Happy New Year! Today is New Years Day in the church. Unlike the secular calendar which begins on January 1, the church year begins today on the first Sunday of Advent. This is a time of preparation and a time of waiting. Something is beginning. Something or someone is coming and it is mysterious and life changing. The very first clues are found in the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. In chapter 11 of Isaiah we are told that “a shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of its roots.” ( Isaiah 11.1 NRSV) This branch shall be full of the spirit of God, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. Keep watch for the time has yet to be determined. Keep watch.
When I was growing up, it felt as if I kept watch forever during Advent. My parents would often wait to put up our Christmas tree and to decorate it until Christmas Eve, after we returned home from Christmas Eve services at church. Sometimes the waiting seemed to be endless. And, of course, as a child I understood that we were waiting for the birth of the baby Jesus. We were waiting for midnight, for the first minute of Christmas Day when - like magic - the baby Jesus was born, the angels sang and the shepherds kept watch. Something very special had come.
But that is not really the message of the first Sunday of Advent. Week one of Advent is about waiting for what is yet to come. The reading from the Gospel of Matthew is a conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples. He is telling them about a time yet to come. It wasn’t the kind of time that you can schedule or put in your calendar. (That idea alone is probably a nightmare for those of us who are control freaks. It is unimaginable to all of us who carry all of that information around, at our fingertips, in our cell phones.) Jesus is speaking about a time of anticipation, a time for which to get ready.
Jesus wasn’t talking about Christmas. There was no such thing until the 4th century when it became a religious holiday. Over the centuries and especially in the 20th century, it became a secular celebration with cookies and greeting cards, decorations and corporate events. Oh no. Jesus was talking about the advent of a new world. Far before Jesus’ own time, the ancients talked of such a future when there would be peace, all would be fed and clothed, no one would suffer and sickness would be unheard of.
It is this future of mercy and goodness, this time when Jesus Christ will return, that we are being told to prepare for.
The time is not predicted. Jesus tells his disciples that only God knows when the time is ripe. Jesus admonishes believers to be ready - as ready as if the return of the Son of Man is to happen tomorrow. We have been admonished for 2,000 years to be ready for the coming of God’s heaven on Earth. This is God’s promise to us. Soon….
What does being ready require? Jesus was clear. Love God with all of your heart, mind and spirit. Love your neighbors all over the Earth. Choose in each moment to live from Love. Be awake for the signs of God’s presence, especially in these strange and frightening times in which we are living. Even now, these events make God’s extraordinary presence so difficult to envision. And yet the paradox of God is that God’s in-breaking into our world is happening in all of time and space. Even as I sit and compose this message, I know that God is everywhere around me. The simplest task when done with love is an action of preparation to be ready.
Not knowing when may be the hardest part. Because on the first Sunday of Advent we are waiting for an unknowable time even as we wait for the birth of the Christ Child. That’s a very tall order even in the best of times. Waiting is not high on anyone’s list in the 21st century. Instant gratification seems to be the wish of most people. Instant coffee. Instant mashed potatoes. Instant rice. Drive through coffee, liquor and meals. There is also the very real danger that not knowing can turn into not believing, despair or into wild speculation and fears. Fear and anxiety are disabling at this time when we need our hope and trust in God more than ever.
This first Sunday of Advent, this New Year’s Day of the church calendar, is about the promises God has made and about which Jesus taught his followers. How do we prepare for a promise? Promises by their very nature always come as a surprise when they are fulfilled. And so we are also being asked to wait - not just to wait but to be awake, alert and hope filled. ( With thanks to James Boyce - Working Preacher.) Preparation involves spiritual readiness. How about a few spiritual New Year’s resolutions.
How about resolving to get rid of patterns in our lives that are destructive, addictive, or that indulge our pride or vanity? Drugs and alcohol come to mind. Addictive dieting or eating. What are yours?
We can resolve to extend ourselves to others. Our church offers the most wonderful opportunities for us to minister in the world in just this way.
Consider joining Social Action, the Community Compassion Corps, Caring Ministry. These are all CUCC groups.
At this time on planet Earth we are surrounded by temptations to hate, temptations to hurt, temptations to use and abuse others. Let us resolve to confront temptation and to seek God’s forgiveness if we fail.
(Thanks to stthomasdiamondhead.org for Advent resolutions.)
This is how we wait. We wait in expectation that Jesus Christ is already among us and we always act with love. We wait in hope for the coming day of Christ Jesus in our own lives and in the world around us. But in the life we lead each and every day, we must help bring about the very world of peace, love and justice that we long for.
Let us pray.
O God, whose approaching birth still shakes the foundations of the Earth, shake us out of our sleep that we may approach this Advent with eagerness and hope. Open our ears and eyes to Your vision of peace on Earth, and inspire us - to live with justice and compassion, daring and peace - so that Your kingdom may come. This we pray in Jesus’ name.