First Sunday of Advent, Preached at St. Matthew & St. Timothy Church, New York City
Jeremiah 33:14-16 * Psalm 25:1-10 * 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 * Luke 21:25-26
It’s here! It’s here! It’s finally here! The season we’ve all been longing for—the season, in fact, of longing. Here we are in the first Sunday of Advent, the start of a new church year. You might think our Gospel reading would say something along the lines of: get ready—a baby is about to be born who is going to change the world! Instead we have Jesus speaking, as a grown man, about the end of times. Why are we starting at the end? It’s like reading the last page of a book before even looking at Chapter 1.
Here’s the thing about Advent. We are preparing the way of the Lord. We are singing, Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel. We are checking our advent calendars in expectation of the coming of Christ (I prefer the kind with different chocolate shapes to eat each day). But the best way to prepare for the coming of Christ, whether it’s the first coming or the second, is to be present. Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel to live in the present—and those words ring just as true as we prepare for Christmas as they do in preparation for the end of time.
What exactly is this “end of times” notion? When Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus is speaking of a certain kind of world. Not just the world in general—the Greek word for that is kosmos. But the Greek word used here is ouikoumene, which refers more specifically to the economic and political world. Gosh, you’d almost think that Jesus was right here in this room speaking to us today. Jesus isn’t shouting, “It’s the end of the world!” He’s saying, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”
In Jesus’ time, Rome was the oppressor everyone longed to be free from. Our reading from Jeremiah likewise points to the various powers of oppression that ruled over Jerusalem. What is it that oppresses us? What is it that we long to be freed from? Is it economic hardship and political unrest, like in Jesus and Jeremiah’s day? Sure. What else do we long for? Social justice and equality? Healing in our world, church, and bodies? Restored relationships and love? Or do we long for something as simple as an extra hour of sleep or a few days to catch up on life and work?
The funny thing about longing is that it never goes away. Even if we attain what it is we long for, another idea or person or thing soon captures our longing once again. Two years ago I was preaching during Advent, and I mentioned how I was longing for my boyfriend at the time to ask my hand in marriage. Well he did, and I went from longing to be engaged to longing to me married. And now that we’re married I long to have kids. It’s always something, isn’t it?
It’s hard to be present when there is so much to long for. Jesus gets that.
Advent is a season of longing. True. And we start that season off today with Jesus’ words: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life… Be alert at all times.” Prepare for tomorrow by paying attention today. Don’t let your longing for the coming of Christ get in the way of you seeing Christ’s presence in the here and now.
Jesus tells us that the coming of the Lord will be plain as day. That no one will have to point it out to us, but that we will recognize it for ourselves, just as surely as we know that the buds on the trees signify the coming summer, and the leaves falling off the trees signify the coming winter.
Well… do you? Do you see the signs of Christ present in your life? Do you see glimpses of the kingdom of God in your every day world? Or does our longing for what is to come keep us from seeing that which is already here?
That is what Advent is really about. We are preparing for the end of times even as we prepare for the birth of Christ because we live in that space in between—we live in the tension that spans what has been and what is yet to come. We live in the present. And Jesus reminds us and teaches us and exhorts us to live in the present so that we do not miss that which we hope and long for.
You want to be ready? Well then, “stand up and raise your heads,” Jesus says, “ because your redemption is drawing near.” Don’t sit there and day dream—stand up and raise your heads.
Have you seen how some of the crosswalks in the city, usually ones on a wider street with a bike path, some of them have the word “LOOK” painted right there in the stripes as you’re stepping off the curb? Well I imagine these words are meant to grab the attention of people looking down, perhaps texting on their phones as they walk, oblivious of what they might run into or what might run into them. But I find that the word “LOOK” painted on the crosswalk has the opposite effect on me. One such crosswalk happens to be on First Avenue, right out in front of Bellevue Hospital where I worked this summer. On more than one occasion I was nearly hit by a turning car or a cyclist simply because the word “LOOK” grabbed my attention, so that I forgot to actually look up.
Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads.” He says, “you can see for yourselves.” He says, “be alert at all times.”
Jesus says, “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” The kingdom of God is near! The kingdom of God was present when God became incarnate in the person of Jesus over 2000 years ago. And the kingdom of God will reign when the world as we know it comes to an end—whenever that will be. But the kingdom of God is not just way back there in the past or way up there in the future—the kingdom of God is near. It is right here in the present, right here with us, caught between what has been and what is to come.
We know the beginning of the story—we know the end of the story. We live in the tension in between, we live in the present, and we live in hope. Stand up! Raise your heads! The kingdom of God is near.