.
Conversely, those persons more ambiguous about the end times are tempted to a state of perpetual apathy – when an anticipated event has not arrived in 2000 years of waiting, its driving importance seems to wane. Eating, drinking, marrying, giving in marriage – these things again hold primacy.
Jesus’s Good News includes these disturbing, apocalyptic visions for a reason. Either Jesus was carefully building a fellowship consisting of untold centuries of dehydrated, starving, perpetually anxious insomniacs in no shape to care for themselves much less nourish the starving, protect the weak, love their neighbor, or sing to the glory of God, or Jesus meant to combat the historical apathy.
If you’ve never met one, the hippopotamus is a terribly cute animal. A giant, lumbering animal with cute little ears, fat cheeks and a crazy outsized mouth that opens so very wide and closes in a sort of permanent almost smile. Turns out hippopotami are not so cute up close and personal. They rank as the 6th most dangerous mammal to mankind (according to the Encyclopedia Britannica). Not nearly so dangerous as other humans, but dangerous nonetheless. Territorial and aggressive against any perceived threat, they are well worth a second thought in the proper setting.
Whitewater canoe champion and cancer survivor Juliet Starrett was canoeing through the Zambezi River in Eastern Africa when her canoe was disturbed by a previously unnoticed hippopotamus. “Not so much disturbed as exploded…she was paddling along one second and the next she was ten feet in the air above the water. …She looked down and saw the chomping jaws of the hippo turning her performance canoe into splinters. While in the air, Juliet says that she spotted the nearest shore and began swimming – while in the air!” (The Rev. Josh Bowman, Sermons that work). Juliet didn’t see the threat before it exploded under her, but was awake, aware, trained, and ready to move. That saved her life.
In His apocalyptic imagery, Jesus means to introduce awareness, vigilance, an urgency to live each day, each moment for God. As one commentator wrote, “The point is not to speculate about a day of judgement sometime in the future, whether at the end of all humanity or at the death of each individual, but rather to confront us with God’s radical claims on us here and now.” (John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word)
“In days to come…the mountain of the Lord’s house…shall be established as the highest of the mountains”
“In the days to come.” The NRSV translates the words from Isaiah, “In days to come,” According to one minister and scholar, the Hebrew is more nuanced. “In the back of the days,” would be a better reading. “In the midst of the present.” would be even better. “Isaiah is suggesting that the present moment is ripe, or to use an appropriate Advent term, pregnant with God’s presence.”(Rev. Dr. Stephen R. Montgomery, Day 1).
Robert F. Kennedy said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
The swords are not yet plowshares; the spears not pruning hooks; nation rises against nation and neighbor against neighbor. Xenophobia, inequity, nationalism and normalized bullying thrive. Still, the potential for peace and justice and compassion exists in every moment. We must awaken to respond to even the smallest spark of hope blooming in the darkness.
Poet and priest John O’Donohue wrote, ”Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment. The eternal makes you urgent.” (Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom).
Jesus means to awaken souls. In the ending is the beginning – the birth of hope. We wait. Awake. Searching. Living in hope. Acting in love.