The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Second Sunday of Advent
December 9, 2018
A friend of mine has a saying, when I am telling her tales of woe… She’ll stop me as I’m telling her my problems and ask, “Now, do you want me to just listen? Or are you asking me to do something about it?”
Usually it’s just that I want her to listen. To know that someone hears. That someone else is there in the mists of uncertainty, the pathways of anxiety, the valleys of the shadow of death. And she’s good at that.
But last week, as I heard the lessons again at our Advent Procession with Carols at 5pm on Sunday, I was moved by the prophecies and grieved by the plight of our common lives together. This season of Advent, of expectation, was turning out to be less a joyous anticipation of the birth of a sweet baby in a manger--and more a time of impending dread at the unmasking of the evil of the fallen world around us. I wanted someone not just to listen but to do something about it!
Looking back over just the last week, I’ve been astonished at the revelations coming out of the court filings surrounding Michael Cohen, the President’s personal attorney. I’ve been grieved to hear of the violence surrounding the yellow vest protests in Paris, where police deployed teargas against French citizens--and the deployment of tear gas on our southern borders against people ostensibly seeking asylum. I’ve heard stories of loss from parishioners--loss of life, loss of health, loss of relationship--and known that there was nothing I could do about any of it except listen. I’ve worried about potential loss of our resources in this place as the market has swung wildly back and forth over the last few days, fueled by news of trade wars and interest rate shifts.
I’m sure your list is even longer--for there is much to worry about. There is much that is wrong.
We might not be wrong to think that things are falling apart.
That line--“things fall apart”--do you remember it? “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”
It’s from a poem “The Second Coming” of WB Yeats, a line that apparently in 2016 was quoted more times than any of the thirty previous years--that claim from a book review in the Times of Richard Haass’s discouragingly titled work, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.
Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.
Yeats wrote the poem in the aftermath of the first World War and the beginnings of the Irish War of Independence--another time the world might have seemed to be falling apart.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.…
Yeats, who was certainly acculturated to Christian theology, was himself an occultist with a highly developed personal philosophy, had a particular world view centered on interlocking, or stacked, gyres--conical shapes that represented the flow of world events, of history. In Yeats’s philosophy, as one age came to an end, the point of the cone, another began to emerge. The collapse of the world order was giving rise to something new. What rough beast, indeed, was on the move and about to be born?
I love Yeats’s imagery. I love this poem. I love the idea and even the optimism that it espouses--as one thing dies, another is born--and we can watch the mystery unfold.
So much of ancient and even modern thought is based on this premise--that in collapse and chaos something new rises.
The Christian story is different, however. For us, there is not a mere cycle of death and new birth, decay and recreation, going on as though perpetually propelled by some mysterious life cycle, in the Christian story. There is only a story of creation--and a story of salvation. And here’s why that difference matters.
There is a tradition in Advent of preaching what is called the “Four Last Things”--Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell--on the four Sundays of Advent. If last Sunday was Death, today is Judgment, friends. That’s a word that we shudder at. Don’t judge me! we say to one another.
We are so afraid of judgment. But what if that’s what the world needs? What if we NEED a divine judge to help us see where we have fallen short of the goodness of God’s creation? What if we need someone to come among us and say, Look! There is something better!
What if we need to know in our hearts, in our souls, in our very bones, in the flesh of this world, that the broken things, the sadness, the destruction we see is in fact not how things are supposed to be--that there is hope for something better--and that, in the fullness of time, all things will be restored to the fullness of God’s good creation--restored in right relationship, righteousness, with that which is the ground of all being, that which is love, that which is the very action of creation--God God’s own self.
That’s what John the Baptist is coming to announce. John the Baptizer comes, rough clad and loud and strange, into our lives in this time of preparation to cry out, “Repent!” Turn, change, be baptized, be aware of the things that aren’t in alignment with the kingdom of God. Repent, and prepare for the one who is coming--the one who ushers in the kingdom of God.
