Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, that season of waiting for the coming of the Christ child. It is also the first Sunday in a new church year – and this year, the Gospel readings will be coming mostly but not exclusively from Matthew’s gospel. It is a reminder that as Christians, we are out of sync with the culture around us. For most around us, Advent doesn’t exist, as merchants have been running Christmas ads for weeks. We can hardly blame them, as it’s hard to use a church season based on waiting to motivate people to buy right now. And at the same time, we’re celebrating the start of a new church year, while the calendar won’t start the year 2020 for several more weeks. So Kairos time – God’s time, the time of God’s favor – is out of sync with chronos time, the time of clocks and calendars. In the same way, as Christians, we are effectively dual citizens, citizens of God’s kingdom, or as Paul wrote to the Philippians, citizens of heaven, even as we are citizens of the United States. Or, as Jesus taught, we are to be in the world but not of the world. And during this season of Advent, this season of waiting, we light candles signifying hope, peace, joy, and love.
In describing hope, our Scriptures this morning are a mixed bag. Our reading from Isaiah gives us a beautiful vision – the word of the Lord going forth from Mt Zion, swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. It was written in the years leading up to the exile in Babylon, in a time when the leadership of Israel and Judah were deeply unfaithful to God, when corruption and violence ran riot. Before and after today’s reading, Isaiah strongly condemned the leadership for their rebellion against God’s ways. But Isaiah also gave the vision of today’s reading, as a kind of alternative future – here’s where you could be, if you’ll only turn back to God. For us, it seems like some faint radio broadcast spoken in a foreign language, coming from an alternative universe - and It would have been every bit as disconnected from the experience of Isaiah’s original audience. But Isaiah knew that it wasn’t enough just to condemn the failings of his people. He needed to give them a vision, to give them a reason to change their ways. Isaiah needed to give his people hope.
Our two New Testament readings don’t seem hopeful at all. Our Gospel reading is part of a longer section of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching – and indeed on the first Sunday in Advent, the Gospel reading is always from Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Apocalypse is a word that means unveiling, in the sense of looking beyond the surface of what is immediately in front of us to reveal or pull back the curtain on what God is doing behind the scenes. The context is that in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus went into the Temple and preached a long diatribe against what he called the hypocrisy of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, who, according to Jesus, majored in the minors by punctiliously observing the details of the kosher laws and the system of Temple sacrifices while neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness. When Jesus left the Temple, his disciples started admiring the beautiful buildings around them – perhaps like tourists from the hinterlands traveling to Washington DC and taking selfies by the White House. And Jesus told them that everything they saw around them, all the lovely buildings, would be torn down, not one stone left on another – as happened in AD 70, when Roman invaded Jerusalem to destroy the Temple. So the disciples see what is on the surface, beautiful buildings that will seemingly be there forever. Jesus reveals what is going on behind the scenes – the impending destruction of those same buildings and the corrupt system they represented. But Jesus went on from there to speak of his return at an unexpected hour, at the end of days. He told them to keep alert, and not to get caught up in the revels of their neighbors.
Where’s the hope in any of this? Well, it depends on your perspective. While the Temple and the surrounding buildings were indeed beautiful, they were built on a foundation of oppression and injustice, as is seen in the story of the widow dropping her penny that represented everything she had to live on into the Temple coffers. If you’re invested in the status quo, if you like the beautiful buildings, Jesus’ words come as a threat – and indeed those in the Temple leadership, whose lives and livelihood depended on the beautiful buildings and the oppression they represented, indeed heard Jesus’ words as a threat and had him arrested and killed. But if you want justice to roll like a river and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream, and if you see the beautiful buildings and all they stand for as an obstacle to justice and righteousness, Jesus’ words are hopeful indeed. To use a small but telling – and maybe funny - story as an analogy, during the runup to the 2016 presidential election, every now and then I saw a car in front of me with a bumper sticker indicating that the driver’s favored candidate was a giant meteor, presumably to hit Washington DC and wipe out everything in sight. Presumably the driver saw no hope in either major party candidate, and just wanted a meteor to flatten everything in the capital, perhaps so something better could rise in its place. So the hope in Jesus’ words is a hope for the future born out of despair for the present.
Throughout church history, many have seen Jesus’ words and gotten caught up in speculation about the timing of Jesus’ return, whether this or that event or news story signals the end of day. But our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome gives us a more faithful way to respond to the hope represented by Jesus’ coming – and that is to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, or as he says, to put on the Lord Jesus and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. That is to say, to live as if the old, corrupt system had already been torn down and to live into the hopeful future represented by Jesus’ words. Jesus and Paul are telling us that we cannot live in God’s hopeful future if we’re still dragging around with us the baggage of the hopeless present. We need to live as if that future has already arrived.
And indeed, it has….in part. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ parables comparing the kingdom of heaven to seeds. As Christians, we live in an in-between time. We stand in what Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap between the “already” of God’s work in our midst and the “not yet” of what remains to be done. And here’s how Parker Palmer describes that “tragic gap”:“On one side of that gap are the harsh and discouraging realities around us. On the other side is the better world we know to be possible — not merely because we wish it were so, but because we have seen it with our own eyes. We’re surrounded by greed, but we’ve seen great acts of generosity. We’re surrounded by violence, but we’ve seen people make peace.
The tragic gap will never close once and for all, a fact that can lead us into despair and resignation. But if we recall the ample evidence that “the better angels of our nature” are still with us, we are more likely to keep working at making the world a better place.”
The days are short: I take the train to my day job, it’s dark when I stand on the platform waiting for the train into Philly, and it’s dark again when I wait on the platform for the train home. But we also live in dark days in terms of the news of the day. But, as the old saying goes, instead of cursing the darkness, we can light a candle. And so I’ll close with some words from African American preacher and theologian Howard Thurman:
I will light candles this Christmas,Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.