SJF • Advent 1c 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said, “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...”+
Today’s Gospel talks of the signs of the time, signs of the coming of the Lord. Our secular society has such signs, too. What if the New York Times business section were written in the language of the King James Bible?
It might read, “In that day, there will be lights strung from the lampposts, in the shape of stars and evergreen trees. And one like a son of man clothed all in red, with hair and beard as white as wool, shall be seated upon a moveable throne drawn by nine living creatures, each with horns, of whom one shall have a nose that shines with a light as of fire. And the merchants of the earthly city shall gather their wares together in competition, and shudder in anxiety and great trembling at the great beast whose secret name is Deficit (and who is signified by a number that increases year by year). And all the windows of the city shall be filled with merchandise of all kinds. And men shall number the days remaining unto them, wherein they might trade and bargain for these goods. When you see all these signs, you will surely know that it is almost Thanksgiving Day.”
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It has been, it seems, a very long time since those innocent days when the secular signs of Christmas did not begin until Santa Claus appeared at the tail end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. We’ve long since become accustomed to the secular Christmas season starting well before Hallowe’en.
But we — the Church — begin our approach to Christmas today, with the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. So, Happy New Year!
But look at the readings for this morning — and then try to ignore for a moment the lights strung from lampposts, the decorations in store windows, the Christmas carols that have already begun to pour out of the sound systems and radios. Do these reading sounds very happy? Is there anything in the Scripture this morning that sounds like Christmas? Perhaps a little in Paul’s love-letter to the Thessalonians, but certainly not in the ominous language of Zechariah or Luke!
Advent is called a “little Lent” and the two seasons have much in common — both lead up to a feast of our Lord, Easter or Christmas. The purple vestments come out, and the purple hangings. But most importantly, both seasons lead up to the revelation of the Lord Jesus as King — but an unpredictable, unexpected King: a child in a manger, he isn’t born like a king; a wandering teacher and preacher, he doesn’t live like a king; nailed to a cross, he doesn’t die like a king; and rising from the dead he does what no king before or since has ever done. In his birth and life and death and rising Jesus is the master of the unexpected — at least unexpected by those who have ignored the prophecy and promise of his coming again.
This coming again is the “Day of the Lord.” On that Day God will come as the King of the universe revealed in glory, lighting up the sky from one end to the other, astonishing the world, and the world’s rulers.
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So what is this Day of the Lord? Is it the “End of the world”? Yes, it is that, but there is another way of looking at it that is more useful for us in our daily life. There are religious sects and cults that spend much of their energy predicting when the physical end of the world is going to come. I’ve spoken of that often enough not to have to dwell on it again. Suffice it to say that such cults have cried wolf so many times, that even if they were right few would pay attention. The latest twist, of course, is a supposed Mayan prediction that 2012 will be the end of the world — and please pay no attention to the fact that real experts in Mayan studies assure us the Mayans said no such thing!
The more profound truth is that Jesus’ consistent message to us is not: “Try to figure out when the End is, then get ready just in time.” No, his consistent command to us is “Be ready for the End whenever it comes. Watch, and pray, for you know not when the master will return. Any housekeeper will tell you it is better to keep the house in good order rather than trying to clean up a sloppy mess on ten minutes notice that the in-laws are coming, or that your spouse is bringing the boss home for dinner!
And notice carefully that the “sign” Jesus specifies in the Gospel this morning — the crucial thing that will take place to warn us that redemption is drawing near — will actually be the “‘Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory!” The sure sign will be the thing itself: less than ten minutes’ warning!
So how do we stay prepared? What I’d like to suggest is that instead of thinking about the End of the world we look at it as the Day of the Lord. Since we will have little warning, it would be better for us to focus not on the world’s end, but instead upon our own end. And I mean that in both senses — both the end of our own lives, and our end in the sense of our purpose: to what end did God make us? — to think about the end of our lives.
Personal death is something we all face. It is, for each of us, the end of the world, the end of our world. Have you ever had an operation under general anesthesia? I remember having my appendix out when I was five, and the most astounding thing about it was the loss of time, the complete disappearance of time: I remember being wheeled into the operating room, I remember the cloth over my face, the smell of the ether — yes, this was a while ago! — and then I opened my eyes and I was back in the ward, with no memory whatsoever of any time in between.
