Sunday November 29: The First Sunday of Advent
Reflections: I had a feeling that we would return to a similar position as we faced inMarch of this year. The health experts were telling us to expect a secondwave of the pandemic, and possibly more. Since November, the number ofcases has been steadily increasing and we have found ourselves withrecord breaking numbers of COVID. It’s on all our minds, and touched on inevery conversation. Sadly, I have to agree with the decision of Dr. BonnyHenry to have our worship gatherings cancelled for the time being. Iremember making a comment when this pandemic reared its ugly head (ithappened to be in Lent), that “this was the Lentiest Lent that we have everLented”. I am hoping that it will not turn out to be “the Adventiest Adventthat we’ve ever Advented”.
And because of this, it seems that there has been a great rush to bring inChristmas. Have you noticed that? Why there has been a surge of peopleall over our island who have been putting up Christmas decorations in theirfront yards. Some folk have even put up their Christmas trees. We’vestarted to do that at our place – and Muppet, I might add, has been a greathelp. Really, who can blame people? When I was growing up it wascustomary to at least wait until December to consider getting out the boxesfrom the attic to decorate the house. Why, in some more traditional homes,people waited until the very last minute, December 20 th or so, to put up the tree and hang the stockings. But now, still in November, we’re seeingglimpses of Christmas. And I get it. I really do. There seems to be so muchanxiety and tension in the air that we are craving a sense of hope and light,and wonder in our lives. In the midst of isolations, we want to be remindedof past Christmases when families got together and when there was asense of festiveness in the air.
We want Christmas to come. And then I look at this Sunday in the life of the church and I realize that weare beginning the season of Advent. It’s the one that precedes Christmas.It’s time in our life as church when we prepare for Jesus birth and secondcoming, when Advent wreaths are gradually lit to bring us to a place ofexpectation and hope. And you know, this time last year, our communitygathered in church and we began to light the candles in our wreath. Today,the First Sunday of Advent is called the Sunday of Hope. And sadly, wecan’t do this as a gathered community, but we can be creative and have aliturgy of candle lighting in our homes, and know we are not alone in this.
What unusual times we are in.
And to add to this strangeness, amidst our desire for Christmas to come,we also have lectionary readings that are challenging. They are verychallenging indeed. Once again, we are met with parables from Jesus. Andthey aren’t the ones which we traditionally come across earlier on in hisministry. He isn’t speaking to his followers about a Good Shepherd, orreminding his disciples that he is the Light of the World. Mark’s Gospel,rather, places Jesus near the end of his earthly journey when he ispreparing those who have been with him, for the time when he will return tojudge the world. Did you know the hymn “Joy to the World” written by Isaac Watts in the 17thcentury (An English minister, who wrote over an astounding 750 hymns), was not about the birth of Jesus... but about his return, at the end of the ages? Think about the words…
And today’s parable speaks sharply about the end of the ages and theneed for Christians to prepare for Jesus coming at that time. They have anapocalyptic flavour to them. And they have, I believe, the ability to raise thehackles of anyone. Do you recall his words? “Beware, keep alert , for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch”.
What can we make of this? Does Jesus parable have anything to say to usduring Advent, waiting to celebrate a birth, especially now in Covid 2020?With our desire to bring in Christmas, after hearing these words of Jesus,should I run down to Home Hardware to get more lights for the tree?
When I raise these questions, I find it very helpful to realize something veryunique in our faith. Namely, our Judeo-Christian faith which we proclaim isa deeply historical religion. And what I mean by that is we share anunderstanding of faith where history begins with God’s creation of theworld, and it ends with God’s judgement and re-creation of the world. Welook back, remembering all of the ways that God has saved his people overthe generations, and forward, anticipating how God will ultimately restorethe world and usher in a new heaven and new earth. And so, as Christianswe live, as the theologian Karl Barth once said, in the ‘in-between times”.
