Happy New Year!
By The Rev. John Bedingfield
In the name of the one eternal God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Happy New Year! No. I’m not hallucinating and my calendar is not broken. This is the first Sunday of the Church year. We have been in the long, green growing season of Pentecost for over half a year and now, as you can tell by the blue vestments and Advent wreath, things have changed. This morning, let’s take a look at what the season of Advent means, where it came from and what, if anything it has to do with us, in the age when Christmas starts – at the latest – on the day after Thanksgiving?
First, Advent comes from the Latin word advenio for “to come to.” Thus, we have, in the season of Advent, a time of waiting on something that is to come to us. What are we waiting for? There is not a person over the age of about three in this church who would not immediately come up with … Christmas! And that would be partly right. We are, indeed waiting for the Feast of the Nativity, or Christmas, which is the second season of the new church year. But funny enough, it has not always been the case that the Church had an official season of Advent to come before the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Advent was originally a season of repentance, similar to Lent (thus the purple color, which only recently changed to blue). It was a season of fasting and prayer where people prepared themselves to properly celebrate, not Christmas, but the adoration of the baby Jesus by the Magi (the Epiphany) on January 6th. The exact starting date of the season has been lost to history, but it was not until the mid Fourth Century that it more or less took the shape that we now know. In the mid 300’s, Constantine the Great, built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and declared Jesus’ birthday to be a national holiday. Near that time, Julius, the Bishop of Rome (or the Pope) declared that the date for the celebration of Jesus’ birth would be December 25th. It was at this time that Christmas took on a happier, more festive feel, meaning that Advent also took on a less introspective and less solemn tone. That explains the colors and the feel of the season, but once again, what is it exactly that we are waiting for?
This is one of the many times in the Church where we are caught in tension between two different things. On the one hand we have the impending reenactment of the nativity event, with the cute little baby and all of the hope and promise of His new life – not to mention the presents. While on the other hand we have what Matthew’s Gospel points us toward this morning, the parousia. Parousia is a Greek word, meaning, literally the arrival, but in a Biblical context, the second coming of Christ, the final fulfillment of the covenant between God and humankind.
This morning’ reading is the end of a long section of Matthew’s Gospel that deals with the parousia. Throughout this section, the disciples have been asking Jesus how they will recognize the second coming before it happens and what signs they should look for. In other words, they want Jesus to turn Scripture into an Almanac and tell them exactly what will happen and when it will happen.
Jesus, of course, refuses to do so. He tells them that the angels do not know when the time of theparousia will be – in fact, even Jesus does not know when it will be. He gives them some examples of what will happen that sound like they could have come from the LaHay/Jenkins Left Behind series – you know, two will be working and only one will be left, but he does not tell them anything that will help them pin down a time and place.
You see, the disciples struggled with the same problem that we all have. They wanted to know the mind of God and wanted to know the “why” of every situation. They put themselves in the same position I often put myself in, where I am ready, willing and able to question what God does and how and why God does it. Rather than asking the questions that they were asking, Jesus was trying to move them down the road where they would understand that the more important questions dealt with how they should handle the situation in which they found themselves, and what they could do to help usher in the Second Coming. That’s what we are being called to do this morning. Ask what, in this season of Advent, we can do to help prepare for the Second Coming, whenever it might come along. For some practical advice on this subject, we look to Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning.
St. Paul talks to us this morning about love, and the power to be taken from love. If you read the first line of today’s Romans passage in the original Greek and literally translate it, it comes out something like, “Y’all don’t owe no one nothing, except love.” It’s hard to get more forceful than he makes it with the quadruple negative. This is a thought that runs throughout Paul’s theology, but nowhere does it come through stronger than here, in Romans. Paul tells the Roman Christians that the law, as laid out to Moses in the commandments, is to be followed, but that the people will NEVER fulfill the law (that is, make it complete) without loving one another, because, as Jesus had told them,
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37b-40).
It is really important for us, though, to get straight what it was that Paul and Jesus meant when they spoke of love. Hollywood screenwriters, the writers of romance novels and the Hallmark Company have so completely perverted the real meaning of the word “love” that we have to reclaim it before we can accurately use it. Love, in the context of the Romans reading has nothing to do with feelings or sentimentality. God loves us. That does NOT mean that God gets a warm feeling in God’s heart when thinking of us. Nor does it mean that God’s heart starts to pound when we round the corner and come into view. This idea of love has nothing to do with feeling and everything to do with action. God loves us. That means that God wants only the best for us and will work toward giving us what is best for us. God loves us so much that God gave up God’s only son to die on a cross so that we might have the very best – redemption. It is this love that Paul calls us to this morning.
If we are to love as Paul commands, we are to constantly and actively promote the good of our neighbors and ourselves. If we are to love in this way, we are to love our enemies. That does not mean feeling warmly about them, it means actively promoting our enemies’ good – not plotting their harm. Love means looking to promote the good of every one of those virtually unlovable relatives with whom we just had Thanksgiving dinner. It is this notion of love that is to guide us in all that we do and is to be the beacon by which we orient our lives.
That brings us back to Advent – this season of waiting and anticipating. If we are waiting (at least in part) for the parousia, the Second Coming of Christ, and we do not know when it will come, what are we to do to prepare? Love. It is as simple as that. If we love each other, and ourselves as Paul calls us to, we will not have to prepare. We will live lives of constant preparedness. If love is the appropriate mode of action now, in light of the past, with its law, then love is also the appropriate mode of action now, in light of the future, with its impending parousia. Paul turns our gaze, as one theologian puts it, “from past to future, to that time when the fulfillment for which the Christian yearns, and in whose light the Christian attempts to obey God’s will of love, becomes visible reality.”
When will Christ come again? We don’t know. Tim LaHay and Jerry Jenkins don’t know. The End Times “experts” on television don’t know. The angels don’t know. Even Jesus doesn’t know. Does it matter when it happens? Not if we live this life in love – the love that puts the good of other people always at the forefront of our thoughts. If we live this life, in the current moment, but always with an eye toward the coming of Christ in glory, when the final day comes we will be ready and we will rejoice. I don’t know about you, but that kind of comfort sounds like the ultimate Christmas present to me. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2009 John Bedingfield. Used by permission.