Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
First Sunday of Advent
November 29, 2020
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
At this time of year, most people are longing for something. Gray November days and early nightfall seem to bring it out in us. It’s a painful ache, a sad wish that things could be different. And this year, that longing is unusually sharp. If only the covid numbers would go down, if only the vaccine were already here, if only we could plan to see each other at Christmas, if only we could have a candlelight service at the church. For those who have lost someone precious: if only we could be together again. Sometimes the longing is nostalgic, wishing we could go back to some time or some place of past happiness. And other times the longing is for something completely new. A world without exclusion, or oppression, or war. Where there could never be a Montreal massacre, or a First Nations reserve without clean water, or a famine, anywhere. A zero-carbon world from which poverty and sexism and racism and ableism have disappeared.
Still, we know how far away that world is from this one, so we can understand the sentiment in the passage from Isaiah that Maure read. The prophet cries out to God, and perhaps we want to too – Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Come to us humans, do something decisive to help us. Do some of your awesome deeds. Make it happen. Come and save us.
This is the great appeal of the picture of the second coming of Christ that we have in the Gospel reading today. However farfetched the spectacular images of angels and trumpets, and sun and moon darkened and stars falling, the story makes the promise that all will be well. It says, something is going to happen, and it will be big and important, and it will change everything. Your longing will be met by God’s love.
Jesus is quoting from the prophets when he describes the glorious day when the Son of Man will come with clouds descending, as we sang. He is talking about the end times. It’s the apocalypse, which many in those days were expecting.
But then he changes it up. He goes on to insist that his followers should be watching not for a cataclysm, but for signs that are much more subtle. Pay attention to the tiny leaves that appear on the fig tree, he says. It is here that the Christian story turns, the perspective changes – and suddenly instead of talking about a cataclysm, we begin to imagine something as small as a new leaf. Something as tender and vulnerable as a baby. Your longing for relief, for goodness, for new hope, will be met by God’s love. But it will be met at a time that you cannot predict, and in a way that you may not be expecting. The end of time has turned into the beginning of a new reality. There is a mystery about to unfold.
Don’t miss it, says Jesus. Be alert, stay awake. This is the spirit of Advent, which we mark today with the first candle, and by sharing the celebration of communion. It is the time in the church year when Christians acknowledge our longing for deep change in the life of humanity. In older language, our great longing for salvation. In Advent we say, if only. On this first Sunday, the great wheel of the church year turns – we set ourselves to watch and wait in darkness for a light that will begin in a stable and slowly fill the world. We look carefully at the moments of kindness and care that we see around us. The smiles hidden behind our covid masks. We make our own small gestures of new life and hope. Surrounded by a community of faith, we remember that we are waiting not alone, but together, taking strength from the faith of others, and offering encouragement to one another. And as we sing the ancient carols, we give thanks for the promise of Emmanuel, God with us, who is coming again. Amen.
Image Credit: Waldemar Brandt – unsplash.com