Well, wasn’t that a cheery set of readings?
Third Isaiah calls on God to rip open the heavens, and confesses that we have all sinned, horribly. Mark speaks of the approaching end of the world, and warns that no one knows when it will come: “Keep awake!”
This is not exactly the message we’re picking up from the world around us right now, unless the idea is just to keep awake long enough to be the first in line for the big Black Friday – or, increasingly, Black Thursday Night – sales.
On the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, the secular world tells us to get shopping, because Christmas is coming. On the first Sunday in Advent, the Church tells us to get prayerful, because Christ is coming. And there is a huge difference between the two.
Every age has its own vision of Jesus. Today we tend to see Christ as an all-accepting buddy – as a forgiver of sins, yes, but as a rebuker of those sins? …not so much. “Hey, that’s okay. No problem!”
In times past, though, he was seen as a stern judge, coming to separate the sheep from the goats, to gather up the elect for heaven, and send the non-elect to someplace you’d really rather not be.
Advent, then, was a little Lent, a time to repent and make ready for the return of Christ and all that it meant. The first Sunday in Advent is the first day of the new church year. It’s a time to be thoughtful, to consider what God wants for us. The lessons for these weeks deal with preparation, with the coming of God’s kingdom.
Repentance is a key part of that. The Christ who will return is not a kind of celestial Mr. Rogers, who likes us just the way we are. Think of him more as a Marine drill instructor who wants us to be the best we can be. Unlike the Marine, however, Jesus’s desire for us to change and grow better is based on pure love.
In Isaiah, the prophet points out that the relationship between God and humankind is a two-way street: “You were angry, and we sinned; but because you hid yourself from us, we stepped over the line.”
God is the potter, and we are the clay that God has shaped – but God is also our parent, who loves us. God is not some bully of a bearded sky god who flings down destruction whenever he’s annoyed; God is the Creator, who cherishes all of Creation and the people in it.
In the reading from Mark, in what is known as the “Little Apocalypse” – the big one is in the Gospel of John – we hear of the frightening time to come, when the world as we have known it will fall apart, when the powers that have ruled the Earth will pass away, and when Christ will step through the clouds of chaos to rule.
Jesus specifically says that no one knows exactly when this will all take place, except for God. The angels do not know the hour; even he does not know. (This might be an indication that math-happy preachers who predict the end of the world on a particular day can be safely ignored.) Therefore, Christ’s message: Keep awake.
That message usually gets lost. That’s true not only in the larger society around us, but in the Church. Some Christians are already singing Christmas carols this morning, skipping over the whole season of Advent (not to mention the wonderful hymns of Advent).
We tend to get caught up in the coming drama of the baby in the manger, without considering the whole story that comes first.
That story is not just about a young woman told by an angel that she will bear the son of God; it’s not just about overcoming the suspicions of her fiancé, and a long hard journey to a strange town. It is not just about a birth in a stable, accompanied by choruses of angels and shepherds.
That’s a wonderful and meaningful story, but it’s not today’s story. That story comes at the end of the four weeks of Advent. Before celebrating Jesus’s birth, this is a time to consider the meaning of his humbling himself to be born as one of us, after considering his coming again.
And as unsettling as that image is, of Christ descending upon the clouds, robed in dreadful majesty, at its core it is really one of comfort. Then as now, the world was a mess in almost every way we can imagine. Then as now, the world was filled with injustice and suffering. Then as now, God’s hand was not always immediately apparent.
But now as then, God is in control. Now as then, God calls us to work to end injustice and suffering wherever we find them. And now as then, God loves us, and shows that immeasurable love in ways that we can hardly understand.