The Unsettling of Advent
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, Advent 1, November 26, 2016.
The promise is here with us. We have entered the season Advent. This season is not like the still, arid, desert wilderness of Lent. This is a season of restlessness anticipation and of growing hope. This season invites us to set our gaze forward, out into to distance. We are invited look up from the ordinariness of our routines and to look out towards the future where fullness of God’s promise of peace, harmony and well-being on earth can be glimpsed on the shimmering horizon where the new heaven and new earth are taking form. The promise, the hope is with us. In restless anticipation we prepare and we wait.
A baby is on the way. Expectant mothers know the feeling of faint flutters that turn to kicks. There is a baby on board but it is not yet time for the birth. A healthy pregnancy will go to full term, and every mother wants the end result to be a healthy baby no matter the strain of a heavy load… of swelling feet, of awkward waddles, and restless sleep. The last thing expectant parents want is that their child is be born too soon. The waiting needs to come to full term. The time of Advent invites our active, restless anticipation and waiting… for the fulfillment of ancient hopes and promise.
Isaiah shares God’s grand promise in a simple vision. God will, one day be fully present among us to show us the way. Hungering to learn a new way, nations will beat a path to the high, holy place that they may learn, from the true Source that is God… that they may learn how to walk in paths of wholeness. Paul tells us that the time has come to wake from our sleep… salvation is nearer that we realize… the night is far gone and the day is near. Put on the “armor of light,” put away small and petty desires, that we may be infused with God’s vision and expectant promise, and that we may be clothed in the strength of love and ready for the coming age. Of the day, of the hour, no one knows. Keep alert. Keep awake. Be open and ready to receive… Be ready for the old ways to pass away and a new promise to take root and grow in us and in all the world.
In our gospel lesson from Matthew, we hear again the ancient story of Noah. Before the flood God’s people were unaware of the looming destruction in their midst, totally oblivious of the cataclysmic flood that was in their future. Noah was the only one who was aware. He listened and he heard. When Noah received instructions to build an ark he had no idea when the rains were going to begin. He simply set to work and dutifully, and methodically, kept at the task he had been given, building the behemoth ark… one board at a time. I can imagine how his neighbors might have laughed at, and mocked Noah in his “folly” of a project. No one but Noah could see the point of building a huge ark in the middle of dry land. “Daft” and “crazy” are words that come to mind. But then storm clouds came. Rain drops began falling…slowly at first… then in blinding sheets and torrents of full out rain. The onlookers who had been oblivious and unprepared… perished. Jesus tells the disciples this story of Noah and the flood to make a point. Be alert! Be awake. Though times are tough… though Roman soldiers occupy the land and… through pain, hunger, sickness, grief and death are seemingly constant companions, the fulfillment of God’s dream is taking shape in the distance. Not all are going to be ready for the great transformation that is to come… the transformation is “not yet.” The promise had been announced by boisterous prophets of old. Though it is easy to dismiss the obscure utterances of ancient bearded men we must remember that they were on the front lines, they were on the ground of desolation, speaking raw truth and sharing visions of a better way. Centuries later Jesus came to embody the truth and God’s promise. His presence was a threat to earthly powers of oppression who sought to extinguish the light that was God among us. But death could not extinguish the light of truth. For two millennia the followers of Jesus, a people of the resurrection, disciples of our living Christ, have been commissioned to be faithful witnesses of God’s life and light. It has been an imperfect witness through the centuries but the charge remains unchanged. We are called to be participants in the realization of God’s dream for all creation. The full realization of God’s grand dream is yet to come. With anxious expectancy we engage, we prepare and we wait for the new heaven and the new earth to arrive.
In Isaiah’s time, the people of Jerusalem had witnessed the downfall of their great city. As the people were being marched away into a time of exile in Babylon they took with them the searing image of their beloved city in ruins. Isaiah shared the dream of a future in which, not only the city would be restored, but the whole ordering of relationships would be made well and whole. Animosity and divisions would be healed. Isaiah shared the vision of God’s peace, of God’s shalom. Implements of war would no longer be needed. Swords and spears would be reshaped and reformed into tools for growing and harvesting food… remade into tools to tend the land and feed God’s people. To the ancient ones whose lives had been shattered and their hearts thoroughly and completely broken… a vision, a dream of what was to come …was uttered by a boisterous prophet… the vision of peace and well-being for all that Isaiah glimpsed out on the horizon.
We have just moved out of what is known as “Ordinary Time” in the church year into Advent time that the great biblical scholar Walter Bruggeman passionately describes as a time of “disruption.” We are taught that this time, more than any other time, is one in which we are to “expect the unexpected.” We are to prepare for things to fall apart and come together in new ways. Preparation involves slowing down, stopping and listening. As the environmental activist Bill McKibben says, “Advent is the time to listen for footsteps – and you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.” More than ever, this is a time to invite transforming the power of the Gospel do its work in us… to let it get under our skin, to unsettle us, and prepare us to be participants in the birth, participants in the fulfillment of God’s dream that is to come.
To put on the armor of light means that we are see and experience the world in new and expectant ways. The light is seeking to make its way into every dark and forsaken crack and crevice of our world and into our deepest selves. We are to live into the divine promise that our world can become one in which no child will feel the urge to bully another, in which not one person, not one partner or spouse, or neighbor or stranger will feel the urge to lash out in fear, anger or prejudice and do any soul wounding or physical harm to another… that any urge to dominate, possess, or oppress another will be fully extinguished. The hope and promise is before us…that hearts and minds will be transformed… and that we will welcome God’s work in us that we may serve as midwives to the new life that is ripening in our midst.
Our faith is grounded in confident hope that God is calling us to into new possibilities, into new life, into a peace that surpasses all understanding. Advent invites us to be unsettled and to look up and to cast our eyes into the distance… to listen with expectant hearts and not to fear in the pain of labor that is already seeking to commence. Stay awake. Be ready… for the time has not yet come… but it will. We simply do not know the day or the hour.
Blessings on your unsettled waiting.
Live in hope and expect the unexpected…
…. God’s promise is waiting to be born…