Sunday, December 1, 2013

What time is it?

Texts: Isaiah 2 1-5 (swords into plowshares), Romans 13 11-14 (time to wake up), Matthew 24 36-44 (the day of his coming)

"Christmas is coming, how joyful it will be. The family will gather round the Christmas tree." The words of this old song capture our hopes for Christmas -- a time for family gatherings and gift-giving.  But the season of Advent, which we begin today, is less about the coming of Christmas than it is about the coming of Christ. The two sound similar, but they can be quite distinct.

Waiting for Christmas is a time for fond memories and happy celebrations. Waiting for Christ is a time for both fear and hope.

On this first Sunday of Advent, we hear Isaiah say that God's kingdom will be established "in the days to come." Swords will be beaten into ploughshares and humanity will study war no more.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to stay awake for the coming of the Son of Man. He says "about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." He implies that this Day of Judgement, whenever it comes, will be as destructive as the flood of Noah's time.

In our third reading, St. Paul says that we know what time it is -- the time of salvation. Paul's vision includes both the awesome power described by Jesus and the joy described by Isaiah. Paul urges us to stay awake because any moment can be one of God's searing judgement and gracious salvation. The Day of Judgement we fear is also the Day of Salvation for which we hope.

So, what time is it? This is a time when we prepare for Christmas and its traditions. It is also Advent, a time in which we wait in fear for a day of judgement and watch in hope for the coming of God's kingdom of love.

Today, as we start a new church year with readings about the end of the world, I am aware of other endings. It is now December, the last month of my time here in Borderlands before I leave for Edmonton.

We celebrate communion today, which is our usual practice at the start of the month. Today will be the last time I preside at communion here during Sunday worship, although the Release from Covenant service, which will be in Rockglen on Saturday Dec 28th, will include communion.

I have felt privileged to gather around the communion table with you these past 30 months. Like many people, I struggle to fulfill my spiritual needs. Writing sermons is my main spiritual discipline, but words are not enough. I also love the ritual of communion, which reminds us of our fears and hopes in a simple meal with friends.

Communion begins with thanksgiving for our blessings. Then we remember the ministry of Jesus, his journey to Jerusalem, and the last meal he ate with his friends on the night before his execution. Finally, we eat and drink together. The meal helps us to experience the grace of God in our bodies. Communion reminds us that new life comes from pain and death.

In a similar way, Advent urges us to look for the coming of Christ and God's salvation through the lens of God's judgement.

Many fantasies have been created about the Day of the Lord, some as terrible as the story of Noah and the flood. But we don't need to fantasize. Life provides us with plenty of moments in which we are aware that God's healing comes at the cost of great pain.

A loved one dies, a family is torn apart by quarrels and disappointments, the country suffers from economic or political crisis. These are not the usual  notes we strike when we prepare for Christmas. But they are often our reality whether it is Christmas time or not.

By placing the virtue of hope in the context of life's pain and loss, Advent both prepares us for the coming of winter and for the rebirth of spring.

But do we have to stare at the things we fear in order to find hope? I think that the process of recovery from addiction might help us see the connection. Many people say that the first step in recovery is realizing that one is helpless in the face of a problem.

This fall, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has given us a perfect model of denial. No matter how big his humiliations, Ford refuses to realize that he cannot deal with his problems. Despite telling one journalist that he has had a "Jesus moment," I believe that until he resigns in disgrace, nothing will change for him.

I can understand why Ford has not been able to take this first step. To admit the extent of his problems would be painful. He has decided it is better to continue as though everything were OK rather than feel the pain of his powerlessness.

Ford, I am sure, comes by his problems honestly. He didn't ask to be born into a broken world or a violent family. He is hardly the only one who wants to avoid the full implications of who he is in the light of the coming of God in Christ, whether during Advent or at a communion table.

To admit one's powerlessness is to arrive at the fearsome Day of Judgement. But it is also one's Day of Salvation. Giving up the struggle to deny reality opens us up to God's healing and new life.

And so, on the first Sunday in Advent, we focus on hope, and hear about the Coming of the Son of Man. We find hope not in the belief that we will never feel pain or loss. We find hope because we know that out of pain and death arises new life in Christ. We won't always get what we want, but beyond our small broken selves, we will surely get what we need.

This is the message I hear in today's Advent readings. It is also the message I get from the sacrament of communion in which we share Jesus' body broken for us and his blood shed for us.

When I was a child, I loved the mystery and wonder of Christmas. I looked forward to seeing cousins and grandparents, to big meals, and to the gifts under the tree. But the older I get, the more I also appreciate the dark notes of Advent. Advent is not just getting ready for Christmas Eve. It is about getting ready for the worst crises in life -- sickness, loss, and the coming of The Day of the Lord.

Advent reminds us that Jesus is coming, not just as a helpless infant born in Bethlehem, but also as the Risen Christ. As the United Church Creed puts it, Jesus comes as both our Judge and our Hope.

What time is it? It is time for us to prepare for the greatest moment of pain and joy we will ever experience, the Day of the Lord.

This is Advent. And so as we prepare for Christmas, we also say with fear, trembling, and unshakeable hope . . . Come Lord Jesus, Come.


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