November 29, 2015, Let There Be Light – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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This morning marks the beginning of Advent, the Church’s New Year’s Day. Today we lit the very first candle of our Advent Wreath. Every year, at this time, when the days are growing shorter and the nights are growing longer and colder, we light the candles of Advent, first one and then another, week by week, so that as the world around us grows darker and darker the light of our hope grows brighter and brighter.
We often just think of Advent as the season of preparation for Christmas. When I was a child, and probably for many of you, too, at least for those of us who observed Advent, the wreath was like a countdown calendar, just marking time until the joyful arrival of Christmas and presents and the magic of caroling and colored lights and behind it all the story of the Christ child born in Bethlehem, and the angels, and the shepherds, and the child’s holy mother. We hardly understood how earth-shattering that story was, but we knew it was true, and we loved it. I still have the same little stable and the figures that I had for as long as I can remember, and I remember setting it up with deep reverence every year as a little girl, just as I did again this past week.
But the world is darker than we knew when we were children, and the light of Advent is much, much brighter than we knew then, brighter than we know even now. Because Advent isn’t just about the first coming of Jesus Christ; it’s about his coming again. It’s about that mysterious and terrifying thing we call the ‘end times’. And that isn’t something we Episcopalians spend a lot of time talking about.
It is one of the strengths of the Episcopal Church, I think, that we take very seriously how we live in the world ‘today’. You’ve probably heard the expression ‘he’s so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.’ Well, that’s not an accusation you’re likely to hear about an Episcopalian. We care about justice and compassion and being good people now. We get involved in the community, and we keep up with current events. We are good citizens and good neighbors. We put our faith into action. Those are good things.
As we get older, we naturally think about the end of our own lives, our mortality, and we contemplate the reality of ‘going home’ to be with God, or ‘eternal rest’. But we generally leave the wild, apocalyptic ideas about the end of the world to the weirdos and the fundamentalists. Let those fringe denominations spend their time figuring out the meanings behind the strange end-time prophecies; while we Episcopalians just focus on the gospels. That’s a pretty comfortable arrangement for us, until Jesus unsettles us by talking about the end times right in the gospel reading.
Jesus says, “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.” This chapter of Luke, chapter 21, is a little confusing because Jesus begins by telling the disciples and the people around him about events that were coming very soon – the Roman siege against Jerusalem, and the total destruction of the Temple – things that are ancient history now. But he also talks about the things that are still to come. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus says, “for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
Jesus describes the darkness and distress that are going to increase on this earth until the day when he comes back at last. And it is very easy to believe what he says. Anyone who knows anything about history knows that the world has always been plagued with wars and suffering and cruelty. Like King Solomon wrote, there’s nothing new under the sun. But it seems clear that in our recent history the darkness has been growing, from the horrors of the Great Wars of the last century to the rise of terrorism and religious extremism that’s putting the whole globe in a panic. We have no idea when the end of the kingdom of this world will come – Jesus told us that no one will know, not even him – but the darkness in the world is surely growing, just as surely as right now the autumn days are getting shorter and colder day by day.
And so we light the first candle of Advent, because the growing darkness is a sign to us that Jesus’ return is drawing nearer, and that is our great hope. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” Jesus says, “and when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” We light one candle today, and a second candle next week, and then a third and a fourth candle as a proclamation that our heads are raised in hope, in joyful expectation of our Lord’s return and of the healing and restoration of this whole tormented creation.
Whenever Jesus talked about his return, the main thing he had to say to us was not to get tired of waiting. “Be alert at all times,” he tells us. “Stay awake!” he kept telling his disciples, over and over. “Stay awake, because you don’t know what day your Lord will come.” We begin the Church year with Advent because we need to be reminded that no matter how dark it gets, the light of our hope shines all the brighter. That’s why you often hear stories of hope and comfort from the most terrible places like battlefields and places where there have been floods and earthquakes, because in places of death and despair the light of kindness and mercy shines all the brighter, like the beam of a lighthouse piercing the darkness of night, pointing the way to the source of all goodness.
One reason it is so hard for us to live in expectation is that we don’t fully know what we are looking forward to – all that we have any experience of is life in this creation, broken and corrupted as it is. We can’t even imagine what it would be like to live in a healed and redeemed creation. We become pretty comfortable with brokenness, through long practice. I always find the images of the New Creation from John’s vision pretty unappealing, myself, things like golden streets and gates made of giant pearls. God doesn’t really give us a blueprint of what a redeemed Creation will be like, because the center of it all is that we are not waiting for a what – we are waiting for a who – we are waiting for Jesus.
The joy of expectation is much less about what we do or what we get, and almost entirely about who we are preparing FOR. I had fun baking and shopping and even cleaning this past week, but I would have gotten pretty tired of all the making lists and shopping and cleaning and baking if I had not been absolutely sure that Thanksgiving Day would come at last. Because it wasn’t about the what, the pies, or the rolls, or the clean rugs, or the nice decorations. All those things were just preparations for the real thing, the who – being with the people we love, the people we wanted to celebrate with.
So now, in Advent, we light the candles, one by one. And we sing the lovely hymns of the season. And we decorate our houses with lights and beautiful things. And in this world that is shaken and troubled by the roaring of the waves of violence and the fear of the future, we lift our heads in hope and joy and expectation, because we believe, we know, that Jesus is coming. Amen! Come Lord Jesus!