Look into the cracks of our social fabric and see the people who’ve been left behind by health care, by housing, by basic plumbing. Look at the places where people have lied or cheated or stolen to accumulate power or wealth for themselves. Look at the places where people have been discarded, or exploited, or abused, or marginalized. Look at the places where creation has been devalued, harmed, or pillaged as a commodity to be burned up or sold for profit.
Look at the wasteland we have created.
Walk into the waters of baptism. Wash your participation in systems of evil and oppression away. Wash away the evil that has been done to you. Walk out from the river, from the font, into a new alignment with the right-wise-ness, the righteousness, of the kingdom of God--and know what it is that you were created to be--and live into that fullness, the wholeness, the goodness of the thing that God has made you.
Wash it away.
And prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way of the ruler that will conquer--not with a sword, but with love. Not with violence, but with a new way of being. Prepare to join in that new revolution of hope and love and wholeness that is the kingdom of God come near. That is the kingdom of God that is coming.
And the thing that gives us hope, the way we know that the kingdom of God is near, is that Jesus, as a child in a manger, comes to us, the Word of God made flesh, God God’s own self incarnate and among us as one of us, into the mess of the world. Loving it--and loving us--for God is the maker of all things and will not let us go.
That’s the difference. Jesus the judge doesn’t stand afar off and wag a finger. Jesus the judge of all creation, the ruler of all things, comes among us--to be with us--to love us and all things--even in the midst of the falling apart.
And in his light our lies and deception fall away. We see where we have failed. And we can change, and turn, and live anew in his glorious presence.
There is no mystical gyre of destruction and renewal. There is nothing Creation itself can do to save itself. There is nothing we ourselves can do to save ourselves from the mess we are in.
There is only Jesus, who comes into our fallen world. Jesus, who shows us what we can be. Jesus, who heals us and invites us into wholeness, into full relationship with the one who has created all things. Jesus, who saves.
That’s the judgment of this Advent. And it’s terrifying. And it’s full of hope.
What we are waiting for, friends, is not the chance to hear again the sweet story of a baby born in a manger. That’s already happened.
What we are waiting for is Christ’s coming again in power and great glory.
That’s what we are preparing for.
That’s what we wait for.
That’s what we expect. That all things shall be healed. That all things shall be made whole. That all things shall be brought to perfection in him through whom all things were made.
And that is our hope.
Now, as good Catholic Anglicans we might be a bit worried about waiting for the Messiah who will save--for his second coming. After all, don’t we leave most masses hearing the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”? Aren’t we to be doing the work of the kingdom here and now? Why are we waiting for Jesus to come? He’s not here yet! Hadn’t we better get busy?
Yes, of course! Why wouldn’t we always be about the work of the kingdom?
To be sure, all the things we do are mere band-aids on the wounds of the world. We won’t solve the problems of creation. But they are vital. These works are lifegiving. They are salvific in that Christ uses them.
As a colleague likes to say, when the kingdom of God comes, it ought to look familiar.
That is to say, we are about the work of the kingdom here and now because we are people of repentance. We are people of Advent. We are people who live differently in the world, who expect things to look differently, because we have seen what they can be and what they are.
We won’t save the world. But we may help to show, here and there, how the kingdom of God has come near. We may help to show the love of Jesus as we have come to know it. And Jesus’s love will save.
So friends, pay attention. Be alert this Advent season. Listen to John calling out the evil in the world around you--and let’s together rebuke it! Let’s live differently, through the grace of God. Let’s show people that the kingdom of God has come near.
And even as we wait for the story of the coming of that sweet baby in a manger, let’s also await with hope and expectation the judgment of the world in the second coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.
With confidence, let us work. Let us wait. And let us hope in the sure and certain knowledge that Jesus Christ has and is redeeming the world.
 This according to Michiko Kakutani’s review “’A World in Disarray’ Is a Calm Look at a Chaotic Global Order,” NY Times, Feb 13, 2017, accessed online 12/8/2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/books/a-world-in-disarray-richard-haass.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Farts.
 WB Yeats, “The Second Coming,” as printed in The Collected Poems of WB Yeats, ed Richard Finneran. New York: Collier/McMillan, 1989, p 187.