The lessons for this first Sunday in Advent are grand; they are big statements we've heard so much we forget exactly where they came from:
- Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may they prosper who love you.
- They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
- Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
- The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light...
- Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
- Be ready, for the son is coming at an unexpected hour.
Big stuff. What are we to make of them all; we, who have said goodbye to another liturgical year and hello to the beginning of another one? Advent 1, the first Sunday of our new year.
Let's go through the lessons and see what they say to us about or new year, about or life with God in this new year, because that is what they are all about, our life with God.
Let's start with the psalm, with the hymn. Full of praise, I was glad when they said into me, Let us go to the house of the Lord. Full of love of Jerusalem. What are we as Christians to make of this? Jerusalem is holy, but we have a holy Jerusalem that is no longer a place but a person, our holy Jesus, Lord Christ. It is the genius of Christianity that it is not a place-based religion like the other two Abrahamic Faiths, Judaism and Islam. We Christians have no place as holy as the Western Wall in Jerusalem is to Jews or the Ka'aba in Mecca is to Muslims. We have a holy person to whom we turn, before whom we pray, to whom we make pilgrimage. And that holy person is not just in the Middle East; he is everywhere: in this room, in this place, in the presence in which we are standing.
Let us read the Psalm with Christ as Jerusalem: I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the Lord Jesus. We are standing within your embrace, O Lord our God. Holy Jesus, you are at unity with yourself, and all who honor you praise your name. You judge us; we pray for the peace you have to give us. May all who love you be whole. May those who live in your love know peace; may those who stand with you know your quietness. For my family and friends, I pray your wholeness. Because of you, Lord Christ, I will seek to do good.
We can do the same with the next lesson, with Isaiah. Jesus as Jerusalem: In the days to come God's love in Christ Jesus shall be understood as central to human life and all life shall stream to it. People will say to one another, let us go sit at Jesus' feet so that he may teach us his ways and so that we can follow the path he sets for us. Jesus will judge us, and arbitrate for us. He shall teach us to turn our instruments of destruction and war into tools that will help us grow and become whole. He will teach us how to reach out to each other in peace, and how to enable each other to live safe and healthy and whole, rejoicing in his presence and his love.
Now we've got Romans. Jesus is here. He who loves another has fulfilled the law, love your neighbor as yourself, love does no wrong to a neighbor. The first section of the lesson is all about this. Let us take Jesus one step further this time; let this lesson address the Christ in us: The Christ in me loves others, the Christ in me has fulfilled the law. I celebrate unions, I celebrate life, I give, I am content; I love my neighbor as myself. The Christ in me fulfills the law.
And this means fulfill, not just "keep" the law. To keep the law is to get a zero: you didn't commit adultery, you did not murder anyone, you did not steal, you did not covet, and so on. A zero, a clean slate. But to fulfill the law, which we can do with the Christ inside, goes way beyond just "keeping" -- it encourages and celebrates unions, life, giving, and so on. It's not that I don't steal: it's that I give, that I enable life, that I uphold and celebrate relationships that are intimate and everlasting. It is the abundance of life in Christ, the great excess of living that is possible in our Lord God, with our Lord God, in the life our God has prepared for us.
The second part of the Romans lesson goes on about how salvation is near, nearer than before, nearer than when we first believed, nearer than the darkness we knew before God took up dwelling within us and allowed us to hope, and believe, and love and sing with joy. How we know that to be true! We know the presence of Christ, within and without, and we know that salvation is now, the reality of it, the path to it, its past, its present, its completion, consumed in the experience of now. It is not with rigid self-denial and repressed regret that we "lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light." It is with ineffable joy and gladness, an eagerness born of Christ and fulfilled in every way. With joy I trade my loneliness and pain, with gladness I turn in my despair and my anxiety, with praise I put on the mantle of Christ's radiance, with light in my heart I put on the light Christ gives me to wear. A great lesson.
On to Matthew. The gospel seems a little flat after all that glory in the other lessons, but let's see what we can make of it for the beginning of this new year. In general, Matthew says that you never know: Noah's crowd never knew about the flood until it happened, we never know about God flooding our lives until we are swept away into God's love, into the arms of his embrace. Then he goes on about two men farming, with one taken and one left; and two women grinding, with one taken and one left. Taken where? Left where? Taken into the comfort of living, responsive relationship with God; left with the relationship always, but with it never developed, matured, indulged in, enjoyed. So, says Matthew, be ready, so that whenever God comes, you are ready.
What does that mean? It doesn't mean a lot of moral hoo-ha and schoolmarm-y "you'd better straighten up and be nice and stop all that low and hi-grade sinning you're thinking about or already doing!" Being prepared in God's life means being open for the experience of God. It means keeping a few cracks in your defenses against this world so that God can sneak in and touch the person hiding scared behind the big wall. They don't have to be cracks that everyone can see -- that's too nerve-wracking -- but they have to be cracks, little fissures God can come in, way behind on your back, or under your coat, or some other place hidden but real. Just little places nobody knows about but you and God. Of course, you can be big-time open if you want to, but that's a little hard and sometimes we're pretending being open rather than being open. No, the little cracks are okay; God can get in, no need to worry.
So Matthew is saying, all in all, be prepared, leave the little cracks that are so scary, the little places only you know are so defenseless and afraid. Don't plaster them up with lies and too much to do and endless diversions; leave the little cracks. Allow God in so that you can stop being afraid and sad and thirsty and pitiful. Let God love you. You don't have to love God back at first; just get loved on and get well. Pretty soon you can lift a little finger and say thank you. That is loving God back, waving a teeny thank you for a little bit of love. If you've been starved for love, God isn't going to overwhelm you right at first; an eyedropper is all you can take, and that's all you will get. But it will go on from there. So be prepared. Allow the cracks, allow the love which will come sometime, knowing there's no way of being certain when that will be.
So finally, what are we to learn from all our lessons? From the Psalm: let me face the Lord our God. Isaiah: let God teach me to love. Romans: let me be filled to overflowing with God's love. Matthew: let me be open to the ennobling love of Christ. Let me praise you, O God; let me love; let me be filled with love; let me grow. This is my prayer for your new year, O Christ; this is my prayer, and I thank you. Amen.