First Sunday in Advent
November 28, 2021
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
Psalm 25:5 “For you I wait all day long.”
Today begins Advent, the first season of the Christian year, with four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus ‘arrival,’ or advenire, from ad- ‘to’ + venire ‘come.’
English dictionaries define advent as the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. In Christian realms, Advent is a time of waiting and watching for the celebration of the coming of Christ (in Bethlehem) and the second coming of Christ in a future day.
There is an almost perfect secular equivalent to the Advent theme of waiting and watching for the God to come. It is a song we all know:
O, you better watch out,
You better not cry, you better not pout,
I’m tellin’ you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.
A child’s waiting for Christmas — counting down with an Advent calendar, anticipating, wishing, hoping, until the night of December 24; the waiting is so intense that little ones have trouble falling asleep.
Waiting is something we do throughout life. We wait to be old enough to go to school, to ride a bicycle, to get a driver’s license, to graduate. We wait to land a job, meet the right person. We wait for a promotion, a raise, and we wait for success. We wait all our lives for security; we wait for retirement.
Waiting is a universal and deeply human experience. The Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot” is considered by some in literary circles as one of the most important works of literature of the twentieth century. The two characters in the play sit and wait for Godot. They talk and talk and you are not sure who Godot is, although Godot is spelled G-O-D-O-T. It seems like an obvious synonym for God. The play ends and Godot never comes. It is an example of the Theatre of the Absurd, and people use the phrase ‘waiting for Godot’ to describe a situation where they are waiting for something to happen, but it probably never will. Sometimes in the wait for God, it seems the same.
We are not very good at waiting. The late Henri Nouwen, Dutch priest and theologian was an astute observer of American culture. He wrote, “Waiting is not very popular. In fact, most people consider waiting to be a waste of time. The culture says, ‘Get going! Do something! Don’t just sit there and wait.’ For many people waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to be.”
Our culture does not reward or applaud waiting. Nouwen was right: culture celebrates action, results, instant gratification. Remember the financial meltdown of 2008 — failed banks and huge financial institutions collapsing, families going “under water,” mortgage foreclosures. Among the causes was the culturally celebrated, advertising-stimulated, impatience of the American consumer. We want it all — now. We are entitled to it — not years from now, but now.
Someone said that the very best advice anyone could give an American is not “Don’t just sit there, do something,” which continues to get us in all kinds of trouble, but the opposite, “Don’t just do something; sit there.”
A lot of waiting is noted in the Bible. References to waiting often come when situations are bleak, not at all hopeful: the exile, when God’s people have been defeated, humiliated, expelled from their homes and homeland, have watched their beloved city and its magnificent temple be destroyed. It is those exiled people we sing about during this Advent season: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.” Over and over again their prophets and poets advise them to wait, watch and wait in hope, for their God will come.
“I wait for the Lord all day long,” the psalmist wrote.
Psalm 27:14: Wait for the Lord
Psalm 130:5: I will wait for the Lord
Hosea 12:6: Wait continually for your God
Micah 7:7: Wait for the God of salvation
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40: 31)
In the reading from Luke 21, waiting for God, waiting for the kingdom to come, is cast in dramatically apocalyptic language, disturbing, frightening images.
Some context: Jesus and his disciples have just arrived in Jerusalem, and his Galilean friends are dazzled by the wonderful sights, like tourists on Fifth Avenue — the shops, busy streets full of people, and the magnificent temple, so big and glorious, like nothing they had ever seen before, the House of God. All of it, Jesus said, all of it could be gone in a minute. And some of them lived to see it happen — the destruction of the city and the temple when Rome crushed a rebellion, leveled the city, and drove out its inhabitants. It was the end of the world as they knew it.
This passage is a favorite for modern apocalypticists. Apocalypses can be viewed as good, evil, ambiguous or neutral, depending on the particular religion or belief system promoting them. However, it is not exclusively a religious idea and there are end times or transitional scenarios based in modern science, technology, political discourse and conspiracy theories
For the religious apocalysticists, they see in current events a fulfillment of Jesus’ first-century warnings: portents in the heavens, signs in the stars, storms, wars. They prepare for what they believe will be the final battle between good and evil before the day of Judgement. So, the way to prepare is to build a bomb shelter, stock up on food, water, gasoline and armaments. Lots of ammunition and guns. Then watch and wait for the battle.
But somewhere in Jesus’ warning, he has something else in mind that those end times people miss. Jesus says “Be alert. Watch, stand up, raise your head.” He does not say arm yourself. The waiting he has in mind, the coming of God, is not to be dreaded but eagerly awaited, hoped for. It will be a redemption, a fulfillment, a world coming as God intended it: a world characterized by justice and peace, a world where people will be secure and content, a time when little children will not be shot in the streets or where thousands die daily for lack of food or water, a world where weapons are transformed into farm implements, a world characterized by kindness and compassion and love — love of God and love of people for one another.
Author and priest Barbara Brown Taylor writes, be on guard, Jesus said, “not so you will know when to grab your crash helmet and head for the basement, but so you will know where the kingdom of God is. So, you will not miss God when God comes” (Bread of Angels, p.159).
Advent is the time when we begin serious waiting for Christmas, for the birth of the child, but it is also when we think about the future the child promised and embodied, taught, and lived. Advent is about waiting for the kingdom of God he had initiated in the world and promised would be fulfilled in a future day.
Waiting for that promised time is not “waiting it out,” sitting around whiling away the days and weeks and years of your life, killing time. No, Advent waiting is living into the promised future, working for the kingdom, advocating, arguing, voting, working for the kingdom. It is not the mindless, meaningless waiting of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which some think is merely waiting for death. It is active waiting, confident waiting. Waiting in hope.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we wait for the coming of God into our world and into our lives. And while we wait, we get glimpses of God coming:
with comfort and peace in times of grief.
with healing through gentle touch.
with reassurance when we are afraid.
with energizing spirit when we are discouraged.
The message of Advent is that God comes into the world — to lonely exiles centuries ago and to you and me. While we watch and wait for God, we are to be about the good work of irrigating and seeding the world with hope.
Know this. God always has a way of coming quietly — in the birth of the child of Bethlehem long ago and in the birth of love today, now, in your life and this world.