Today is the first Sunday in the Season of Advent. As you know, Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Whether we know it as Advent, or whether we just think of it as the lead-up to Christmas, this is one of the busiest times of the year… not just in our churches, but in almost every aspect of our lives.
While most people are rushing around buying holiday presents, decorating, baking, sending cards, hosting and attending parties, watching holiday plays and presentations, and then doing some more shopping… Christians are called during Advent and Christmas do something different from the rest of the world.
We are invited to stop, and to wait. We are invited to be quiet and reflective. We are invited to pause and to think about the wonder of the celebration that we are about to share at Christmas… about the amazing thing that happened so many years ago… how God came into the world to be WITH us in Jesus Christ.
Well, the reality is that many Christians are running around like crazy in December too, just like everyone else. In many ways, our Christmas preparations don’t seem much different from our secular neighbours. But the beginning of Advent is a good time for us to pause and remember what this season is all about. The beginning of Advent is a good time for us to stop and to consider how we will celebrate this season, what we will choose to do (or not do) with our time, what we will spend our money on, what traditions we will begin or continue in our families. Now is the time to decide for ourselves what this special time of year means for us as people of faith.
I think Advent is about two really important things. First of all, Advent is a time when we think about what it was like before Jesus came into our world to be Emmanuel – God with us. God’s People had so many challenges and struggles at that time. They lived in a land that was occupied by the Romans, and they were terribly oppressed. They were waiting and hoping for a Messiah to come who would help them, who would free them, who would make things right in the world.
Although Jesus wasn’t exactly what most of them were expecting, Jesus was the answer to their prayers. The Messiah, the Anointed One, the very Son of God came into the world to bring help and hope and peace and joy… not only to the People of Israel, but to all the people of the world.
So Advent is about remembering how God’s People were waiting and hoping for a Messiah to come. But Advent is also about waiting and hoping today. Even though Jesus came two thousand years ago, there are still many things that are not yet right in the world. Jesus proclaimed and showed that the Kingdom of God was near… but even today, God’s Kingdom is still on its way. Everything isn’t right and good yet.
Though many of us here today live in relative comfort, security, and peace, Advent can be a time for us to open our eyes to see those around us (both near and far) whose lives are full of danger, or pain, or difficulty. We can pause to consider those people in our world today who are so desperately waiting and hoping for some kind of Saviour.
In our church community, a big part of Advent is our Advent Appeal. It is one way that we make this season about bringing the hope and help of Jesus into the lives of people in our community who are struggling. But perhaps Advent for you will include making gifts to others farther away who are desperately in need… maybe in Indonesia or in Haiti or in Afghanistan. Or perhaps Advent for you will include giving your time and attention to someone you know who is lonely or grieving or without much support.
When some of our members gather later in December at the Lighthouse to sing carols and share fellowship, that is what we will be doing. When the members of the Women’s League prepare and deliver care packages for people in our church who are shut in at home, that’s what they will be doing.
Advent is a time of waiting and hoping… not in the sense that we only sit and pray and hope for a better world… but in the sense that we take up the invitation to work with God to keep on building the world that God intends for us and for our neighbours.
The prophet Isaiah spoke about a day to come when all the people of the world will come and say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of God; that God may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” Isaiah spoke about how God will judge between the nations and arbitrate for many peoples; and they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Isaiah’s hope was for a world filled with peace and justice and harmony.
Well, we’re not quite there yet, are we? We have a long way to go in the work of making peace. But perhaps Advent is a good time for us to take notice of Isaiah’s vision and to hang on to Isaiah’s hope. Perhaps we can begin by working on peace in our own lives and relationships. Maybe Advent is a time for you to work on making peace with a family member or with a friend from whom you have become estranged. Maybe Advent is a time for you to reach out in friendship towards someone in your workplace who is different from you, someone that you don’t understand, from whom you are separated. Perhaps Advent is a time for you to have a faith conversation with someone you know who doesn’t attend church, to share with them about what this season is about for you as a Christian, perhaps to invite them to worship with you.
Our Gospel text this morning encourages us to remember the early Christians. Near the end of the first century, the author of Matthew’s Gospel wrote words of encouragement and hope to a community of Christians who were waiting and hoping. Though they had already experienced God with them in Jesus Christ and had turned their lives to following him, they were wondering when the kingdom he spoke about would arrive. They expected him to be returning soon. They expected the world to be coming to an end soon. They wondered about what they should be doing in the meantime and how God would recognize them as Jesus’ followers in the end.
The author of the Gospel encourages his readers to consider what we know and what we don’t know. We don’t know… the time, the year, the month, the day, or the hour when Jesus will return. We don’t know when peace and justice will finally reign throughout the world. We don’t know when goodness, and kindness, and love will direct all people in relationship with each other. People who pore over the books of Daniel and Revelation, attempting to crack their code, are fooling themselves. We are called to be agnostics about the time of Jesus’ return. We simply do not know.
What we do know, however, is what we are supposed to be doing in the meantime. Because we don’t know the day or the hour, we are always to be “ready.” And in the context of the Gospel of Matthew, that means doing the deeds of mercy, and forgiveness, and peace that characterize Kingdom people.
The Gospel writer makes the interesting comparison of the end of time to the mythic story of Noah and the flood. Remember that classic story of the faith? It’s the one where God wipes out most of the world in a giant flood because the people of the earth are doing all kinds of evil things. There is one family, of course, Noah’s family, that is not wiped out with the rest. Because that family alone has been faithful to God, while the others have not.
But up until the day the rain starts to come down, most people wouldn’t have known that Noah’s family was any different. They wouldn’t have predicted that they alone would be saved. God knew, but most people would not have known.
The coming of the Son of Man will be something like that, the Gospel explains. The people of the world will be going about our daily lives… working at our jobs, doing what we do… And “then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
I wonder if, on the surface, our lives look pretty similar to the lives of our secular neighbours. We live in houses and apartments, and drive in cars. We go to work. We look after our families. We plan for the future. We have friends, and hobbies, and at least in Saskatchewan, we root for the Riders…
On the surface, our lives may not look much different. But God knows who we are. And God knows whose we are… that we belong to God, that our hope and our trust is in God, that our hearts and our lives are dedicated to God’s purposes. And perhaps, if others looked carefully, they might see what God sees. They might see what makes us different too… And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
The season of Advent has arrived. And we, as Christians, have the opportunity to mark this special time of the year in ways that are radically different from the usual holiday traditions of shopping and eating and partying. Though our daily lives and work may at first seem indistinguishable from our neighbours, the difference is that our values and priorities, our daily decisions, and even our Christmas celebrations will be guided and directed by God’s Spirit within us.
May God fill us with hope as we wait for the coming of our Lord. And may God’s Kingdom come. Amen.