17 December 2017

Perpetual Advent

Third Sunday of Advent

Time gets all mixed up in Advent. Yes, Advent means coming, but what, who is coming?  Christmas? Jesus?  Isn’t Jesus already here? So, then, are we waiting on his return? Some are. The Revised Common Lectionary adds to the confusion by having us read texts about John the Baptist, as here in John and last week from Mark. When John was out there in the Judean wilderness eating locusts and honey, he wasn’t preparing for Jesus’s birth. Right? Jesus was already an adult by that time, about to embark on his ministry. Time gets all mixed up in Advent.

We think of John the Baptist as a forerunner, someone who prepares the way of the Lord. He’s the advance man who gets the crowds ready. We think of Advent as preparation, of getting ready—with the emphasis on getting ready for Christmas.  And then Advent ends when Christmas comes, and then after Christmas we put Advent away along with the ornaments for another year. Advent makes an appearance for four Sundays, but even then, Advent gets short-shrift because the push to get right to Christmas is intense.  So, we start singing Christmas carols on the Third Sunday of Advent.  And this year Advent is under even greater pressure, because it shares the same day as Christmas Eve. Some churches will opt out of the Fourth Sunday next week and will have services only on the evening of December 24.  My High Church friends are horrified by the thought of playing with the liturgical calendar; Low Church friends are, like, “Whatever.”

I guess I’m in the middle.  Presbyterians don’t have to worry about the liturgical church police knocking on the sanctuary door. For the most part, we’re free to order worship however wish.  I’m not for skipping the Fourth Sunday of Advent, but neither am I too worked up about it.  It’s all a bit contrived, the liturgical calendar. It emerges out of the cycle of feast days in Judaism, but it took a long time to be fixed. Christ’s birth was first celebrated on December 25 around 273 A. D.  For more than four hundred years of the Christian Era, the feast days were very fluid. The Protestant reformers were suspicious of the calendar. I know plenty of Presbyterians raised in churches and never heard about either Advent or Lent or Ash Wednesday.

What’s not contrived and essential and grounded in scripture is the unique attitude toward time that Advent heightens.  Because we are prone to think of time moving in a linear fashion—flowing from the past through the present and, thus, shaping the future—it’s natural for us to think of Advent as having a fixed duration that begins and comes to an end, leading to something else.  What we miss, though, is the Bible’s distinctive orientation toward time, that is, how God chooses to act in time.  Many years ago, George MacLeod (1895-1991), founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, a passionate preacher and prophetic voice, said the posture of a Christian should always be leaning into the future.  Not backward.  Not upright.  But leaning forward in anticipation, with expectation for the coming of God, looking for God’s arrival, anticipating that God is about to act, to appear, do a “new thing,” as we hear in Isaiah (43:19). We search for God’s advent, emerging not from out from the past, but from the future, breaking into time, our time.  And this posture becomes the foundation for hope.  This is what Advent beautifully articulates, the posture of the Christian who leans forward with expectation for what God is about to do—not just around Christmas, but always.

And we are drawn toward that future because, in many respects, we have already been seized by that future. Something has taken hold of us, someone, has come toward us and is always coming toward us with a love that compels and captivates us, that won’t let us go.  That was true for John the Baptist. He caught a glimpse of God’s coming future. It seized him and held him and then sent him out into the wilderness to be ready.

It was true for Yahweh’s mysterious agent described in Isaiah 61. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” The spirit confronted and seized and then showed this agent the new thing about to take place in the world, coming into existence through him.  “The LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”  The agent is announcing the new future being given, proclaiming what God has begun to do and is bringing to completion. We have this remarkable “series of infinitive verbs to inventory what this empowered agent will do: ‘to bring, to bind up, to proclaim, to release, to proclaim, to comfort, to provide, to give’’’ (vvs. 1b-3).[1]  We’re not sure who this agent is, but this one, chosen by God, will minister to the weak, the powerless, and the marginalized.  It is not surprising that the early followers of Jesus saw these words embodied in him.  Indeed, we know from Luke 4, at the very start of his ministry in Capernaum, Jesus reads these verses of Isaiah and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

Advent might not be your favorite time of the year.  I can completely understand why we want to run fast toward Christmas, celebrate the birth of an infant, the promise of a new future for God’s people.  Maybe there’s a part of us traumatized by too many family vacations when we spent endless hours in the backseat of a car, asking “Are we there yet?”  We get tired of the waiting, expecting, traveling. We get tired of leaning—and our backs get sore.

What if it’s not we who are traveling toward God, but that God is on the way toward us? Yes, we need to lean, be expectant.  But if you lean too far forward, you’ll fall flat on your face.  Lean in gently and walk, look expectantly for God who is advent-ing toward you, who is on the way to you.  This is why it’s essential for us to maintain an Advent attitude, not only before Christmas, but throughout the seasons of our lives. If you think about it, advent is about being BC, Before Christ.  “The whole purpose of Advent,” Malcolm Guite suggests, “is to be for a moment fully and consciously Before Christ.  In that place of darkness and waiting, we look for his coming and do not presume too much that we already know or have it.”[2] Advent calls for humility. Without this posture, it’s easy to miss all the times and places where Christ is coming into our lives today, especially in our day when given the daily news it’s challenging to know where God is.

Christians live in a perpetual advent.  It’s a gift, a kind of grace.  David Congdon writes, “Every moment is an opportunity to encounter [the coming] Christ and open oneself to” what theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) called, “the gift of God’s future.”[3]  Christ is coming.  Now.  And always.  In this moment, every moment, moving toward us to meet us and seize us and hold us and love us and then send us. 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 44-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 213.
[3] I’m grateful for David W. Congdon’s understanding of Bultmann as a theologian of Advent, in Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Cascade Books, 2015), 158. And I’m indebted to him for the sermon title.

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