A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B — Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Right on cue, as soon as Thanksgiving turkeys had been picked clean and grandmother’s good china was put away, the Christmas season began in earnest. By Thanksgiving night, pictures of friends’ newly decorated Christmas trees were filling my Facebook newsfeed. But in one of those moments that make me chuckle, perhaps a little too much, one of my wittier Episcopalian friends commented under one such friend’s photo, “Nice Advent bush!”
Now many of us, myself included, have already begun decorating our homes, listening to Christmas carols, watching classic movies, wearing a favorite Christmas sweater, but we know that when we get to church, time will be marked with an Advent calendar, not a countdown to Santa’s sleigh ride. Next Sunday we will celebrate a festival of lessons and carols – ADVENT lessons and carols. To those on the outside, the verdict may be that we are either horribly out of touch with the culture around us, OR we Episcopalians are, as we are wont to do, going about things a bit differently, our watches set to a different schedule, at least here at church.
As our culture front-loads the Christmas season yet again, we stubbornly dig in our heels and say, “Not so fast!” While December 25th marks the end of the blessed, fourth-quarter season for retailers, for us Christmas Day will mean that Christmas has finally arrived.
But, you may ask what do we do in the meantime? We wait.
Welcome to Advent. And just to confuse things a bit further, the first Sunday of Advent is the first Sunday of our Liturgical year, so I can rightly say, “Happy New Year, Church!” Welcome to Advent and welcome, once again, to the year of Mark.
“Ok, Scott,” you may say, “Our liturgical traditions dictate that instead of a Christmas tree, we have an Advent wreath. We light candles instead of hanging stockings. We sing Advent hymns instead of Christmas carols. All well and good. But WHAT is with these Scripture lessons?”
Instead of comforting tableaus featuring the baby Jesus and angels, we hear troubling visions about God’s judgment, with fire, filthy clothes and dying leaves. Instead of a story about Mary and Joseph, we hear Jesus tell parables about the end of the world and watchmen awaiting the return of the master.
Well, in the more liturgical traditions, however, Advent is not simply the prelude to Christmas. Advent is about exactly what the name suggests – in Latin, ad-venio, an arrival, literally “coming toward.” The Advent lessons are full of prophecy. Yes, the prophecy about the coming of the Messiah – God’s promised Emmanuel. But the lessons during Advent are also dark and apocalyptic. These lessons look toward the Second Coming of Christ.
In Advent we hold both comings of the Christ before our eyes. With expectant hearts we await the quiet coming of the Christ Child, but we also contemplate the triumphant return of Christus Victor, Christ the Conqueror, Christ the Champion.
We need look no further than the Collect for the first Sunday of Advent for evidence of these two comings of Christ. We hear the language of expectation and hope – yes, reminding us of Christ’s first advent, but also looking forward to Christ’s second coming, his second advent, as judge and conqueror. “In the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us with great humility.” This is the expectant hope of Mary. This is a vision of the Incarnation, and with Mary, we wait during Advent, waiting for the fullness of time. But then, “when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to life immortal.
You see, Advent is not simply about marking days off a calendar as we await Christmas morning. It is about preparation. And this preparation is not about decorating our homes, but it is about searching our hearts.
This morning we see this magnificent royal blue, on the vestments and hangings and in the candles of the Advent wreath. It is the blue of the Sarum rite – an ancient tradition from Salisbury in England. It is the blue of Mary, of expectation. It is a season unique unto itself.
In some churches, however, you will see purple candles and vestments. This too is an ancient tradition, from the Roman Church, one in which the focus of Advent tends toward the more penitential – some have called it “a little Lent.”
No matter which tradition you favor, the end result is the same: Advent invites us to wait, to ponder, to prepare. Advent calls us to consider anew the promise of the messiah, along with Mary and Joseph. Advent is a time for us to remember what it means to hope for the coming of God’s reign, and soon.
The news of late has been harsh. Economic woes continue. Dissent and disillusionment are on the rise among Americans. The news from overseas is no more encouraging. Perhaps it is right during Advent that we feel some of that anxiety. But just as we don’t rush the holidays ahead of schedule, we also don’t give in to fear and pessimism. We light candles of hope.
Yes, the lessons are sometimes a bit dire, as the lesson from Isaiah and the parables of Jesus in this morning’s reading from Mark. But these words call us to some moments of sober reflection before the feasting that is to come. These lessons are not meant to depress us, but to wake us up. Keep awake, Jesus says. Beware! Keep alert! And so we watch with the doorkeeper, and with Mary we are pregnant with expectation.
Watch with us as the candlelight on the Advent wreath grows brighter each week, as our hope builds toward fruition. God’s promises to us are not empty promises. In the darkest of times, we must never lose the vision of God’s peaceable kingdom, a kingdom of righteousness and justice, for as Isaiah says, “We are all God’s people.” God’s promises will be fulfilled. And so, we wait. Amen.