What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. (T.S. Eliot Little Gidding sec. V)
And so is Advent.
Advent is a new beginning, a new liturgical year, a new gospel to explore, the anticipation of the birth of a child, the anticipation of the birth of a new age, a new kingdom with images of spring buds.
It also closes out our calendar year. It competes the circle of our story cycle beginning in Luke where we ended in Mark two weeks ago. It anticipates the end of the current age in chaos and destruction, but it also looks toward the new heaven and new earth born out of this struggle.
And so we begin our reading of Luke with the end in mind in the middle of Holy Week.
Jesus is in Jerusalem. We are past his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the temple. Jesus is now teaching in the temple and he had just foretold its destruction.
At this point, Jesus’ timeline begins to warp. He is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD one minute, then about his second coming which we are still awaiting at the next. It is easy to get bogged down in trying to sort these two out and to try to pin Jesus’ second coming down to our own timeline, but this is missing the point. In Matthew’s version of this story Jesus ends it saying, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heave, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36)
Jesus’ primary message in today’s reading is one of hope.
We are living in difficult times. More difficult than most of us can remember. Those of you in your eighties may remember World War II, but only a few people still remember the Great Depression. I can remember the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the race riots of the 1960’s, but I can’t say they caused me personal fear or deprivation. Crawling under my desk during air raid drills was a diversion from the rigors of study more than anything else. The economic downturns of the 1980’s was inconvenient, but not devastating for my family.
Today’s children live in a world of contradiction. Better health care than ever before and the threat of COVID 19, face masks, social distancing, and bouncing back and forth between in person or remote schooling. According to NAMI, 21% of adults in the US suffer from some form of mental illness. HRSA reported about the “Loneliness epidemic.” We have access to a greater variety of goods and services than ever before and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home to shop, you just don’t know if they will ever arrive, and inflation is the highest it has been in 30 years according to the NYT. The average home has more conveniences that ever before, yet homelessness in the United States has been rising for the last 5 years and there is a huge shortage of entry level housing. Add to that rising political and social unrest, a soaring rise in violent crimes and unemployment and I think we need a little hope at the moment. As the character Mame would say “We need a little Christmas.”
Jesus describes chaos and disruption on a cosmic level. The sun, the moon, the stars, the earth and the seas will be shaken. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the earth.” (Luke” 2`:26). Then Jesus says, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28) Things may be falling apart, but we are called to hope and to walk without fear.
Jesus reminds us of the cycle of the seasons. Fig trees, like many of our deciduous trees here lose their leaves in the winter and are nothing but bare sticks sticking up out of the ground. In the winter you can’t tell a dead tree from a live tree, but in the spring, a living tree will put forth buds that will turn into leaves and flowers and eventually fruit in summer or fall. Human lives are like the fig tree in the cycles of the seasons. We have periods of growth, and periods where everything seems to go dormant, periods where things are fruitful, and periods where our leaves fall off.
Unlike the seasons, God’s Word is changeless. It is outside the boundaries of time and space. It survives all the chaos and confusion of our world.
The stability of God and God’s love for us is hope in the middle of chaos. The knowledge that God is ultimately in control and that Jesus has already defeated sin and death is hope for us when we feel out of control. The promise that Jesus will return and call us back to him is hope in the most desperate of times.
But Jesus gave a warning alongside the message of hope. We are called to stay alert. We are not to allow life’s hardships to draw us into inappropriate behaviors and we are called to pray for strength to withstand the trials and tribulations we encounter. The Gospel of Matthew follows this warning with the parable of the Ten Virgins. Five stayed alert and kept their lamps in good order, and five were lazy and tried to borrow oil from the other five when it came time to follow the bridegroom into the wedding feast. In their laxness they had let their lights go out. As they ran to buy more oil, the gates closed, and they were not allowed in.
I know it is popular right now to believe that everyone gets into the kingdom of heaven, no matter what, but that is not what the scriptures say. None of us can earn our way into heaven, but we are called to be prepared and to be faithful. The scriptures call Christians to live in this world as though they were citizens of another. We are called to be citizens of God’s kingdom and we are to honor Jesus as King of that kingdom looking to him for guidance and obeying his commands.
How did the earliest Christians respond to this call to stay alert? They were obedient. Jesus told them to wait for the Holy Spirit which they did and received at Pentecost. They were told to be witnesses, to tell the stories about Jesus “to the ends of the earth.” Which they did. They were told to make disciples of the nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Which they did. They baptized those who ‘welcomed’ their message. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers, as we promise to do in our baptismal covenant. They showed goodwill to one another, shared with one another, and they used the power that God gave them to heal and support one another. Advent is about beginnings and endings. Advent is a time to put closure to those things we need to leave behind in 2021 and to begin those practices we want to carry into 2022. Advent is a time for introspection and expectation. Traditionally, we have discouraged “Christmas” decorations at this time, but through the years I have begun looking at Advent in the same was a mother expects her newborn. She does not wait until after the baby’s arrival to decorate the nursery or have a baby shower. I would only encourage you to not let the preparation be more important and celebratory than the event itself. May you have a meaningful Advent.