The First Sunday of Advent: November 29, 2020
Year B: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
When Advent falls immediately following Thanksgiving it feels a bit rushed because then the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day is short. We don’t have a full month, but here they are – Advent and Christmas are upon us. We have this great aura of expectation and even excitement. I hope there’s excitement as we wait with patience and with joy for four weeks now for the coming our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
We need to understand, I think particularly this year, perhaps, that waiting is not always an experience of happy expectation; it can be an experience of worry or even dread. If anyone got a chance to listen to my story the other night – that’s what the story was about – worrying about what’s going to happen. I’ve been having lots of dental work and every time I get in the car and drive to Woodstock, I face that time with dread so that is not waiting with joyous expectation. There is a waiting that’s kind of fearful and I think we hear about that kind of fear in today’s readings.
We cannot ignore the language we hear today. It may not be from Revelation, but the language we hear on this first Sunday of Advent is apocalyptic and it’s steeped in judgment, it’s steeped in calamity. We shouldn’t try to ignore that because our lives, indeed, have been steeped in judgment and calamity for these last ten months; and we will hear this language for several weeks in our Advent readings. Next week, the Second Letter to Peter, for example, speaks of the “day of the Lord that will come like a thief and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise.”
And what’s behind that kind of language in Peter? Remember the prophecies of Isaiah, and of Amos, of the coming of the day of the Lord, when God will come as a mighty warrior and will wreak vengeance on Israel’s enemies.
An ancient Israelite might welcome this kind of day, especially given the tiny sizes of ancient Israel and how overwhelmed it was by the world around them. But what Amos and Isaiah said was also a warning that there was sinfulness in Israel and because of this sin, Israel, too, would feel the effects of God’s vengeance. Today’s Gospel is a continuation of that prophecy. It isn’t spelled out for us, but the opening of the Gospel is Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.
But there’s something more contained in our readings, especially in the Gospel, in the very next breath in Mark. “From the fig tree, learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near.” You know there’s new growth, there’s new life.
“So, also, you will see these things taking place. You will know that God is near at the very gates. Truly, I tell you this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” God is always with us.
So, we come to this time of God, this time of Advent, knowing, hearing that God is always with us and there’s a quietness and there’s an intentionality in the waiting of Advent, a time in which we watch branches of a tree produce leaves and buds signaling the imminence and Immanence of new life.
Waiting and watching. I think these are bywords for our life, bywords for life in lockdown, during a pandemic. Maybe they have been your experience. They have certainly been my experience. It is not the quiet waiting of longing and preparation, but of grief and despair.
Advent is about the astonishment, the wonder, and the waiting of Mary in the Annunciation that we’ll hear on the third Sunday of Advent. Advent is also about the longing and the grief of the people in Israel, who are waiting for their Lord and Savior. It’s about the weeping of Rachel for those who were killed and died who we hear about in the Feast Days right after Christmas Day.
How can we combine all these thoughts? How can we think of the apocalyptic language that we hear today, because as I said it’s clear that God is with us? Jesus, and Jesus’ followers, and John the Baptist, when they spoke of God’s return – they thought of it as a great day of judgment. Sometimes I think that idea of judgment seems far removed from our thoughts of Advent, but what early followers of Jesus thought must be taken seriously. When we stop to consider the contrast between those early Jesus followers and us, it is extraordinary, for they trembled at the thought of God coming, at the day of the Lord.
Perhaps we have thought so much of God as love eternal, we rush through Advent and we guard ourselves from the difficult parts that we have to go through because we love the awesome nature of Christmas: the coming of a baby, a little baby who needed to be diapered and changed and fed.
But this time of Advent is the time is for preparation, for self-examination – to prepare for the coming of Christ that we so long for, the incarnation of God in bodily form.
Last week, what did Jesus tell us? “Come you who are blessed by my father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you and before the foundation of the world. I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick, and you looked after me. We’re going from there to Advent and it’s full circle. That’s what we are called to do.
Today’s readings of apocalyptic language – the reality of the manifestation, the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus Christ, of coming to us in the face of a grandparent seeking help, of a parent seeking help, of someone who is sick, someone is starving – these are the realities of Advent.
The reality is that Jesus meets us in every disadvantaged person we encounter. So long as there are people around, Jesus is with us. So long as there are people in need Jesus walks the earth as our neighbor, as the one for whom God calls to us, demands of us action, makes claims upon us.
And that great judgment that we hear in the Advent message, it’s at the same time a great lesson. Because Christ is coming among us, and Advent offers us the chance to unlock and open God’s blessings to the World. Amen.
 2 Peter 3:10, New Revised Standard Version
 Mark 13:28
 Mark 13:29-31
 Matthew 25:34-36
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