The collect and readings for yesterday, the First Sunday of Advent, may be found here. The appointed gospel was Luke 21:25-36.
25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
My wife and I spent Thanksgiving at the diocesan retreat center on Mustang Island. We had the chance to be with some family as well as have time by ourselves. Thanksgiving night we went for a long walk on the beach. We walked mostly in silence. The last colors of the setting sun were fading into the coming night. The moon was rising and a few stars were beginning to make their appearance. This was our first holiday since our son died. Though there is lots to talk about there was not much to say that evening. It was difficult to appreciate the beauty of the setting sun. Darkness seemed to overshadow the moon’s light and the stars offered no guidance or direction.
She and I are living in the Season of Advent and I do not simply mean the four Sundays before Christmas. Advent is much more than that. Advent is that in-between time of waiting, not knowing, and darkness. We stand on the threshold, in liminal space, neither here nor there, betwixt and between, stuck in the middle. Advent is that season in which life as we knew it is no longer and the new life to come is not yet. It means we live in transition, knowing that everything has changed and is changing but not yet able to clearly see the way forward. So we wait and we watch.
I suspect each of you could tell an advent story of your life: waiting and watching at the bedside in the hospital, a time when your marriage was not what it used to be and you were not sure what it would be or if it even would be. Maybe it was the death of a loved one, or watching your child struggle to grow up. Advent comes in the midst of a job loss, a business failure, and financial uncertainties. One day we realize that life as we planned it did not happen and we now have no idea who we are or where we are going in life – it is the Season of Advent. The uncertainty of the diagnosis or knowing the diagnosis but not the prognosis takes us in to Advent time. The national economy, the war in Afghanistan, the division within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion all reside within the Season of Advent – it is not like it used to be and we are left to wonder what it will be.
Today’s gospel reminds us that Advent is not just a season of the church year; it is a reality of life. Jesus has taken the disciples into the Advent of their lives. The disciples are admiring the temple and the large stones. Jesus tells them that change is coming and it will feel like your world is falling apart – the temple of your life will fall; you will hear news of wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues; some will be arrested and persecuted; there will be signs in the sun, moon, stars and on earth distress among nations; you will be scared to death over what is happening. That all sounds pretty familiar to me. It sounds like real life and it is a pretty good description of what it is like to live in midst of significant change, in the times of uncertainly, in those threshold moments of life.
Usually Advent brings us more questions than answers. Will everything be ok? Will I be ok? Will those I love be ok? When will all this happen and what will it be like? Show me a sign that everything will be ok. And mostly we want to go back to what it used to be like. But we cannot do that. God does not take us back to the past. God does not undo what has happened in our lives. Instead, God redeems what has happened. Advent is not so much about the loss of what was; it is rather about the coming redemption, about what will be. Every time we tell the story of Advent in our lives we also proclaim that our redemption is drawing near. The season of waiting, of unknowing, and darkness is also the season in which redemption is drawing near. And there will be signs Jesus says.
The signs will be as ordinary as a fig tree putting on leaves, as common as the sun, moon, and stars that we see every day. Jesus seems to be saying that we will know them when we see them. They will be signs of light, new life, and growth. When or how this happens we cannot say. But if we are not careful our time will be spent looking for and trying to read signs. We will be so focused on the signs we will miss the reality of standing before the Son of Man.
Jesus does not call us to forecasting about our lives. He calls us to lives of faithfulness – here, now, in this place, in this moment – in this Season of Advent. We are not prognosticators of the faith but practitioners of the faith. The way through this Season of Advent and into the future, into the ever coming redemption, ends up being a life of simple faithfulness in the present.
- Stand up and raise your heads
- Be on guard
- Be alert
These are the practices of an Advent faith. This is the faithfulness to which Jesus calls us. They are simple practices and yet some of the most difficult work we ever do.
We do not get to determine or control the timing, circumstances, or conditions of our Advent. We do, however, choose how we respond to our Season of Advent. We choose whether or not we will stand up, raise our heads, be on guard, be alert, and pray. It is not a one time choice. We must choose our Advent practices day after day and sometimes even moment to moment. As we live into those practices we discover that we are no longer looking for signs. Our own life has become the sign of redemption drawing near.