Scripture refers to death as sleep. When we die, whether the end of the world is one year, or a hundred, or a million or a billion years away, we will awake in the blink of an eye to find ourselves at the throne of God, our whole life laid out for all to see. We will see the King in glory, and we will be seen. Will we be able to raise our heads, to look upon our King, our God, our redeemer?
Younger people will say, as young people always have — Me, I’m gonna live forever. And yes, as Christians, we will live forever — all of us here are born to eternal life. But we will also die first — that earthly, physical, sometimes painful, and always difficult new birth — all of us will go through death before we enter eternal life. So, the question becomes not, “When is the world going to end?” but “When is my world going to end, and how shall I prepare for it?” How can I help make every day I live a “Day of the Lord”?
I want to suggest that there are signs around us as to how we should live: and I want to highlight three of them. Live each day as if it were your first. Live each day as if it were your last. And (as Saint Paul said to his friends in Thessalonica): Increase and abound in love and charity to one another and to all. By living in this way we will not need to look for signs of a coming end, but we will ourselves be signs, signs for our times, and ends suitable to the end for which God created us, of what it is to live as a Christian; to live each and every day as a day of the Lord.
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How do we live each day as if it were our first? Part of the answer is forgiveness, being able to let go of the past. They say that to forgive is to forget, but most people find it far easier to forgive than to forget. People want to remember that they’ve forgiven you, and they want you to remember that they’ve forgiven you! How much better, how much more liberating, really to forget when we forgive, and when we are forgiven. When we say, “Think nothing of it,” to mean it, for others and for ourselves; to let the past be past, to let bygones really be bygone. And to start each new day as fresh as a newborn.
The sun will rise and set for each of us on our last day, some day. Let not that sun go down on your anger. We all have heard of families where a sister hasn’t spoken to her brother for many years, all over some incident long past, the details fading, only the hurt and the memory remaining. Then the brother dies, and it’s too late for either one to say, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” — too late, too late. The past has imprisoned them both, in the lack of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is at the heart of the prayer Jesus taught us. For we will all be forgiven as we forgive those who trespass against us. If we can forgive in this way, letting go of the past, we can start to live each day as if it is the Lord’s Day without all the baggage of past wrongs, and we will be transparent people, newborn people, signs for all to see, signs for our times of the forgiving love of God.
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So how do we live each day as if it were our last? Of course you can’t do everything all in one day; you can’t be sure that at your death there won’t be something left undone. But surely we can order our lives so as to do the most important things first. And by important, I don’t mean building the biggest house, or writing the greatest novel, or anything like that. I mean the really important things, like telling your wife how much you love her; showing your husband how much he means to you. I mean telling your children how much you cherish them; showing respect and love to your parents. These are the little but important things you can do — little things that make a difference. Don’t leave the little things undone; the big things will take care of themselves. In doing this we will be signs for our times, signs for each other and the world of the outgoing love of God.
My third bit of advice comes from Saint Paul: Increase and abound in love and charity to one another and to all. And this is where Christmas comes in. The surest way to abound in love and charity is to be generous to one another. And I’m not talking about generosity with physical things — although that has its place too — but being generous with yourself. That harks back to what I said before about being an “end” — the end for which God created you, to give a bit of yourself to others, as God did himself when he gave us his Son. As we look toward the day upon which God gave us himself, the greatest gift of all — his only Son — let us be as generous as we can with one another, giving of our selves. And in this way we will be living signs for our times of the self-giving love of God.
And one last thing: This year, this year don’t let’s let Advent end with Christmas. Let’s keep that expectant watchfulness — not so much a watchfulness for the “end of the world” as for the “day of the Lord” — as each day dawns, to make it a day of the Lord — the day when we will face the Lord ourselves, and in the meantime be signs of the Lord’s living presence here and now, every day. Face the Day of the Lord each day — as signs of the kingdom of God here among us. As the Baptismal Covenant reminds us, Christ our Lord is present in every one we meet and as we do to them we do to him.
So let us live each day as if it were the first day of our life; live each day as if it were our last, and abound in love for one another, as living signs for our times of the forgiving love of God, theoutgoing love of God, and the self-giving love of God. In doing so, let us join our prayers with that of Saint Richard of Chichester; which sums up so well what we are called to do in a spirit of Advent expectation:
Day by day, dear Lord, three things of thee I pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day.+