1st Sunday of Advent

December 2, 2001
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

Advent Candle Liturgy

John Cobb on Incarnation
Daniel Day Williams on incarnation
Preaching Christmas

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 2: 1-5
Reading 2: 
Psalm 122
Reading 3: 
Romans 13: 11-14
Reading 4: 
Matthew 24: 36-44
By Bruce G. Epperly

"A Time of Becoming"

The Advent journey begins with words like those of a children’s story, ‘In the days to come...’ How fantastic and unbelievable is the Advent message each year. We hear words of global peace, of swords into plowshares, of spears into pruning hooks. Can you imagine how the author’s community must have responded to these words? ‘How can you speak of peace and restoration in a time of civil disorder, dislocation, exile, and hopelessness? Our way of life has collapsed and you speak of Shalom!’ Yet, deep down, perhaps Isaiah’s first listeners realized, as we do today, that without a vision of an alternate reality, without hope in an unseen promise, the future is lost and the forces of death and alienation are victorious. Without the hope of something more, of surprising and unexpected new birth, we are doomed to injustice, alienation, and war.

The theologian David Miller writes that faith is aroused by incredible vision: ‘Faith is being gripped by a story, by a vision, by a ritual....It is being seized, being gripped by a pattern of meaning, a pattern of meaning that affects one’s life-pattern, that becomes a paradigm for the way one sees the world.’ Advent is an opportunity to revisit the Christian vision...to re-vision both our spiritual awareness as well as our faith.

The Advent ritual is abundant with images of birth and growth. We are reminded that in the moist blackness of soil or the fecund darkness of a womb, surprising new life can push forth, take hold against all odds, and quietly grow. As we ponder again the birth of Jesus in a time of uncertainty and fear, we are challenged to meditate upon the processes of conception and germination that are taking place in our own lives, as we claim our own moments to discern and to act in the Holy Adventure.

The musical composer Igor Stravinsky noted that observation is essential to the process of creating. He called for an awareness of the quotidian abundance already present in life, noting that ‘Familiar things, things that are everywhere, attract attention’ just as much as the potential for random encounters to give way to new insight. Whether it is what Stravinsky terms ‘the chance inspiration of accident’ or ‘the compulsion to seek things out,’ this state of perpetually being in quest yields in his estimation ‘a satisfaction that can not be fully known without the striving... One cannot force one’s self to love; but love presupposes understanding, and in order to understand, one must exert one’s self.’ The process of becoming involves a measure of intentionality.

The news of a pregnancy can be a great surprise, but even when it is long anticipated, it always announces change. When we, ourselves, and our respective spouses each became aware of our first pregnancies, like countless couples before us, everything changed. The incredible vision of progeny changed our very image of ourselves. Because our image changed, our habits changed. Our names and responsibilities changed. Before any children were ever born, we each assumed the role of a parent, a role that would continue to change and grow with time. Each family awakened to a new adventure that would promise wonder, and demand over the years our deepest love and loyalty.

As we prepared for futures we could not fully imagine, we learned to ‘walk in the light of the Lord’ embodied in the promise of these births. Gestation was not just a biological process that nurtured a neonate. It was also a time of becoming that nurtured us as well as we each claimed a new expression of Love in the world. The vision allowed us to imagine ourselves as well as everything else with new eyes. The vision of Advent allows us to imagine creation made whole in God’s promise as embodied by Christ.

The Psalm speaks of an incredible vision couched in an impossible hope: ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem...Peace be within you.’ This is not a call to apocalyptic thoughts or actions, or unconditional support of Israel. But, it challenges us to commit ourselves to the slowly growing and often frustrating path to peace in our own lives and in the affairs of nations. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh proclaims that ‘peace is every step.’ Whether in nurturing the unborn, a garden, a relationship, or the hope of global peace with justice, the process of care involves a constant, day-to-day commitment to growth and to life.

As A.J. Muste noted, ‘there is no way to peace. Peace is the way.’ The Shalom of Jerusalem brings wholeness for the planet. Peacemakers, gracefully and imperfectly, sow and cultivate seeds of peace in the world of their households as well as in the political sphere one moment at a time. As we weave these moments of peace together day by day, suddenly we discover that we have changed, and our world has taken on a surprising tone. We no longer have enemies. We no longer live governed by fear and defensiveness.

Advent calls us to alertness. ‘Salvation is nearer than you think.’ Wholeness and healing are on the horizon, holiness is in every face, and God is bringing forth new life in all things great and small. In each moment and encounter, God calls us to be midwives of hope and possibility. Though we have been disappointed and our dreams have been broken, in the darkness, something is being conceived and it grows. If we observe, if we attend and are aware, we can feel the first signs of becoming as divine creativity works with us to do something new.

Matthew’s gospel story stresses the unexpected nature of God. God comes unexpectedly, catching some unaware. On one level, this calls to mind James Joyce’s definition of literary ‘epiphanies,’ what he termed the sudden ‘revelation of the what- ness of a thing... the moment in which the soul of the commonest object...seems to us radiant.’ These possible moments of fullness or passion as encountered in the quotidian offer the watchful the opportunity for valuable insight and new vision as gift. To those who live alert and observant, comes the fulfillment of the hope for something more. In countless moments of the everyday, God offers each of us the chance to rise on the promise of new insight and ideas as surely as any physical ascent promised in the Parousia. By personally encountering our own epiphanies, we come to see differently than the person next to us, and these new visions change not just us, but ultimately the person next to us as well.

