Today was the first Sunday of Advent. I love the way the Church year starts four weeks before Christmas. Christmas in our culture starts right after Halloween, then there is Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Buy Online Monday and then only 20 some shopping days til Christmas. Christmas is reduced to what am I buying and getting. We miss the point.
I was reminded today of Light as we lit the first advent candle. The daylight hours are shorter. But, at Christmas the daylight starts increasing again. Again, it happens over and over. So do the lights that decorate the houses in our neighborhood. The Christmas inflatables are out in the front yards and the manger scenes in front of the churches. I saw one leaning against the building as if the Holy Family was tired of all their appearances or just not ready for Christmas Eve yet. Those scenes are part of our cultural mythology of Christmas, too. No one knows for sure when Jesus was born, or how many wise men came, or if Jesus was born in a cave, or a stable or the guest room of a house (where the animals were brought in at night). The birth of Jesus was not celebrated by Christians for a long time. Mark and John barely mention it. It was the cross and resurrection that were the focus of the gospels, the last week of Jesus gets the most attention by far. Good Friday and Easter today hardly get noticed other than it's around the start of Spring Break. Christmas is for buying and getting. Funny, how we give each other gifts to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We storm the malls to get the best buys for ourselves and others. We miss the point.
We talked about hope today as we lit the first advent candle. Where are signs of God's hope in our lives today? we asked. Once we got rolling they were seen as plentiful. But, it helps to slow down, focus attention, and look for them. We prayed too for the hopeless but it helped to know hope is present.
The scripture reading for the first Sunday of Advent was from Matthew 24. Jesus was talking about his coming again and said how no one knew when that would be. It would be a surprise in the night like when a thief breaks into our house when we are sleeping. I couldn't help but think about how many times in churches I heard sermons trying to nail down that date. Telling us to be ready, repent, look to the future, live holy lives. You don't want to be left behind when the rapture comes. I remember seeing those pictures of driverless cars crashing into other cars because the driver was "taken up to heaven". You gotta be ready although it was never really clear how that happened. The pastor showed a picture of people floating up to heaven - the rapture - and even though I don't see it that way any more I had a knot in my stomach. I had been intimidated often enough by the threat of being left behind. God's word of gospel hope though is not threatening. It's not about who will be left but who will be right. Right with God and that has been taken care of in Jesus, the anointed one, whose birth we celebrate in December. God is going to break into this crazy, messy, hopeless world once more - IN A BIG WAY - and rescue us when we least expect it. Whether we are ready or not. What we need to be is watching. Which is hard to do when we are shopping for gifts all the time.
Ezekiel 38 and 39 talk about Gog and Magog which the prophecy teachers who came to my churches in my youth stood on their heads trying to make sense of what countries they represented today so they could explain how close we were to that day of Christ's coming. Robert Jenson comments that Gog and Magog are symbols of sheer violence and when the darkness is most extreme God shows up and is the Victory for us. Gospel hope wins out. That's what the Bible keeps telling us.
Advent is here to help us not keep missing the point.