Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Welcome to the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the new church year. We’ve changed the altar vestments from green to purple. We have made it through the loooong green season of “Ordinary Time,” the season after the Feast of Pentecost, and we are back into seasons that will change a little more often. Advent lasts 4 weeks, Christmas 12 days, Lent 40 days, etc.
Because Advent comes immediately before Christmas, many have tended to assume that it bears the same relation to Christmas as Lent does to Easter. But make no mistake: although we have purple on the altar, the same color as we use in Lent, Advent is in no way a “little Lent.” It’s not “penitential” in the same way as Lent. There is no sackcloth, there are no ashes. No, Advent is a totally distinct season, with its own focus. In fact, many Episcopal and Anglican churches use a royal blue color instead of purple. I would love to do that, but, alas, new vestments and altar hangings are expensive.
In Advent, Instead of sackcloth and ashes, we have a feeling of anticipation, a knowledge that God is about to do something different. Something new. Something nobody expects to happen.
In Isaiah 43, the prophet, speaking for God, says:
“I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.”
Something new. Something different. And this First Sunday of Advent, we are given instructions to prepare, instructions to be ready.
The readings today are eschatological in nature, that is, they deal with to the eschaton, a Greek word that refers to the End Times. Isaiah gives us the image of peace, of an end to war, of swords beating beaten and reshaped into plowshares. Paul tells the Christians in Rome, whom he has never met, to wake up, to get their lives right, to be ready . And Jesus tells his disciples that his return, when it comes, will be a complete surprise to everyone.
Now, when we say, the “End Times,” we’re not talking about some Tim LaHaye-Jerry Jenkins-Left Behind scenario where all the Christians – at least the ones that believe exactly the same things they do – are spirited off to heaven just before things get very bad here on Earth. And then the earth is destroyed and everybody that’s left lives happily ever after in Heaven.
The Scriptures aren’t so much about the destruction of the Earth as they are about its salvation. Its renewal. The picture we get today, from Isaiah, is not a picture of Heaven. Why would you need to beat swords into plowshares in Heaven? Instead, it’s a picture of a world restored to what it should have been, to what God intended it to be. St. Paul was all over this, talking about “New Creation,” a term that he used to refer to US, but also to the Creation as restored by God.
In the Revelation, an angel says to St. John, “See, the home of God is with men…”. God will come and live with US. We won’t have to go to Heaven, because God will be here with us.
As for exactly when it will happen…well, we don’t know. We don’t need to know. The sermon I delivered at St. James Episcopal Church in Springfield a couple of Sundays ago was titled “Don’t Worry About it,” on this very topic. I quoted today’s Gospel reading: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
But surely there are clues, right? I mean, just look at the continuation of today’s Gospel:
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage…”
Well there you go, so it must be coming real soon, right?
Oh, but wait. People were doing those things last year. And the year before. And for as long as people have been around. And all through history we have had wars, and rumors of wars, and earthquakes, and revolts, and pestilence, and all those other “signs of the times.” All of them just part of normal experience when living here on earth
It seems that every time Jesus talked about when the end would come, when he would return, he got real…cagey. Probably because we don’t really need to know.
What we really need, he said…is to prepare. Be ready.
For the next two Sundays, we will talk about John the Baptist, and his task to prepare the way for the Messiah coming into the world.
On the last Sunday of Advent, we will learn of the angel’s visit to Joseph, to prepare him for the birth of the Messiah.
Advent is all about preparation. About preparation for the birth of the Christ. About preparation for him to come into our hearts. About preparation for his return.
It can’t wait. Do we wait to prepare our houses to keep a burglar from breaking in and steeling? We don’t want to be caught unprepared! How much more important is this?
Prepare. Get ready. God is doing something new.