Why does Advent always begin with apocolypse? Why, dear God?
In one way, I appreciate it because we are already well into our consumeristic coma – spending and pressure and Christmas cheer and family guilt and to-do lists and baked sweets all swirled into a frenzied frapaccino that I, for one, almost never hesitate to guzzle.
Nothing like getting slapped awake by a little bit of end times terror on the first Sunday in December.
As a kid, I always heard these apocolayptic texts with a kind of fear and foreboding. I wanted to grow up and get married and have kids and grandkids and accomplish lots of great things and be super old and ready to die before Jesus came suddenly like a burglar to snatch me out of the world. It was a toss-up, which was less desirable, actually, being left behind or being taken up.
What a massive disappointment to God I would be, because of my reluctance to be reunited forever, and what a massive disappointment God would be to me, if I had to trade in the chance at a full life on earth for some kind of pearly gates and golden streets and a boring eternity with a harp (no offense, Jeanne).
So on our first Sunday of Advent, here we are suspended between two end timesy texts to kick off the season. One is a dire-sounding warning about the suddenness of God’s impending return, KEEP AWAKE! You don’t know when its coming – dramatic and unexpected, snatching us out of a life of order and duty and predictable roles, and into the realm of God!
The other, though, is a vision of the realm of God.
That people from all over would be united in their common desire to be guided by God. That what we’ve made for destruction would be turned into tools for sharing and feeding in a completely different game than we’ve been playing at all along. That the yearning within us -- that would God speak to us, would show us the way to live, correct the things we’ve messed up, that God would hear our complaints, arbitrate our disputes, set things to right-- this longing would be fulfilled.
My kids found a picture book at my mom’s house this summer, that someone gave my sisters and me when we were kids.
It is called Zoom, and it starts with a picture of, say, a red wavy line, then it zooms out and you see that it is the comb on top of a rooster’s head, and then it zooms out and you see that the rooster is sitting atop a barn, and the next page shows the whole barnyard with animals, and then you realize it’s a toy barnyard and wooden animals and two kids are playing with it, then you see that they are in a window of a small house surrounded by its own yard, and then you realize the yard is part of a picture, and the picture is part of a postage stamp, and the postage stamp is on a letter, and the letter is in a mail carrier’s hand, who is in a biplane over a tropical island, which is on a travel poster,
which is on the side of a bus, which is on a busy city street, and so on, out and out and out until you are looking at the entirety of earth in the distance.
Advent uses today’s apocalyptic texts to zoom us way way out, out of Christmas, out of winter, out our routines, out of ordinary days of giving and being given in marriage, going to work in the field and grinding wheat, thanksgiving meals and cancer treatments and commuting to work and long-distance phone calls and petty arguments and meeting new neighbors, and earning degrees, and retirement parties, and it zooms us into the realms of hunger and pain and longing and justice and hope, and it keeps going beyond that until it reaches past and future, life and death, eternity and God, and there it stops us.
It will turn around and plunge back in the next few weeks, all the way in, until we arrive at the very specific picture of a baby in a manger and a mom and dad and animals sitting nearby, the event of God’s coming, the moment when God breaks in – in flesh and blood and hot tears and scratchy hay. It’s super present-tense, you can smell and feel the reality of it, tension and elation, a baby comes into the world. It doesn’t get more personal, more concrete, than that. It will take us there eventually.
But first, it wants to pull us way out here.
Zoomed way, way out here, we’re in big picture territory. We are shown history and eternity, what is and what hasn’t yet come to be, embracing way before we were and inviting dreams of what could be -promises of what will be- and then saying to us, It begins HERE!
The countdown to God’s coming, the place to stop wait, slow down and wonder, wake up and pay attention – it starts here.
WAY bigger than you and me. A little bit scary. A lot mysterious.
This is a big deal. Advent says. This is beyond anything this world has ever, even contemplated- greater than nations at war, stronger than waves of unending violence, more powerful than the weapons we use to protect and divide ourselves. This has cosmic proportions that call us into a reality well beyond what we see and hear and participate in every day.
And you know you want it.
You can feel that part of yourself deep within that is sick and tired of being sick and tired. That part that moans with sighs to deep for words at yet another school shooting, not even bothering to read the details it is so heartbreaking and appalling.
That place within that holds your breath when the images of war or disaster scroll across the news, Syria, Palestine, Iran, the Philippines, India… because you feel so removed, so horrified, and also so afraid of what it might mean for everyone.
It calls out the part of you that has deep sadness that terrible and awful things happen to children, that hunger rages fierce, and alzehimer’s attacks loved ones, and marriages crumble, and inexplicable evil or apathy or deterioration seem to be everywhere.
It grabs hold of that part by the shoulders, shakes it into awareness, and then it points it to a promise.
Justice will prevail.
And all people everywhere will find that part of themselves summoned together in one voice to point our questions and our fears and our longings and our hope toward God, who will take in the pain and repair and redeem and restore a broken world and the brokenness within us all.
And that is a big, fantastic, crazy kind of promise.
Who is this apocalyptic God who comes like a thief, like a flood, in the blink of an eye in our ordinary moments when nobody at all would expect it? Who is this God? we ask our text, we ask Advent, And what is God up to?
Not a stranger to this thing. Not a distant judge, an uncaring critic.
This is the God made known in Christ Jesus, who came to share it all with us, that is the God who will come. The God who will break into both the horror and the humor, the things we hate and the things we love and the things we pay absolutely no attention to and completely take for granted. The God of justice comes to interrupt whatever we’ve got going and make right all that is wrong.
Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord! the text ends.
Let’s just walk in that.
That light- that streams down from the mountain of God oozing hope and shared desire of all for peace and connection and restoration – let’s walk in THAT light.
Let’s live in that Hope. Let’s help one another trust in what we cannot see, let’s remind each other and everyone else that we don’t have to live like it’s not coming when it is. Let’s stop a moment and zoom out, with our questions and our longing, and see all around us all the people who hold those same longings and questions inside and anticipate together the day when the magnet pull will point us all in the same direction and love will draw us all in.
So, then Advent advises, keep awake.
The ways the longing flares up painfully – pause a moment before tamping it back down. Sit with it, and wonder. When, Lord?
And then, can’t you feel the waiting?
The waiting comes then.
The kind of waiting that makes us get up and do something.
The kind of waiting that makes us want to prepare for what’s coming.
We are waiting. Always waiting.
Not so that we’re not surprised on that day. (Jesus himself will be surprised!) But because God surprises us everyday. There are signs of this promise breaking into our present from God’s future, every day.
Notice them, Advent invites. Be ready.
Come, Let us walk in the Light of the Lord!