Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Readings for First Sunday of Advent December 2, 2007 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Advent December 2, 2007 Textweek

The first Sunday of Advent, the start of a new church year. I use a religious diary to keep all my appointments and whatever, and one of the great things about it is it begins on the first Sunday of Advent and it’s one of the few moments in the year when I actually feel that I’m ahead of everybody, because I think, I’ve started my new diary already and the rest are probably going to wait until January 1st. It’s a lovely feeling; it only lasts a moment, you just have this sense of, ‘Ooh I’m in front!’

The beginning of a new year, it’s also, the first Sunday of Advent we begin our preparations for Christmas. So we start looking toward; we seek Christmas and we probably begin to wonder and ask what it’s all about. Are we looking for the coming of Christ? Are we celebrating a birthday, the anniversary of Christ’s birth? My guess is most of us don’t know. Certainly much of the language of the church, the theology of the church and the liturgy of the church, therefore the understanding of the church, suggests there is total confusion, a complete lack of any understanding in relation to Christmas. And I think that’s because we try to fit the story into a post-Enlightenment mindset. Yes, we believe in Christmas, more than that we actually want it to be true. But at the same time we think we know so much – we know everything there is to know about the world and its sciences and we want the Christmas story to be as completely understood; we try and bring those two together.

If we look toward Christmas as the coming of Christ then we’re left with a dilemma, because where has Christ been up until now then and what of those Gospel narratives that tell us that he’s already been and gone? The coming of Christ starts to ….. does it make sense? If we look towards the birthday, the anniversary of Christ’s birth, then we’re left with another question: what’s new about Christmas? Are we not just doing it all again like we do every year – what’s called in church terms, ‘the Anglican tradition’?

The opportunity of a new year, the adventure of Advent, is one of waking up. It’s a time of discovery, it’s a time of clearing bleary eyes. The first reading says, ‘In days to come’; the second reading says ‘Know what time it is, how it is now the moment’. The Gospel reading says, ‘about that day and hour no one knows’. The readings today have an orientation that is based and contextualised in time, but it’s not a time that is measured by clocks; it’s not the time as we understand it in our scientific worldview. In the Greek there are two words for time: that time is ‘chronos’ time, the tick-tock-measured progress of time. The readings are set in the context of time within eternity, the all and the ever-present moment of time. Think of the scriptures that begin, ‘Now is the time’: they’re not dated, that’s what known in Greek as ‘kyros’ time. It’s quite different.

So Isaiah, the first reading, speaks to us today of new possibilities. We have to very quickly understand prophecy. It’s not the foretelling of Jesus being born into the world – the church read that backwards into it. Isaiah is not playing Nostradamus, he’s not writing one of those star columns in the paper giving you a prediction that on such and such a date someone will be born, that’s not what it’s about. Isaiah tells us, Isaiah speaks to us in the present, that the divine may be revealed and enfleshed into our world, into my world: yesterday, today and tomorrow. Isaiah also then, suggests a new way of being, in verse 4: ‘they shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ Apologies to George Bush.

Paul in his letter to the Romans seeks to make that even clearer, more real, more practical. In verse 11: ‘you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from your sleep.’ Verse 12: ‘the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.’ Paul also, like Isaiah, suggests a new way of being: in verse 14: ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’

As we carry on with the readings, Matthew’s Gospel seeks to convey the revelation of Christ, to proclaim the eternal truth, the life that was revealed in the Christ, the word of the Divine, the Divine within, enfleshed within humanity. And he speaks with a delightful simplicity: verse 36, ‘about that day and hour no one knows’; verse 37, ‘For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’

Matthew uses the flood narrative, a creation story – arguably, a re-creation story; if we take Genesis as the creation story - the beginning, the Adam and Eve bit - then the next part that holds the flood narrative, tells us about re-creation. That story is used to emphasise the divine creativity of Advent and also to illustrate the timelessness, the eternal context of Christ’s revelation. ‘As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man’: as the days of Noah were, so will be today. He goes on to then illuminate the process that we are to engage, and we’re not given ten commandments, the good news is we’re also not told to be good. Much more than that is asked: verse 42, ‘Keep awake’; keep awake. Matthew’s asking us to be attentive to the Divine, don’t fall asleep in front of the TV adverts; keep awake. Verse 43, ‘Understand this’: Matthew’s asking us to be informed, not to listen to the drivel of the church; be informed, seek to know, learn from one another, heed the wisdom of those that have life and have it in abundance. Verse 44, ‘Therefore you also must be ready’ – and that’s why we have to prepare for Christmas, to be ready for that which is given, to be ready to receive the divine gift, be ready to bring to birth that which is seeded in us and seeded in all.

The activity of Advent, the process of Advent is then reflected in the symbols and in the story; it is our movement toward Christmas. We journey with wise ones towards the star, therefore we look towards the heavens, we lift our heads, toward the Divine, we turn our eyes toward the Divine. And we move, we move in alignment with the Divine. Isaiah uses a more earthly image: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob’. The image of the star and the house of God, we can translate into our worshipping community. Here at St Paul’s, we attend to the life of this community, seeking the Divine that is to be found here. We seek in each other to find the Divine within ourselves. Paul uses the image of light and dark; the Advent candle reminds us of the image of light and dark. Become aware of the light and dark in our life experience, become aware of the light and dark that is my life experience; consider the desires that lead toward and that lead away from the light, the star. Matthew then tells us in verse 40 that two will be in the field; one will be taken, one will be left.’ Then in verse 41, two will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, lifted up, and one will be left.’ Don’t look around and try and work out who’s who; don’t seek to be saved, leaving others behind. The evangelical interpretation, that some will be saved and lifted up makes no sense at all. Rather look within. The two refers to the sides or the parts of ourself – one will be raised and lifted up and one will be left. Discover what within yourself the Lord of all life is seeking to raise and bring into the divine presence. And recognise that we too can leave the other part of us behind.

As we move towards Christmas there is a part of each and every one of us seeking desiring to be forever in the presence of the Divine. That is the one to be lifted up; the other can stay behind. It’s Advent: stay awake, the adventure begins!

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris