Lo, He comes with clouds descendingâ¦are the opening words of a well-known Advent hymn that will be sung in many churches today. Another hymn many will sing is O, Come, O, Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. The two hymns are bookends for this First Sunday of Advent, one celebrating the coming of Jesus to reign in glory, the other beseeching God to come and dwell with us. We need both to capture the tension of this beginning of the Church Year.
People have always been curious and interested in what we call the apocalyptic sayings in Scripture. In Jesus' time they wanted to know when the end was going to come. Today some of the best sellers are the "Left Behind" series that fictionally deal with this question.
But a closer reading of the Gospel reveals that Jesus is not interested in encouraging speculation: But about that day or hour no one knowsâ¦only the Father. (Mark 13:32). Instead, we are to put our efforts into living an expectant life by keeping alert and watchful.
Much of our speculation could easily become waiting for a good show. In fact current fictional literature often focuses on the show as people are raptured, plucked out of airplanes or automobiles, offices or homes, leaving others behind in a time of tension and fear. It's all portrayed as though we are pawns and victims in a cosmic struggle that we can't do much about.
Instead Jesus calls us to action in Advent. As we will see in the coming weeks, this action is one of repentance and mission, not simply waiting around for things to unravel. The images in today's Gospel of going on a journey and making arrangements for others to be in charge are good ones for Advent. There is a personal journey we are called to take, a spiritual cleanup, a throwing out of things that get in our way of having a relationship with Jesus right now. And there is a need to be collaborative about this. We can't just take off on the trip: we have to include others in our plans.
The church family can all go on an Advent journey together. This is the time when churches should seize the high ground and treat these four weeks like we are serious about our Advent living. Some Advent events such as making a Jesse Tree with the symbols of prophecy hung on the branches can mark getting ready. One church cuts a small barren tree, puts it in a stand, has everyone in the church make symbols for Advent and cut green leaves out of shiny foil. As the Advent season progressed more symbols and leaves are added to the tree. In another church, the congregation has an Advent Event where everyone comes together for an evening of fellowship, makes Advent wreaths that are especially appropriate for home use, and studies about the season and its message. It's always fun to do something as an alternative to the mad Christmas rush, and everyone can get into the spirit of preparing to meet Jesus when he comes.
But there is a deeply personal side to all this as well. Each of us has a heart that longs for things to be better. We want peace, even though much of the world clamors for war. We want justice, even though many tell us to take advantage of every opportunity to get more, though often it means others will have less. Instead Advent calls us to an abundant life that is more spiritual and less material. It invites us to put our faith and trust in God's mercy and divine intervention. It compels us to have a heart for truth, mercy, and justice, and to find ways and time to work for those things because they are the things God cares most about.
Today's collect for the First Sunday of Advent asks for God's grace that we might "cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light." There is certainly a moral dimension to this. The secrets we keep, the lies we tell, the hatreds we cherish, the schemes we dream up to get what we want are all in need of being thrown out. But their replacement with light is not automatic. What begins to transform us is our turning from maintenance to mission, from self to others. In a culture filled with ways and web sites on how to do things better for us, we are called to proclaim a mission to others, especially those who do not know or have a relationship with their creator and redeemer. The armor of light should be a visible beacon to those who sit in darkness.
The church is not a diversion or a pastime. It is a vivid sign of God's having entered the world to redeem it. Advent is a good time for us to live like people who are being redeemed. It is a good time to develop new relationships with people outside our walls. Advent is a time for a new beginning, a time to examine our structures and see what helps us to move out in mission and what keeps us from it. While the norm is often to adopt a family for Christmas, what about adopting that family forever? Meeting basic needs is an essential Christian enterprise, but developing relationships is the ultimate one.
Emmanuel means "God with us" in a relationship that will totally transform us. There are others seeking this transformation but they don't know where the door is. We need to show them.
Advent is not merely a season of preparedness, but a time to let go of everything that stands in our way of receiving God's gift to us, the gift of Jesus. A lot of tidying up can occur when we reach out to others, perhaps meeting Jesus there for the first time.