December 2, 2018, Traveling the In-Between – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000110
Christmas seems to have sprouted in our village of Norwood, fully-formed, like mushrooms after a rain. Before the Thanksgiving turkeys had finished becoming leftovers, lighted trees were shining in windows all down the street. Icycle lights and giant inflatable cartoon characters popped up here and there, on our neighbors’ porches or in their yards. Walking down Main Street, you hear Christmas songs playing from the Hometown, and see the lighted decorations along the street posts. Even our Parish Hall suddenly looks Christmassy after our annual bazaar yesterday. The whole world has shifted into holiday mode.
But here in the Church we aren’t ready for Christmas, yet. Today we begin the season of Advent, which, despite almost everything you see and hear out there, is NOT just the pre-Christmas season with its mad rush of shopping and wrapping and decorating and baking. Today we have new colors for our hangings and vestments: not red and green, but a deep blue, blue for hope, blue for expectation, the deep blue of the sky before the dawn begins. In complete contrast to the jollification and pressures of the Christmas season out there, Advent is a quiet season, a time to listen, a time to pay attention.
Jesus’ words today are much more disturbing than they are festive, I think. Clearly we are nowhere near the familiar story of the Nativity, not yet. Nothing about peace on earth and goodwill toward men. Nothing about the baby in the manger, or his gentle Virgin mother, or the lowly Shepherds. Certainly nothing about Joy to the World. Advent comes with an unsettling strangeness. “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,” Jesus says. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” These are not so much tidings of comfort and joy as they are words to disturb our complacency, to shake us up, to make us wide awake.
The word Advent means coming, and we know that it speaks of the coming of the miracle of the Incarnation, when God himself came to be born into our world as a helpless baby, a real flesh-and-blood child in every sense of the word. And Jesus reminds us today of the certainty that he will come again, and that his second coming will bring an end to all the systems and powers and authorities of this world that we take for granted. And that shakes us up a little – it’s meant to shake us up – here in the in-between time, because one purpose of the Advent season is to wake us up, to remind us that “today” – with everything that “today” encompasses – that whole thing has an expiration date.
The G-20 Summit and the Trump administration, the harnessing of the atom and the multiplying of armies, all our diplomas and degrees and honors, all our 401k’s and investments and properties: even the grand and glorious structures of the great religions, cathedrals and synagogues and mosques alike. The triumphs and the follies of the entire human race…. “Be alert at all times,” Jesus tells us. “Keep awake.” Because this world and all its glory and all its power and majesty are passing away, even now. Is it any wonder that Jesus says, “people will faint with fear and foreboding” at the shaking of every heavenly power and the crumbling of every worldly certainty?
Friday I got a call from my daughter-in-law, who lives in Denver, to tell us that her father had died, completely unexpectedly, with no warning at all. He was a very healthy man, a policeman, an outdoorsman, strong and active. He retired just this year and had all kinds of plans for his retirement, as we do when we retire. And when he woke up Friday morning he had a heart attack and he couldn’t be revived. We’re all familiar with the idea that we don’t have any idea when to expect the return of Christ. But we need to remember that it is equally true that we have no idea when our own last day will be, whether it will be today or tomorrow or years from now. Advent is all about remembering that we live every day in the in-between, after the Birth and before the Glory, between the first coming and the last.
There is a man named Bernard of Clairvaux, who was the head of a Benedictine monastery in France about 900 years ago. Bernard wrote a sermon about Advent, talking about what it means to live in the in-between. I want to share a little of it with you today, as we head into Advent.
Bernard wrote, “We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third coming lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible.
In the first coming Jesus was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he testified himself that people saw him, and that when they saw him, they hated him. In his final coming we know that every human being on the earth will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. But the intermediate coming, the in-between coming, is a hidden one; in the third coming only those who belong to the Lord see him. They see him within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty. But in this middle coming he comes to us in spirit and in power.
Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and our comfort.”
In Advent we take time to remember that we are traveling from the birth of the Child to the Return of the King: and one of the most important things we have to keep in mind is that on this in-between road that we are traveling, we are not just waiting for death; we are learning to live. The world says, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But Jesus says, “I have come that you may have life in abundance.”
Advent is a quiet season, because it’s only when we are quiet and still that we can be alert and watchful. Real life happens, not when we speed up and put a lot of miles behind us, but when we slow down and pay attention. That’s what the first meditation in this year’s Advent book, the reading for today, is all about.
Have you ever had the experience of driving along a road that you’ve traveled a thousand times before, maybe you’ve driven back and forth on that road every day to and from work for years. And one day you slow down for some reason, maybe a doe and her fawn cross the road in front of you or maybe your car makes a funny noise. For whatever reason, you slow down, and suddenly you see a house, or an orchard, or a brook, something beautiful or something sad or something strange that in all the times you zipped past you never noticed. Living is paying attention. Jesus calls to us, “Be alert at all times.” Be ready for what is coming – not in fear and foreboding, but in hope and expectation. Because in between the coming of the Holy Child in Bethlehem and the Victorious Christ coming on clouds of glory there is the coming of the Christ who has made his dwelling in our hearts, now, today – invisible, but powerful.
I encourage you to make time this Advent for quiet (and I know that is never easy). Take time to be still and to pay attention. I hope that you find the Advent books helpful in leading you into stillness. If it just ends up as another task to fill up an already busy day, then stick it in a bookshelf for another time, and find something else that will help you quiet your mind and heart and your restless, task-oriented body. But when you are still, pay attention. Pay attention to the people around you, your family, your neighbors, who are traveling this in-between road with you. Pay attention to the suffering of the people you see on the news and recognize that they are our own flesh and blood, migrants seeking asylum or starving children of Yemen, prisoners or single mothers or elderly people left to wither and die in nursing homes. Pay attention, above all else, to the still, small voice of God inside you. Slow down, be still. See what is there to be seen. And then do what there is to be done.
The day of our Lord’s final return will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. No one knows when that day will come, today or tomorrow or next year or a thousand years from now. Our own final day is equally sure and equally unknowable to us, no matter how old or young or weak or strong we might be. But in the in-between we are called to live: not afraid, but wide awake, watching, paying attention. Living abundantly. And the same Jesus Christ who came in humility to a stable in Bethlehem, the same Jesus Christ who will come in glory on the clouds when the fulness of time has come, he comes to you now, today – not seen, but in the stillness of your heart, and very much alive.