Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent 1: Preparing ourselves for Christmas

November 27, 2016
The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Psalm 122

We have in today’s readings predictions of the coming of a new day.  This is the right focus for our reflection because today we begin Advent and we turn our hearts and minds towards the coming of Jesus’ birth.  The next four weeks are a season of anticipation, we are looking forward.  But this Advent, for my family and for all of us, I would like to prepare for Christmas in a new way.  I want us not to prepare for an event that will happen and then pass. 

Instead I want to prepare myself to be different, to live differently in a new season.  The difference that I’m focused on is one that we know from other aspects of our lives.  There is the preparation for marriage.  A couple has to think about and plan the wedding.  There is an incredible flurry of activity—choosing dresses, inviting guests, arranging food, fixing flowers.  This is preparation for the event.  But even before the wedding date is set,  the couple begin to prepare themselves to be married.  They imagine themselves as a couple forever.  They talk about what commitments they will make to one another.  They tell their families and friends that they have chosen one another.  They stop imagining themselves partnered with other people and they build up a vision of a life together.  Maybe they imagine the next phase of their lives with new work, or in a new place.  Maybe they imagine the next phase when they will have new extended family—each one taking on a role as son-in-law or daughter-in-law with new obligations and commitments to new parents.  The prepare themselves to resolve conflicts in new ways—never again threatening to leave the relationship, but now building up the relationship as they work through the issues that will come.  The marriage preparations depend on hopes.  Over the course of months or years, a vision that is shared by two people (and their extended family and community) becomes clear.  They begin to live into this vision that they share even before the wedding day.  Marriage preparation changes them.  The wedding day is important and it engages even distant friends or relatives in the new vision of the married couple.  Even people who don’t attend the wedding, know that now this couple is married and they will treat them differently.

And so it must be in Advent.  In this season, we will anticipate Christmas.  But we have a choice about whether we just focus on the event of Christmas or on truly preparing ourselves to be different in this coming Church year.   There is so much emphasis on preparing for Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day.  There is shopping for gifts, there is cooking and parties.  Maybe there are travel plans.  But we can get distracted, thinking about Christmas Eve or Christmas Day as a moment in time.   Instead, let us take this time to build up a vision for what our lives will be when Christ comes.  In this Advent season, let us imagine ourselves as different because we will be living in a new era, a time and place in which Christ reigns.  If we anticipate the birth of Christ with the anticipation that everything will be new—we will be different, our relationships with one another and with the whole earth will be different, our place in the order of the universe will be changed, because Christ will be born in our midst.  A human child is coming to change everything,  God is breaking into our human world so that we can participate in God’s Kingdom.  Our preparation, our anticipation in this time must be about changing ourselves, building up that hope and vision for what it will be like, and living into that hope now—changing ourselves so that we will be ready for the new day that is coming.

So, I turn to our texts today with this preparation in mind.  Our Scripture can help us to get clear about the vision, and build up our hope for what is coming.  By having a dialogue with Scripture, we join with the fathers and mothers of our faith, we share in their hope and we change ourselves to be part of the community of God that is coming.  Just for a second, I return to the marriage preparation analogy—when a couple is preparing to marry, they have to wrestle with the expectations of marriage from their families, traditions about what marriage means that go back centuries.  They may reject some parts of that tradition, and they may embrace some aspects of it.  But as they talk with one another and their community, they become their own unique married couple, in the context of a community that has expectations and customs.  So as we engage with Scripture, we adopt some of our faith ancestors’ vision for the coming of God’s reign, and we adjust and make new this vision for our time, for our community here. 

In our Hebrew Bible text we hear about the coming of the mountain of the Lord.  A place that is higher than any mountain.  “A time when nation shall not lift up sword against nation,  neither shall they learn war any more.”  This passage from Isaiah speaks of the Lord of Zion as a teacher—one who will light the way and show the people the path.  In this passage we also hear about a Lord who is “ judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples”.  These two images—one the teacher and the other a judge between nations.  God will come to lead us as individuals in the right way, and God will come to change the way that we relate as communities.  Nations will be different.  The order of our common lives will change at the same time that we will change.

What will it mean for us that in this new era, swords will be beaten into pruning shears?  Instead of preparing for war, we will be preparing for the cultivation of crops.  Instead of imagining ourselves as victorious over another group of people, we imagine ourselves building up the community so that everyone can grow and thrive as part of God’s bountiful harvest.  And the image of the teacher is important, because it also changes us.  Teachers can point us to new ways, but we have to be prepared to learn and incorporate what we learn into new ways of being.  The teacher can’t impose knowledge on us, but can only show us the way and encourage us as good students to take in what the teacher offers.

Our psalm contributes to this vision of a new ordering of communities and a new way of being as individuals.  “Jerusalem is built as a city *that is at unity with itself.”  “Peace be within your walls *and quietness within your towers.”  We can prepare ourselves for a time and a place when our communities will be safe, and unified—not divided between political factions, or divided between the rich and the poor.  There is a community under God that is coming in which there will be no more violence—everyone will know peace.  But the psalmist (David) also prays for prosperity for each person in this new Jerusalem.  “May they prosper who love You.”  And in the last line of the psalm, the psalmist speaks to his own preparation—“ Because of the house of the Lord our God, *I will seek to do you good."  We have this sense of King David praying for this vision of Jerusalem, a city that is peaceful and unified.  And he is committing himself to doing good for all the people in his realm.  His preparation for the day that is coming is to begin living into this hope, making real this vision. 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear the same sense of urgency that is the primary message of our Gospel reading today.  “[I]t is now the moment for you to wake from sleep”.  Paul is preaching to the new community of disciples, urging them not to wait patiently, passively.  He is helping them see that today they need to reject the human order of things and adopt a new Christ centered way--“not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Don’t bother to fulfill your own desires, but instead start living as Christ has taught us. 

