Of all the liturgical seasons of the year, Advent and Christmas may be the most full of wonder. Bright stars and humble beginnings, strange prophesies and the promise of hope fulfilled, gift-bearing strangers and God drawing near to us in flesh and blood—these things and more are signs and wonders that beckon us to pause and reflect on the love and grace of God. Join us amid the swirl of the season as we create spaces to be still, and to let the little child lead us with eyes and hearts open to wonder.
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, November 27, 2022, The First Sunday of Advent. “Wonder” series.
Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44
I have a memory of a place of wonder and delight. Life-sized figures of children dressed in winter apparel swirled midst a candy-cane forest and melodies of the season filling the air. The air was always crisp as we approached this magical place with our mother every December. And what drew us there? Well, it was Santa’s cottage of course! And, lo and behold, it appeared every late November in Utica Square, an upscale shopping complex in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
When I look back at the photos from these pilgrimages, I’m reminded that “wonder and delight” weren’t experienced by all of us equally—at least not consistently. There are classic shots that capture experiences among my siblings and I that can only be described as fear and distress. Over the years, friends have shared their photos and relayed their touching and often hilarious stories of either hopeful or fearful anticipation of the annual visit to Santa.
On this first Sunday of Advent, both our texts begin with anticipation for the days to come. Isaiah 2 casts a vision for a future when God’s wisdom and way will guide all the nations and they “shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The words from Matthew speak of watchfulness, of remaining alert and awake so that we might not miss the visitation of “the Son of Man.” Both of these may fail to inspire hopeful anticipation. After all, in these days where gun violence and war surround us on every side, do we really believe that Isaiah’s prophecy of a world without weapons and war is possible? And there is so much crusty, fear-laced interpretation attached to the words of Matthew about “one being taken and the other left” that it’s difficult to receive anything hopeful from them.
And yet Advent is all about hopeful anticipation of the birth of Jesus, of Emmanuel, God with us, the one who shows us in flesh how to live and love according to God’s way. This Jesus, we believe, draws near to us as revelation and affirmation of all God’s promises. The promise of peace, the promise of love, the promise of liberation, the promise of community and purpose and power and justice and joy. We hope not only because Jesus came once upon a time as a baby in a manger, but because the promise is that Christ comes again and again into the world through the power of Holy Spirit and that there will come a time when the world will be so full of Christ that God’s promises will be manifest in all creation. //
But we, like those who first received the words read today, live in the in-between time, the time between the first revelation of God in Christ and the consummation of all God’s promises through Christ. And the in-between time is perilous.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams says, “For God to come near us is for God to risk God’s own integrity, in the sense that God puts himself into our hands to be appallingly misunderstood, to become the justifier of our hatred and fears, our madness…Revelation itself, as the church’s history shows, is bound up with tragic possibilities.”
In this in-between time, Jesus gets hijacked again and again, his life perverted into a kind of rationale for all sorts of things that have nothing to do with him or the Kindom of God he came to proclaim. Our call is to try to not “appallingly misunderstand” the wonderful gift of Jesus. Our text from Matthew and others like it have, I fear, been misunderstood… and in ways that have done harm.
Many of you will remember the Left Behind series of novels that were popular some twenty years ago—some adapted for films. These stories offer a well-worn understanding of God as one to be feared—that when Christ returns some will be “taken up” with Christ into heaven and others will be “left behind” in great suffering. It’s a theology of punishment and, hence fear. This strain of theology is present throughout the Bible, the idea that God is an angry, punishing God. So it shouldn’t surprise us that passages in the Gospels have been interpreted by some through this lens. But that is not the only lens through which to read the text from Matthew. When I looked as some of the key words in the Greek-English lexicon, I found that the “coming” of the Son of Man—is simply a word describing an arrival, the presence of one who draws near; it has in some places the connotation of a visitation by royalty. And the words “taken” and “left” both have relational nuances. Those “taken” (παραλαμβάνω, paralambanó) are available and are actively received and brought close to the one who draws near. And the verb “left” (ἀφίημι, aphiémi, af-ee'-ay-mee) can mean sent away, but also holds the meanings of being left alone, permitted—ostensibly persons permitted to go on living their lives as they always have.
I do not see in this an emphasis on an angry God, but rather a description of the choices humans can make when Christ draws near. Are we available? Are we paying attention and alert to the inbreaking of the holy One’s beckoning? Is our awareness attuned to God’s wondrous presence?
The trials and tribulations that appear in the genre of apocalyptic writing (like our Gospel passage) are descriptions of human realities, not of God’s activity. Humans make choices to be forgetful, to turn away from the ways of God, to act with greed, violence, and injustice. These ways of living and choosing will have consequences, painful consequences. The activity of God in apocalyptic is to draw near and to extend saving grace to those who are being oppressed and who are suffering. In the midst of strife and suffering, the “Son of Man” will draw near. The same One who is born as the prince of peace in Bethlehem, the one we know as Jesus of Nazareth, the very same one who in last week’s text forgave his executioners and welcomed a criminal into the Kindom of God (Luke 23:33-43).
In earlier times, when apocalyptic writing was commonplace, it was received as good news, as hope in times of trial, not as doom and gloom as it is so often interpreted today. The good news is that the God of the past, the God who has chosen an oppressed, suffering people (Israel) and led them out of slavery, the God who has provided for the people in the wilderness, the God who has come to the world in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth to love and save all creation—this God of the past will also be the God of the future, will continue to act in the world, in the midst of all the worst suffering and violence that humankind can conjure, God will come into the world again and again to love and to save. Though it is difficult to scrape off the years of fear, violence, and spiritual terrorism that have been overlayed onto passages such as the one we read today from Matthew, it is this joyful hope in the saving love of God that these writings sought to give voice.
The basic theme of the passage in Matthew is to keep alert—to watch and pray and persevere during this in-between time, living according to the ways of Jesus. And the ways of Jesus are to live in hope; to live the promises of God, embodying the Kindom on earth as it is in heaven to the best of our ability each day; to expect Christ to appear at any moment—not as a “gotcha” boogeyman—but as a shining presence in the faces of others, in moments of beckoning wonder, in experiences of exquisite beauty, in unexpected times when hope feels far off. Poet Sylvia Plath captures how this might be, responding to a black bird, a rook, on a branch in the rain:
…I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape);
Yet politic; ignorant
Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
Of sort. Miracles occur,
If you dare to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
“Walk wary” through your days, alert and ready to be taken up in wonder by the inbreaking of Christ’s presence. This is the encouragement of this Advent season, our annual refresher course for what we are to do all year long.