Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent I

Mark 13
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

I want to begin by reminding you that time travel is dangerous and ill-advised.

Having been sufficiently warned, I should also remind you that things are different in the past, and you ought to be prepared. As soon as next week we may find ourselves transported to Bethlehem, so there are a few things about the past we ought to note.

Take time, for example. The passage Taye shared describes the division of time in the Bible, with evening, midnight, when the rooster crows, and at dawn. The shiny watch on your wrist will cause alarm, so you will need to get used the seeming vagueness of time.

The days of the week are a little more precise, but no less confusing. Only three days per month had an actual names back then: calends, the first of the month, nones, eight days before the ides, and the ides, that fell in the middle of the month. So forget Sunday—today would be called Five Days before the Nones of December. After the ides (the 13th or the 15th, depending on the month) things get silly. Christmas is no longer the 25th, but Eight Days before the Calends of January. It hardly rolls off the tongue. The thing to remember here is that we count the days, while Romans counted down.

Finally, the year was divided into twelve months, but counted from the beginning of the Roman calendar in March. So September is named for the Latin word for seven (septem) and December for ten (decem). Other months are named for various rituals (February is named for purification) or for gods or god-emperors like July and August.

Remarkably, it was Julius Caesar who standardized the calendar to 365 days plus an additional day every four years. Even with this seeming precision, his calendar adds three days every four hundred years, meaning that the Julian calendar is currently off by 13 days. Again, you only need to worry about this if you are time-traveling, or joining your Greek friends for Christmas or Easter.

To recap: Christmas is December 25th here, and January 7th on the Danforth, Eight Days before the Calends of January for Joseph and Mary, and just 22 days away. But we can’t think about that yet, since today is the First Sunday of Advent, and there is a whole liturgical season between us and the big day.

And just to underline that we are in the Not Yet, the reading for the day is about as far from Yule as you could possibly get:

24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

You will no doubt recall that we begin every Advent with a variation on this theme—the world-ending and time-defying completion of all that is. We seem to begin at the end of the Christian story, and not the beginning—that thing we are anxious to mark in a few short days.

Of course, the return of Christ is something we think about throughout the year, but for Advent I it takes centre stage. Other times we reference it in different ways. In communion, for example, in the memorial acclamation, an ancient verse we say together:

Christ has died,
Christ has risen,
Christ will come again.

And some have suggested we point to this every week when we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it in heaven.” This is more that just a hope for mirroring—that somehow we’ll make earth more like heaven—but that earth and heaven become one in the fullness of time.

In many ways, it’s a tough sell. We love Christmas, and we love Easter, but the end of time just doesn’t bring out the crowds. There is no well-loved canon of end-of-the-world hymns, we don’t name our churches for it, and on the list of top five Christian doctrines it might be number six.

We can’t even seem to agree in what to call it. Some cling to the Greek and go with parousia or eschaton, some make it more dramatic and call it the apocalypse, and some simply say the Second Coming. It does appear in the creeds of the church, particularly the Apostles and the Nicene Creed, which says: “He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

But look what happens with A New Creed, the expression of faith we use in the United Church, written in the 1960s to sum up who we are. It describes the work of the church, culminating in the call to “seek justice and resist evil, and finally “to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.” You can hear an echo of “judge the living and the dead” found at the end of time, but that’s about it.

I think we’re resistant to the overall concept of the end of time, and I think we’re resistant for a couple of reasons—one obvious and one unexpected. So we begin with the obvious. There is a bumper sticker that reads “Lord Jesus, please save me from your followers.” The followers in question are currently getting set to vote in a special election in Alabama and some (if not all) are convinced that the world could end any minute.

And while this idea is rather neutral, the implications for some Christians are problematic. Some feel compelled to quickly convert everyone else before the end. Some are completely indifferent to the natural world that they see as time-limited anyway. And some have supported Israel not for their right to exist but rather as the location of the opening act of armageddon. That’s the obvious reasons.

The unexpected reason for downplaying the end-of-time is our own hesitation, based mostly on a love for the present age. We’re invested in the time we inhabit, we made it, we’re making it right now, and we hope to continue to make it into the future. And that’s an understatement.

Imagine everything you love—your community, your family, the things you do day-by-day—somehow overwhelmed by the completion of all things. We don’t even have adequate language to describe this mystery, and even if we shy away from the dramatic and the apocalyptic, it is still deeply unsettling. If “heaven and earth will pass away” as Jesus promises, what will happen to us, and everything we know?

So we tend to set this aside. We set it aside because it has been terribly misused, because of our own fear of loss, and because we are invested in the present age. And this is as it should be. St. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians when he says: “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1.7-8)

Paul’s idea of blamelessness is all the work that we’re doing in the meantime. All the “loving and serving others” and all the “seeking justice and resisting evil” is the work we do while we wait. Part of the instruction to “keep watch” is to remain faithful even in the face of an uncertain end. If we are look for a new reality, “on earth, as it is in heaven,” then we have to follow the rest of the prayer too: sharing our daily bread, avoiding temptation, and forgiving trespasses. Being delivered for evil, it would seem, belongs to the end of time.

And so I encourage you to dwell in the Not Yet. Allow time to pause or just slow a little as you ponder God’s desire for us and all things. Don’t dwell on the end of time, but the completion of time. Like the Romans we count down, not to the end of days, but the culmination of God’s hopes and dreams for us:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them, no any scorching heat. For the lamb in the midst of throne will be their shepherd, and lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Amen.