In our Bible study over the past several months, we have been working with the book,  Paul Was Not a Christian, by Pamela Eisenbaum.  Dr. Eisenbaum helped us to see that Paul understood that he was called to spread the Gospel among the Gentiles because there was a new urgency.  He had this sense of the coming of a new day that could not wait for the natural but slow changes in communities.  Paul had an experience of the risen Christ that led him to believe that he needed to urgently bring the message of Christ’s reign to all people.  Everyone needed to change and prepare, to have faith and live differently.  “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Instead of arming ourselves with swords, protecting ourselves with armor or walls.  Instead of looking to human strength to keep communities safe, now is the time to try a radically different approach.  We need to follow Christ, break down the barriers, open up to God’s love and create the new order in which safety and prosperity will come because the least of us will inherit the earth, not because the most powerful will protect us from the dangers of the world.

And so I turn now to our Gospel passage.  This is such a rich passage.  The gospeler Matthew is using images from the Prophet Daniel.  He is invoking Hebrew texts and bringing his hearers into an eschatological vision that his listeners could share with the fathers of the faith.  When Matthew speaks of the “Son of Man” he is reminding listeners of the prophet Daniel’s vision, (Daniel 7: 13) “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.  14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” The “Son of Man” is how Jesus refers to himself throughout the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus is speaking of his humanity—his human nature which connects him to all of us.  We are brothers and sisters of Jesus because we are all human, all children of human parents and all children of God.  The coming of the Son of Man also refers to the new era, when the divine realm will break into the human realm.  Jesus reveals himself as the King of the kingdom that will have no end. 

We should remember that this vision would have been so important to Matthew’s hearers because this Gospel was written sometime between 60 and 85 AD.  The Roman authorities were persecuting the Jews.  The people would have been struggling to see a way forward under Vespasian—the new Emperor after Nero’s death.  Depending on when exactly the Gospel was written either Matthew knew that the temple of Jerusalem had already been destroyed, or the destruction of Jerusalem could have been predicted because of the increasing persecution of the Jews by the Roman army.   In this context,  the promise that the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour might would have provided hope to Matthew’s hearers.  Everything had been destroyed, they were being oppressed by the Roman empire.  The Gospel of Matthew draws a sharp contrast between this harsh human reality and the promise of a coming divine reality—the coming of the Son of Man, the coming of the Heavenly Kingdom.  The message provides hope, and it provides a vision of what will be.  The urgent vision of the coming of the Son of Man helps Matthew’s community to live differently.  Jesus urges the community to prepare themselves.  Stay alert, be aware for one will be left and the other will be taken.  The implication is that the one who is living faithfully will participate in the new order, the coming of the Son of Man, and the one who is blind and unprepared will be left behind.
And so we can turn now to our Advent preparations.  We are here, caught up in our human struggles.  As individuals, we may be suffering illness or poverty, we have burdens that we have to bear.  And our lessons today promise us that there is a new day coming—a time and a place when there will be no suffering.  Here in the US, today we are facing unrest and insecurity, a growing divisiveness--the separation of rich and poor, deep seated racial and ethnic divisions, and conflicts between people over faith.  Our passages speak to a peace between nations and provide us (as they did Matthew’s community) with hope and vision for a new order.  Like Matthew’s community, we must hear this vision as a call to begin our preparations, living into this vision.  If the Kingdom is coming, then we must begin to live as though the Kingdom is already here.  We cannot wait until Jesus returns and calls us--by faith and by our Baptismal covenant we know that God is working with us to bring God’s Kingdom.  We want to be part of this work.  While we wait for the fullest expression of this Kingdom, we begin to make the changes necessary to bring about this Kingdom.  Like the fiancĂ© preparing for marriage, we give up the worldly desires.  As the bride to begins to act as a good wife, even before she is married, so we are called to act as though the Kingdom has come.

We are invited by Jesus to start right away, living as though the Son of Man has come again.  And so in this Advent season,  I invite us to prepare for Christmas, for the day when we celebrate the first coming of Jesus into the world.  Let us give up our worldly desires.  Instead of shopping for one another, let us focus on sharing what we have with the poor.  Instead of decorating our homes with holiday things that cost a lot of money, let us open our homes to friends and strangers, building up our community.    Instead of running around with shopping and cooking and preparations for parties and meals, let us focus on the hope of return of the Son of Man.  What will be uniquely required of us?  How can we begin to live into that call urgently, starting today.

I invite you all to participate in the card making and wreath making that we will be doing after church.  Think of the Christmas card not as an obligation, but as an opportunity to create community—to reach out to someone who matters to you and tell them that you care about them.   Think of the Advent wreath as the beginning of a spiritual practice.  What if you simply lit the wreath each night.  Between sunset and bedtime, the candlelight of the wreath might be the symbolic preparation that draws your attention to what really matters, for you, your family and your congregation. 

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