First Sunday of Advent
I will never forget the year that my mom decided not to make a Thanksgiving turkey for our family gathering. Instead she made individual flaming Cornish game hens for everyone. I was the kind of kid in high school who felt greatly pained by anything that made me seem odd-ballish and different from my peers, so you can bet I didn’t tell anyone at school about this bizarre menu switch. But I bet that’s not what you are wondering about right now. Right now I bet you’re wondering, “Flaming? What made those hens flaming?” That’s not really the point of this story, but just so you can focus, I’ll tell you that right at service time they were doused with brandy and set alight. It was pretty spectacular. Were they tasty? I don’t remember. I’m sure they were. For me, the signature fact of the matter was being pretty sure we were the only family in Gulfport, MS, who was eating flaming Cornish game hens for Thanksgiving dinner.
Which brings me to the confusion of Advent. Although the first Sunday in Advent is technically the first day of the New Year on the church calendar, culturally it is the entrance to a season most often dramatically colored by nostalgia and tradition—a time when old family recipes are usually pulled out and trips down memory lane are well-trod, increasing when the Christmas decorations are unpacked. “Oh yes, I made that sled out of popsicle sticks when I was your age.” Often there are strict family rules regarding when and where and how gifts are to be opened. I’m guessing we could divide the congregation along fairly rigid lines of Christmas Day present-openers, and Christmas Eve present-openers.
Which is why today’s Gospel text is so unnerving for a lot of people. Matthew’s lesson is not about the warm fuzzy past, but is filled with fantastical images of the future. His description of End Times is the basis for the idea of “The Rapture”—a theory that some religious groups espouse about the end of the world. The Rapture is a corruption of some passages from the book of Revelation and today’s Gospel text describing two people working in a field. One will be left and one will be taken. Tim LeHaye’s sci-fi, pseudo-religious Left Behind series (and, if you are older, Hal Lindsey’s 1978 best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth) are examples of this concept. Their premise is that those who are taken up are those who have found favor with God, and those who are left behind will have to fight the battle of Armageddon in order to earn God’s pardon and grace. The point of the Rapture movement and of these books is to terrify people into becoming believers in Jesus.
I want you to know there is no Biblical basis whatsoever for the concept of The Rapture. As believers in God’s acceptance of us through our baptisms, we know that we could never do enough to earn the love that God gives us freely and extravagantly. And we know that we have no reason to fear anything that might happen in the future, for we are God’s own forever. Fear, however, is what sells these books, and, frankly, what sells a lot of things. Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe that’s why angels always begin their pronouncements with this: “Don’t be afraid.”
Even though I do hope you cling to your baptisms whenever fear taunts you, I don’t want to minimize Jesus’ message here in Matthew that we are to stay alert and awake. We cannot let our assumptions about God or how God works in our world lull us into complacency, because, of course, God will do what God will do. Today’s Gospel lesson is a dramatic reminder that Jesus intends to surprise us with a return visit. When that happens, we don’t want to be caught napping; we want to be caught doing God’s work. The tricky part is that we don’t have a clue when this visit might happen. Even Jesus says it will not be according to anyone’s predictions or calculations.
In other words, you might find yourself sitting down for what you think will be a turkey dinner, only to be presented with a flaming Cornish game hen. For people who aren’t crazy about surprises, who would just as soon have this Advent and Christmas resemble all the ones you think you remember from childhood (or better yet, the ones that match your idealized version of what you wish they were like), the idea that God is going to show up and mess with tradition might not sit well.
Wallowing in nostalgia can be dangerous to our spiritual growth, and leaning in the opposite direction—being so preoccupied with the life to come that we ignore the world around us right now—can be equally problematic. If we concentrate so much on the wonders of heaven in the sweet by-and-by, we risk ignoring the struggles of the people around us right now. Yes, heaven will be great, but meanwhile, we cannot overlook the malnourished, oppressed, frightened, and lonely people who need our attention. We can’t get so wrapped up in Jesus’ return that we neglect and damage the environment based on the assumption that this world matters less than the next. That way of thinking leads us from being good stewards to acting selfishly, and ignoring God’s love for the world. That’s one of my biggest problems with the proponents of the Rapture: they don’t take into consideration the truth that God loves this world, this creation.
If Advent brings the end of the world as we know it, I feel fine. Because the end of the world as we know it will usher in a world we don’t know, God’s kingdom, which will may resemble Isaiah’s beautiful image of the holy mountain. When Christ returns to reign over all, all the nations will stream to one destination—to God’s compassionate, effusive dream of unity. The nations will no longer point their swords at each other, but instead will curl them into gardening tools, for the collective caretaking of the earth. The earth and all its people will work for the advancement of life, of creation, and not the destruction of it. When Jesus makes his surprise return, all vicious cruelty will disappear from our universe. The all-too-familiar violence and fear that has infected every Christmas since the very first one will finally be abolished.
So Advent points backward, back toward how God shook up the world over 2000 years ago with the stunning arrival of the Baby Jesus. We can reflect on how much of the significant stuff happened when the world was asleep. In the middle of the night, the angels sang, waking up those poor shepherds, giving starlight GPS directions to the magi, and bothering Joseph’s conscience when he considered dumping his fiancée Mary, who had been called to a strange and wonderful task. None of those people went to bed anticipating a surprise. But God sent them one anyway. And it was flaming! God woke them up and shook them up in order to bring them Good News! And God intends to do so again.
So Advent points forward, to knowing that the End is near. But don’t be afraid. Instead, wait impatiently for that day, for that harmonious kingdom, for that profound reign of justice to surprise us all! And as we wait, let us strive to live in line with Paul’s admonition to live honorably, and to wait actively, not passively. Let us recommit to being engaged in our communities, not stuck in the past, nor lost in a pie-the-sky future. Let us be alert to the people and places where God is longing to spend Christmas this year, and let us be caught busily at work there. Anticipate angels barging into your lives in the next few weeks!
And as we wait, let us pray fervently that best of all Advent prayers, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
~Pastor Susan Schneider