It happens to me every year.
I do my best to hold off on putting up the Christmas decorations and listening to Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. Because I do try to be a decent human being. Though some years I slip into the Christmas mood a little early. Because I am still human, after all. And because I shop at Target.
I love Christmas. I love the lights, the smell of Christmas trees and freshly baked gingerbread. And who doesn’t love presents? And so, once I’ve cleaned up the last of the Thanksgiving dishes, I start decorating. I pull out the advent wreath and the garlands. I play the Charlie Brown Christmas album on repeat.
Then, as the first Sunday of Advent rolls around, we come to church and we settle into the beauty of Advent liturgy. The colors, the chant, the candles. We hear again the words of the prophets, foretelling the coming of the messiah.
And then...Jesus ruins the mood - again - by talking about the end of the world.
Traditionally, Advent orients us to two different events simultaneously.
The first is the birth of Jesus Christ. We treat this season as our time of preparation to meet our savior in the manger in Bethlehem. We hear again the words of the prophets. We hear Gabriel’s announcement that Mary will give birth to the son of God. We commemorate all these events leading up to that moment when “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
The second event to which Advent orients us is the promised Second coming. The end of time. The day of Judgment when Christ will, at last, come again to judge the living and the dead. When, scripture says, the stars will fall from the heavens, the mountains will melt like wax and, in the words of this morning’s Gospel: “people will faint from fear and foreboding.”
It’s almost hard to believe we collectively choose to focus on the former rather than the latter.
But, the Second coming is important. We affirm it in our creeds, it’s been part of Christian teaching for millennia. We lose something important when we spend these four weeks only focused on Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Of course, the second coming is a complete mystery. We have no idea what it will look like, when it will happen. As Jesus says in Matthew: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Readings like the portion of Luke we hear this morning make us uncomfortable. And indeed, they probably should. But it’s important to note that these are not passages about punishment and suffering, though that’s the language they use.
Passages like this are from a traditional style of literature known as Apocalyptic literature. And while it bears some resemblance to the post-apocalyptic stories popular as summer blockbusters and young adult novels, it’s an entirely different genre. We don’t really write like this anymore.
Apocalyptic literature is meant to reveal divine truth. It looks at the world as it appears to be, holds up a mirror and says: look. Things aren’t as bad as they seem. God is still working. Yes we live in a world in which violence and sin and death appear to hold sway. But violence and sin and death do not have the final word. God does. And God is busy, even in the midst of our messy, broken, sin-filled world, God is busy making a new heaven and a new earth.
Advent is a season that expresses this recognition of the brokenness of the world while affirming God’s promise to make all things new. Advent, then, is a season of hope for things to come. It’s like that moment just before sunrise, when the light shifts but the sun hasn't risen yet. Advent is a space of yearning - we know that God is at work fulfilling God’s promises, but the day of fulfillment is not yet here.
Christ is coming. Now we wait. In Advent, we stand at the threshold between the world as it is and the world as it will be: the promised kingdom of God.
I’ve been thinking a lot about thresholds lately. I was ordained a deacon six months ago. Deacons are often referred to as those who stand at the threshold of the temple. Deacons stand at veil between the Church and the world. Communicating the needs and gifts of the world to the Church, while simultaneously communicating the needs and the gifts of the Church to the world. And these past six months have also been a king od threshold as my time as a deacon is intended to help prepare me for my ordination to the priesthood next Saturday.
And so I’ve been thinking a lot about thresholds. I had thresholds on my mind when, this past Tuesday, several members of our Tuesday morning Bible study group took a trip to volunteer at Paul’s place.
This was my first time at Paul’s place. And, while I’d read about their seemingly endless array of programs aimed at serving those in need in Baltimore, I didn’t understand the scope of the work they do until I went on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, we went to help serve lunch as part of their program to provide warm, balanced meals, open to all, Monday-Friday. When we arrived we were all given aprons and assigned jobs. Mine was to stand at the doorway to the dining room. I was literally standing at the threshold.
At first, I was preoccupied with making sure I did thing exactly as I was told to. I took tickets from the guests and put them in neat stacks of fifty, with rubber bands around them. I stood exactly where I was told to stand.
But then something started to shift. I started to relax. I started to engage with the people around me as fellow children of God. I struck up conversations with our guests as they waited in line. I cracked jokes with volunteers. I told and listened to stories, shared smiles and fist bumps and handshakes. A couple times, a volunteer or a guest came over, took my hand and asked if I would pray with them. Or share a word of healing.
I suddenly had the overwhelming sense that I was exactly where I needed to be. I became keenly aware that God was there, in that dining room. In that hallway. In the space between and among us.
Now, I don’t want to over-sentimentalize this experience. There were grouchy volunteers. Guests were often rude to me or one another. I was constantly being told I was in the way. I was not always gracious in asking folks to wait.
This was not a Hallmark Christmas Movie moment.
But that is exactly what the Incarnation is all about: God breaking into the world, exactly as it is, in all its imperfection. Jesus takes our brokenness and, by God’s Grace, creates something new.
Standing in that doorway, just for a moment, I saw a glimpse of what the promised Kingdom will look like: a community of wildly different people, sitting together to share a meal, freely offered. An image of the age to come, which we experience, just for a moment, every time we come to this table.
Advent is our annual reminder that we stand at the threshold between the world as it is and the world as it will be. And, as we hear again the prophesies and the stories leading up to Christ’s birth, we are called to keep watch.
Where do you see God at work in your life and in the world around us, preparing to enter the world?
Christ is coming. Now, we wait.