Matthew’s troubling words also remind us to stay awake. Sadly, sentences like ‘One will be taken and one will be left,’ gives warrant to the perorations of best selling authors, televangelists and the preachers who, in the wake of natural disasters and acts of terrorism, proclaim that ‘the end is near,’ ‘God is punishing America’s sin with the collapse of the World Trade Center and the AIDS pandemic,’ or ‘come to Jesus, don’t be left behind.’ How similar these words sound to the angry ejaculations of those we label as terrorists. How easily we could succumb to ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ ‘saved’ and ‘damned,’ ‘friend’ or ‘foe.’ How easy is the temptation to become spiritual terrorists, of the right or the left, in our families, churches, theological statements, or political involvements.

All actions have consequences. If we fail to practice proper care, the newborn will suffer. If we neglect to weed and water, we jeopardize the growing plants. If we see ourselves above all as separate and distinct from others, we distance ourselves and isolate others from our common heritage as children of God.

But, the gospel words are not meant to nurture feelings of superiority or isolation from the ‘lost.’ They offer instead the recognition that our wakefulness exists as a potential blessing to others. To proclaim the Advent hope in the unseen and the impossible is to see differently and act differently. As challenging as it may seem, we must see the terrorists as God’s children, as worthy of love, even as we seek justice and the eradication of terrorism. We must remember Mother Teresa’s admonition to look for ‘Christ in all his distressing disguises.’ And, we must act in conformity with Christ’s vision.

In his verse, Rainer Maria Rilke expresses this sense of Spirit motivating us to a new view of understanding as we, ourselves, encounter Christ finding new ways into our lives:

Now it is time that gods came walking out
of lived-in Things...
Time that they came and knocked down every wall
from such a turning could be strong enough
to toss the air as a shovel tosses dirt:
A fresh-turned field of breath. O gods, gods!
Who used to come so often and are still
asleep in the Things around us, who serenely
rise and at wells that we can only guess at
splash icy water on your necks and faces,
and lightly add your restedness to what seems
already filled to bursting: our full lives.
Once again let it be your morning, gods.
We keep repeating. You alone are source.
With you the world arises, and your dawn
gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure...

In failure, cracks can be painful, as things break apart or divide under pressure, and become vulnerable to entry . But at other times, cracks can also be purposeful, as in the germination of a seed, a natural process that allows transformation in the process of becoming. From a simple point of view, all cracks are just openings, something through which God can work. God can enter, bringing insight, as well as emerge, both growing and showing new life. Nicholas of Cusa, in his 15th century sermon on learned ignorance, captured this idea well: ‘The human mind is dark and night-like, the angelic mind is clear like the dawn, and the divine mind is like the sun, since it illumines every person coming into the world.’ Advent, as a time of becoming, is a chance to reaffirm and accept the concept of the armor of light that Paul writes about in Romans.

It is Oscar Wilde who writes that ‘All that Christ says to us by the way of a little warning is that every moment should be beautiful, that the soul should always be ready for the coming of the bride groom, always waiting for the voice of the lover, Philistinism being simply that side of man’s nature that is not illumined by the imagination. He sees all the lovely influences of life as modes of light: the imagination itself is the world of light. The world is made by it, and yet the world cannot understand it: that is because the imagination is simply a manifestation of love, and it is love and the capacity for it that distinguishes one human being from another.’

At Christmas, we experience the Incarnation, the embodiment, of God’s love in the processes of conception, pregnancy, and birth. God so loves the world that God gives love in abundance. Our vision takes birth in acts of genuine solidarity and love in our families and communities. Shalom calls us to seek peace through justice, but also prevention. We are challenged to create a world order in which the hungry are fed, the homeless housed, and gardens and fields flourish in every land.

The poet Theodore Roethke notes that ‘in the darkest night, the eye begins to see.’ And, as the days grow shorter and our hearts heavier, the horizon reveals a faint beckoning light that gives us the illumination we need for the next steps of the journey. We are challenged to see the little ways that we can carry the light in this process of becoming that we share together with God.

While this adventure may lead to many challenges, it is an adventure in growing in Christ, letting Christ take birth and grow in our lives. When we feel threatened, we are invited to take counsel in Paul’s words to the church in Corinth to ‘put on an armor of light.’ Permeable, flexible, and protective, this armor gives us confidence to go beyond our comfort zones to become God’s partners in this surprising and wondrous becoming. Wake up. God has a dream for you and for the world. Walk in the light and walk in peace. You are God’s partner, a gardener and a midwife, in the growth of the perpetual goodness that God intends.

Meditation

In a moment of quiet, take time to breathe slowly and deeply. Place yourself in the presence of the One who is always with you. With each breath, image a gentle light permeating and surrounding your body. You are whole and safe as this light envelops you. As you experience your safety in God’s light, image the light surrounding, permeating, and protecting those you love - a spouse, children, parents, friends, your church; our national leaders; the leaders of other nations; and the planet. Secure in the safety of God’s shield of light, image someone who is your ‘enemy.’ See the light surrounding them as well, bringing them safety, wholeness, and love. Conclude your meditation by simply inhaling the light of God, feeling its safety, and seeing the light in all things. Give thanks to God for the shield of light that surrounds you.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.