Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the start of a new church season and, in fact, the start of a whole new church year. We’re in Year A now, when our readings are primarily from Matthew’s gospel.
The thing about Matthew’s gospel is that it was written in about year 85 of the Common Era, some 50 years after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. And before he physically departed Earth (just two verses before today’s lesson), Jesus told his disciples he’d be right back, and that not a generation would pass before he’d return. And now, in Matthew’s community, disciples were dying and Jesus hadn’t returned. The Romans were killing them and the Jews were persecuting them. People were losing heart, giving up.
Matthew’s message today is to “hang on a little longer.” Matthew says, in essence, that “no one knows when Christ will return, BUT,” and here’s the important part, “Christ WILL return; be ready.”
Some 2,000 years after Matthew offered hope to his community with these words, we tend to gloss over the “Christ will return” part of the Advent message. We think that the primary function of the Advent message is to make us wait for Christmas, to focus our attention on the here-and-now to keep our mind off the future—as exciting as Christmas Day will be (for those of us who are still young or still young-at heart). We think that the primary function of Advent is to make us wait for Christmas, to keep us rooted in the present, to keep our minds off presents—the presents we must buy and the presents we hope to receive.
The thing about Advent, as you know from Advents past, is that our liturgy tells us that, “Yes, Christ is coming, Christ will be born into our world on Christmas Day.” But our Advent liturgy never lets Christ’s first coming stand alone. We are always reminded that Christ will come again. We are always reminded that, because of Christ Jesus, birth leads to death, and death leads to new life.
So this is why we can’t rush ahead and celebrate Christmas now. This is why we can’t sing Christmas carols yet. Christmas isn’t here yet. We must live in the present. We must hold both the past and the future in tension in the present as we wait, in hope and trust, for what Christ has promised us.
I think of these moments, when the past and the future all live in tension in the present, as Advent moments. Advent moments happen all year long. But during the season of Advent we are to look for them and pay special attention to them. So here are two examples of Advent moments to help you recognize them.
I witnessed a profound Advent moment as a seminary student. I visited a frail elderly couple in the hospital who each had suffered a heart attack on the same day. They had learned that they would both pull through. Their only grandchild, upon hearing this news, had just called and asked, “Can I have your car now, anyway?” Their profound love for this 18-year-old, and their dreams for him were all held in tension that day as they struggled with how to respond to his question. Definitely an Advent moment. (In case you are wondering, right or wrong, they gave him the car but cut him out of their will.)
I had an Advent moment this week. I was in another church near here. A man I’ve admired a long time and love said to me, “So, I hear that Resurrection is closing its doors.”
I was very surprised. Not only is this NOT true, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could think a church as vitally alive as Church of the Resurrection would be closing. So I pondered about how to respond. “No,” I finally replied, “Resurrection is not closing. What we are up to is demonstrating the concept of Resurrection to our Diocese and our world.” I couldn’t resist adding, as I looked around at the nearly empty church I was in, “There were 100 people who worshiped at Resurrection last Sunday.” (Actually, I need to confess to you. There were 98 here, adding both services, so I rounded up a bit!)
But I ask you: Aren’t we at Resurrection living in an extended Advent moment? Somehow our past is in tension with our future, right here in our present. Who we are—our past—forms our very “DNA” and makes us willing to be creative and bold and try new things in the name of Christ, makes us willing to give our community with affordable housing. We hold THIS past in tension with our unclear future in which we are called to venture. We live in the present full of hope for our future, a future of new life—resurrected life.
What about your past and your future are you holding in tension in the present? A broken marriage and a new relationship? And old recovery and a new diagnosis? Or maybe just new realities as you age? Whatever past and future realities your present contains, Advent teaches that our hope in Christ Jesus is well-founded.
The second coming of Christ Jesus that we heard about in today’s gospel lesson could come at any time, and we must be ready. We’ve waited two millennia for Christ to return, and we could wait two more millennia. The time isn’t important; what’s important is that we live in hope and trust of Christ’s coming as we hold the past and future in tension in our present. Which is to say that we live in readiness for Christ’s return, no matter when that will be.
If we flip ahead one chapter in Matthew’s gospel we read some very familiar verses about what we are to do while we await Christ’s return: Give the hungry something to eat, give the thirsty something to drink, invite the stranger in, clothe those who need clothes, tend the sick, and visit those in prison. And here’s where, if Jesus were to return today, I think he’d be pretty happy with what he sees Church of the Resurrection trying to do in his name.
What about you?