Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, November 29, 2009

First Sunday in Advent 2009: "A Day on Which Absolutely Nothing Happened."


Jeremiah 33:14-16

33:14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

33:15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

33:16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

Psalm 25:1-10
25:1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.

25:2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.

25:3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

25:4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.

25:5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

25:6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.

25:7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD!

25:8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

25:9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

25:10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
3:9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?

3:10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

3:11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.

3:12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.

3:13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36
21:25 "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.

21:26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

21:27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.

21:28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

21:29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;

21:30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.

21:31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

21:32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.

21:33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

21:34 "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,

21:35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.

21:36 Be 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."


What is a 'day'? Sidereal? The period of time between sunrise and the next sunrise? The 24 hours between midnights? How odd is that, that day ends and begins while we sleep. How, then, do we know the day has come? Because we believe the clocks? The calendars? The sun?

We know these things, but how do we know? We may not 'believe', yet the most common, everyday occurences which order our lives, are the matters of greatest faith. When is it midnight? When is it a new day? Without clocks, how do we know? Without calendars, how are we sure? And why do we accept that clocks and calendars are right? Who told us it was so?

So the day that is coming, the day that we will know the kingdom of God is near: what 'day' is that? And is it a day for all of us, a cosmic day, a universal day? Is it a sidereal day, one to be noted in red on a calendar for generations unborn to learn? Or is it an internal day, a personal day, a day you, or I, or someone in particular, will always remember, even if no one else noticed anything.

My friend in high school kept a calendar, and the year he married it was full of important dates related to his wedding day. His was in June, mine in May. Though he was in my wedding party, and I was his Best Man, nothing was recorded on my wedding date in his calendar. So one day I wrote on it: "Absolutely nothing happening" on the date of my planned wedding. And later he gave me a book of photographs from the wedding, photos he had taken. He titled the little book: "A day on which absolutely nothing happened." It did, of course. It changed my life, and the lives of my friends, and of my family and my wife's family. But was it a day? Did it matter to anyone except those involved? Could it be knowing the kingdom is near is like that?

Look again at what Jesus says:

"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. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
The Son of Man will be seen coming in a cloud...well, that's what they will say. And when these things take place, stand up. After? or before? And how will it come, again? Signs in the moon, sun, stars? No; like the leaves on the fig tree. Like an annual occurrence you can read from experience, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Except it will be unexpected and something no one has experienced, and so unlike anything you've ever known, and it will mean not the end of the time but that the kingdom of God is near. But the kingdom of God is already here. And surely it would be an apocalypse, a revelation (it is all that the Greek word means), to even know that kingdom was near, much less to know it was already and always here. And the Son of Man? How will you know it is the Son of Man?

Perhaps because he will look like that Magritte painting above. That's how Magritte imagined him. Perhaps he will look like that. Why not? It has a certain logical symbolism about it. Why could not God make it so? If the signs are going to be as simple as reading the leaves on a fig tree, who can say how the Son of Man will appear? Will you know him? Are you sure? What makes you think you can read the signs? Those in the sun and the moon and the stars seem to portend evil and great things. But the leaves on a fig tree? Doesn't anybody know what those mean? So which signs do we read? The cartoonish omens from a bad movie? Or the quotidian ones that indicate all is as it was before, and will be again? Is the Son of Man who we will recognize? Or who we will wonder about? And will the kingdom of God come in power and be forced on all the unbelievers, like every other kingdom humanity has ever known? Or will it be different this time? Is the Lord who is our righteousness going to establish a reign like the Pax Romana? Is the kingdom of God the imposition of the ultimate cosmic power?

Or is it the return of summer? The Psalmist says God is the one who instructs the student. Paul tells the church at Thessalonia that he prays for God to direct them. Where is the hand of God in this, the hand that coerces and commands and controls and brooks no argument? Where is the "Biblical" God of the "Old Testament" in "righteous anger" that we all know is the "real" God of Christianity, or at least of those "old" books of the Bible?

Why is Jesus telling us we can read the times as easily as we can read tree leaves? And notice what he warns us about:

"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, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be 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."
This is an advent text, which means it is about keeping awake. That is the first call of the church every time the liturgical year comes around and begins again. Keep awake! And Jesus warns us not to get lost in the quotidian, "the worries of this life." He doesn't warn us against the dangers of war and earthquake and famine and cosmic disaster. He warns us against daily living, not "2012." Nations "confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves" is not a prediction of hurricanes and tsunamis: it's a mockery of how easily disturbed we are, how lightly we are thrown off our comforts. The sea and the waves always roar. If we are confused by them, whose fault is that? There are always signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, but what do they really mean? The Mayan calendar stops at 2012 because they cycle of their calendar ends then, not because time comes to an end. What signs are you reading? Those you think are in the stars? Or what the new leaves on the tree mean?

"Be 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." It's a joke, not an admonition. A joke worthy of a Magritte painting, which allows you stand before the "Son of Man." What are you waiting for, the kingdom of God to come near? It's here. Proclaim it! What are you waiting for, God to act first? God has! The adventus is coming, it's only four weeks away. It returns every year at this time, have you not heard, have you not seen? What are you waiting for, a reason to act? You have it! Act now, avoid the rush, beat the crowds to the manger! What are you waiting for, a sign from the trees?

This could be the day. Or it could be another day on which absolutely nothing happened. The choice is yours. If you would be awake, be awake to that. And be aware the Son of Man could come looking like a surrealist painting. After all, it's almost a dream concept.

Amen.

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