Happy New Year! Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the first day of the new liturgical year. That’s Year One in the Book of Common Prayer daily readings, and Year A for the Sunday and Feast Day Lectionary, if you are keeping score at home. Although I have now spent well over half of my life as an Episcopalian, as a born and raised Baptist I still find all of this liturgical and lectionary stuff just as fascinating and compelling today as I did when I first wandered into Saint Matthew’s Cathedral in Laramie, WY almost four decades ago.
Those in charge of the Episcopal church I have regularly attended over the past decade have been generous enough to let me give a sermon during Advent. Over the years I have chosen the Sundays involving Zechariah, his son John the Baptist, Joseph, and Mary, always fascinated to find how the different gospels that the lectionary cycles through focus on specific and various aspects of these foundational and formative stories.
But I have always stayed away from the First Sunday of Advent. Why? Because although later Advent Sunday texts wrap us up in familiar stories like a well-worn, comfortable blanket, Advent always begins with “shock and awe.” The message of the First Sunday of Advent texts is always “Get ready for a divine invasion. And if you aren’t paying attention, if you aren’t prepared, it isn’t going to be pretty.”
In today’s readings, Isaiah predicts that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”—and in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus advises that “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Last year we heard in Mark’s gospel that
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory . . . But about that day or hour no one knows . . . Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 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. Keep awake.
A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to observe a colleague who was seeking promotion in class. The topic of the lecture was various aspects of post-modern philosophy, a topic that promised to stun all those in attendance, me included, into soporific silence. But my colleague used PowerPoint and YouTube masterfully to provide illustrations of his basic post-modernist point—contemporary human beings have become so disconnected from their surroundings and from each other that many of the signs that uniquely mark human existence have been lost.
My colleague used a clip from the 2004 British zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” that has become a cult classic to illustrate the point. Shaun, an electronics store employee with girlfriend problems, no respect at work, deadbeat friends and no direction in his life, leaves his flat in London one morning to walk a few blocks to the local convenience store for a Coke and an ice cream cone. As he shuffles the round trip in a half-aware stupor, he fails to realize even momentarily that something apocalyptic has happened during the night. The convenience store is empty except for a corpse laying in the aisle, and the streets are becoming more and more filled with staggering, half-rotted zombies. There are literally no differences between this unaware person who is completely disengaged from his life and a zombie. And this, the post-modernists tell us, has become the human condition.
Sounds like a good time for Advent, whose call to us is the same as Paul’s call to the church at Ephesus: “Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” This rising business has been an issue for me for as long as I can recall. One of my earliest memories is pretending to sleep in the back of the family car while riding the fifteen miles or so home from Sunday night church. It was a strange experience. In one way, I wanted the ride to last forever, since when I got home, I’d be going to bed and as soon as I got up the next day, I’d be starting a new week of school.
Really, though, I remember the underlying emotion during that ride as fear. I was afraid I was going to die and go to hell. I was afraid Jesus would come back and I’d be left behind. I would miss the rapture. I’d pray and pray and pray for Jesus to save me, for me to be “born again” in the way that I was sure everyone in my family, everyone I knew, was but I was not. It was supposed to be easy—just ask Jesus to forgive your sins, trust in Him, and you were in. But somehow, my four or five-year old self I knew it wasn’t working.
So, every Sunday night, as a natural follow-up to the meeting-concluding “altar call” at the end of the church service (even though no “unsaved” outsider had darkened the door of the church in recent memory), I would have my own altar call curled up in the corner of the back seat. My biggest fear actually wasn’t going to hell—it was that the rapture would occur and my whole family would disappear in the blink of an eye, leaving me and every other “un-born-again” person behind.
This haunted me. If I came home on the bus after school and my mother wasn’t where I expected her to be in the house, my first thought was that she’d been raptured. I felt alone even when with lots of other people, because they all had something I didn’t have—they all belonged and I didn’t.
I got over my rapture-phobia at some point in my adolescence. It’s a good thing, because otherwise the First Sunday of Advent would scare the crap out of me. For instance, Jesus says this iMatthew’s gospel:
But about that day and hour no one knows . . . two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Advent is my favorite liturgical season; I love its call to centeredness, to watchfulness, to expectation, its hymns and its purple. But these texts, apparently intended to scare us into straightening out our crooked ways, are disturbing. Fundamentalist minister and author Tim LaHaye and others have made millions cashing in on such fear in his Left Behind book series and accompanying paraphernalia.
Assuming for a moment that Advent isn’t about scaring the crap out of us, what are we really being called to consider with such texts? Something Paul says to the church at Rome is helpful. “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep . . . the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” WAKE UP!!! in other words. The default human condition so often is to sleepwalk through our days, months and years. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard memorably captures the challenge of Advent:
There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.
The divine word of Advent is that big change is coming. God is about to do something totally out of the box. “Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead.” “Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” The question is, will we even notice?