And with this rooted historical understanding, we look at Advent, throughthe same lens. Many of the readings, for example, during this season takeus back to times when God delivered his people from adversity. Today’sreading from Isaiah, is a case in point, when the prophet was reminding thepeople of Israel, how God released them from enslavement to theBabylonians. In this passage we hear Isaiah making a profoundrecollection about the mighty acts of the Divine. “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked atyour presence”. And we might draw the same conclusion from today’sPsalm. Indeed, it is important to know that the Psalms were a collection ofwritings spanning over the course of some 500 years, but today’s writing, it would seem is drawing people’s attention toward events of some 800 yearsprevious in Israel’s history. “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who leadJoseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forthbefore Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might,and come to save us!” In both of these, is the collective memory is drawingpeople to recall God’s deliverance.
And of course, on the other hand Advent also brings us God’s promises toIsrael of Immanuel. God comes to us in human flesh, in Jesus Christ, asone who has delivered us from the darkness of our humanity, and walksbeside us on our life path. And this understanding is broadened when wesee that Advent calls us to anticipate the time when Jesus will come againto ultimately deliver us and usher in a new kingdom in the world. On that glorious day, Jesus will be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and he will put all that resists him, even death itself, under his feet.
But do you see? This is Advent. You and I are in the ‘in-between times”, asit were, recalling and looking forward to all that God is. And if this is thecase, then it puts a new light on some of the challenging Gospel texts thatwe are met with during this time of year. Indeed, the words of Jesusparable do speak of apocalyptic times of what things will look like in thefuture. But Jesus is also very clear to make another claim here. Do youremember what he said? “No one knows the time when these things will happen”. Some of Jesus parables even remind us ‘the angels themselvesdon’t know the time when these things will happen’. But God does. And these parables bring us to a place of looking at circumstances in life and sometimes coming to the conclusion that there are often things beyond our control – but there is always the underlying confidence that can be placedin one who is in control; namely the living God. And I don’t know about you, but I find great comfort in looking at this parable knowing I am in ‘the in-between times’ of an Advent season. For one, it reinforces the historicalnature of our faith which, as we look back to recall God’s deliverance, andas we look forward toward God’s ultimate reigns, our hope continues to restin the God who continues to act – and love – and be with us. You see, one of the great miracles of Advent is bringing forward God’s grace and hopeinto the present moments of our lives. Even during uncertain times.
And for me, this news of Advent has invited me to take a quiet step forward in faith and look around and see where God is and continues to be. I know here on Mayne we often see God in the glories of nature – after all we do live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But what about other places? I wondered if God’s voice of assurance might be heard through someone such as Dr. Bonnie Henry. She has been, after all, making some profound statements about the state of our health in our province. And it’s easy to go round and cast asparagus, I mean aspersions, on those who find it a challenge not to be vigilant in maintaining the protocols. Yes, we do still find people in denial or whatever, not wanting to wear a mask ormaintain a proper social distance. But turning things around, here is oneindividual who is envisioning a time when the pandemic will be stopped.She is looking to provide and maintain goodness and health for us hereand now. She is using every effort, every skill, to give a way forward for thepeople she is serving in our province. Every time I hear her calm, caring,wise voice, I am reassured, and re-motivated to do my best.
And if that’s the case then who are the others ushering hope during thistime? Could you be one of them? Could you be one who offers a kind wordfor someone in difficulty, offering your prayer for someone as a sign that weare placing our hope in the One source who will see us through. Could yoube a light, an extra glimmer of hope, even as we search to find more thingsto make it Christmas? Could you be someone’s Advent hope?
Interesting questions don’t you think?
But this very season invites them –as opportunities remind us that we are not alone in our faith journey. It’slike the story I came across a while back of two theologians who weresitting together reflecting on today’s Gospel passage when one of them raised the question, “so when do you think that Jesus will return”. After a brief moment the other one said, “Oh, I didn’t know he’d left”.
May we therefore find ourselves in the days and weeks ahead, comforted and surrounded by the hope, the light, and the grace of this glorious season. Amen.
------------- Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than wecan ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in thechurch and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen