The Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
The First Sunday of Advent
Christ Church, New Haven
November 29, 2015
I remember a cartoon, probably from The New Yorker, that showed three men. One, rather small in stature, was standing against a wall. He had disheveled hair, a long beard, and wore a tunic with patches all over it. He was holding a sign that read: The end is at hand.
There are two men walking past him. Their chins are held high. They are well fed, well dressed. When they see the smaller man, the first man says to the second: Relax, we’d know. (1)
That’s what our Gospel lesson says, we’d know. The end is at hand. Relax, we’d know.
Our liturgical year closed last Sunday and begins again today on the theme of end days. This year as is often the case there have been predictions of the end of time related to the drought in the Western states, the “blood” moon in early September, war in Syria, and the possible re-building of the Temple in Jerusalem. We hear prophecies of a time of harsh judgment to be feared by all but a chosen few.
For a long time I saw the second coming as a time of judgment that was to be feared. But my understanding has changed. Today I see the second coming of Jesus as a time that will bring the world to wholeness and completion. I remember those beloved words: Jesus will make all things new and wipe away every tear from their eyes. Rather than fearing it, I live in hopeful expectation of that day.
In Advent we move in a weekly progression from fear to hope, from darkness into light. During Advent we light candles reminding us that Jesus is the light of the world, one who turns darkness into light.
Those of us living north of the Equator pray to find the light of Christ in the darkness of our lives at a time when the day is shorter and darkness longer than any other time of the year. Today you could say we live in the darkness of uncertainty about terrorism, war, poverty, climate change, as we live in the midst of the dark and fearful places of our own lives. How we long for light, for the hope and peace Christ’s light can bring.
Today we begin a new cycle of readings from Holy Scripture that comes from the Gospel of Luke. One of the themes of the Gospel according to Luke is that while the followers of Jesus Christ are to pray for the coming of the kingdom, they must realize that the kingdom has already arrived. This isn’t a foretaste of the kingdom, but a sign of its strength.
As commentator G. B. Caird writes: (The author) presents a cavalcade of witnesses who can testify to the presence of the kingdom because they have discovered in Jesus the friend and champion of the sick, the poor, the penitent, the outcast, of women, Samaritans and Gentiles. Luke was written for Gentiles, as you know, non-Jews, and we will see as the year goes on the emphasis of Luke on the Son of God who lives in God’s love and power and for God’s purpose. We will hear that the death of Christ was the inevitable outcome of the life he lived and that joining the company of the disciples would come with a cost. Jesus had made common cause with the despised and rejected, knowing that his actions would lead him to the cross. (1)
This year, in the Gospel of Luke, we will be asked to live in the tension between that which is to come and is already in our midst. It can seem like a familiar place. As Episcopalians we seek to live in the gray middle-ground of life. We acknowledge that we don’t have definitive answers to every question. We try to live in the tension of what we can understand and what we cannot.
For these reasons, Advent seems to me to be a season made for us. Today we live in the tension between the amazing hope of Christ’s coming and the starkness of our present reality. We are called to a time of preparation—in joyful expectation of the future in-breaking of Christ into the world with power and great glory—when pain and suffering will be no more, only the totality of the kingdom of God. At the same time we seek to prepare ourselves for the present, that the light of Christ may be reborn within us. That, bearing the light of Christ, we may in our lives be both a sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom, and in our actions an agent through which that realm comes into our world today.
Today, in the Collect of the First Sunday of Advent, we pray to God that we may have the ability to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” While many of us don’t remember praying with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, during the fifty years of its use this collect was to be prayed daily throughout Advent. The whole season would be awash with this desire to move from darkness to light.
During this season we focus on a time of preparation. We prepare for the coming of Christ, reborn within us—for a strengthening of relationship with Jesus Christ grounded in loving challenge, healing and growth. This is the time for us to see the defenses we build within ourselves as we come into contact with that which we fear in the world. Defenses that offer us a false sense of safety while they keep God out of our inner selves. Whether by intention as we work to break through those defenses, or as we are broken open by life, it is then that we learn that Christ can heal and energize us.
In the midst of the unknown, the suffering, the changes that lead to fear, we can also be in relationship with a God we form to meet our needs. We can seek an understanding of God that helps us feel in control, rather than one that grounds our life enabling us to see anew the realities of this world, the suffering that surrounds us, and our part in both allowing that suffering to exist and enabling it to continue.
Advent is about coming face to face with those realities that are the works of darkness. Advent asks us to work with God for the in-breaking of the kingdom. Advent asks us to put on the armor of light.
Spiritual directors say that there are signs of fruitful prayer. You can have phenomenal experiences of God in prayer, they are nothing if they don’t move you into action, if they don’t bear fruit in the world. God is love. God is also energy. Part of being a faithful Christian is being aware and passionate about the world around us and working for justice, working for change. Just as a young boy puts on a plastic suit of armor, as my son did, to protect himself from his fear of the vastness of the world, we put on the armor of light.
The first thing God says in the story of creation is: Let there be light. (Genesis 1:3) As the Psalmist says: It is you who light my lamp; the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness. (Psalm 18:28) We light candles for a special dinner, knowing that we will see each other differently in the light of their living flame. When the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed in an act of hatred and gross disregard for human life, the city of New York created twin towers of light to shine into the darkness of the night. Over the last decades we have seen flowers and lit candles left in memory of those who have died violently. Vigils are held where each participant holds a candle bathing themselves and each other in a holy light.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of fearful things. Fr. Gary Pierse writes that (l)ike the prophets before him Jesus is painting a grim view of the future in order to influence the present. He does not want to paralyse them with fear but…energize them into action. The real purpose of speaking about the last days is to affect the present ones. Be awake, look reality in the eye and then act accordingly. (2)
A bumper sticker reads: Jesus—don’t leave earth without him. That requires a counter-question: Why live on earth without him where he calls us to live and die in hope? (3) We are not called to be so focused on the future that we do not accept responsibility for the present.
In a few short years our world has turned from a place of relative peace to hold places of terrorism, violence, and daily degradation. The goal is to make us live in fear and let that fear turn into hate. On a daily basis we see images that assault our sense of normalcy and hear reactions that test our sense of who we are as a people, as a country. The questions await our response—what is the place of darkness where we can bring light?
We remember John Wesley as an Anglican priest whose goal in life was to renew the Anglican Church. To this end he rode on horseback from town to town preaching thousands of sermons throughout England, Scotland and Wales. Wesley’s last words as he lay dying were Light, more light. As we put on the armor of light we become co-creators with God, with Jesus Christ, bringing the kingdom of light into the present.
My son wore his plastic armor so that he could go places where he was afraid to go, do brave and courageous things he was afraid to do. How can we move beyond our fear? How much more can we do, than we might ever ask for or imagine, as we put on the armor of light?
1. Caird, G. B. The Gospel of Saint Luke: New Testament Commentaries. London, England: Penguin Books, 1963, pp. 37-39.
2. Pierse, Fr. Gerry, C.Ss.R. "The Hope that Gives Life," Advent 1, from Sundays Into Silence: Reflections on the Sunday Gospels in the Light of Christian Meditation. Claretian Publications. http://www.bible.claret.org/liturgy/daily/sundays_pierse/cycleC/C_1stSunAdv.htm
3. Daniel, F. Harry. The Lectionary Advent Texts for 2002. Journal for Preachers: Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Advent 2002, p. 10.