A Homily for the First Sunday in Advent
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Son of Man who comes on clouds descending. Amen.
It’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving has come and gone, neighborhoods are decorated with festive greenery (I noticed last weekend that Mercer Village and Downtown already had their lights up). Starbucks has been using their seasonal green and red cups for weeks now. And from Thanksgiving Day through Christmas Day, countless radio stations will be playing an amalgamation of actual carols, kitschy seasonal songs from the 1950s, and old wintertime standards that for some reason have come to be associated with Christmas. (Rudolph is hardly sacred music, and surely “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” is just as apt in January as it is in December, but I digress.)
Of course, the liturgical calendar isn’t quite there yet. We’ve just entered Advent, and Advent – especially the first Sunday – isn’t about Bethlehem or the manger. It’s not even about waiting for Bethlehem. The shepherds and the magi are nowhere to be found; even the Blessed Virgin is conspicuously absent. Year after year, Advent begins where the Season after Pentecost ended: with images of Christ coming – not as a newborn but returning at the end of the age as our Righteous Judge.
Today’s texts give us a front seat to the Judge’s arrival as Creation quakes. This theme plays on an old trope: the March of the Divine Warrior. When the Lord comes in glory, the entire earth will tremble at the advent (literally, the arrival) of our God and King, the cosmos unable to bear the awesome majesty of the Divine Presence. Just consider Isaiah’s depiction: the mountains quaking at God’s approach, the nations trembling, as though the glory of the Almighty were a raging fire causing all of Creation to boil. Or in St. Mark’s telling, the sun and moon fading to dark, the stars falling from the firmament, the foundations of the heavens shaking as the Son of Man comes on clouds descending.
Understandably, this gives folks pause: it’s a glimpse of mighty power, of forces thunderous enough to turn the world on its head.
And this means that you are not likely to hear a truly appropriate Advent carol in most department stores or radio stations right now, even as they blast cheery wintery songs for the next month. No, an Advent carol that really focuses on the themes of this season might sound more like the Latin funeral chant Dies irae, “Day of Wrath”:
Day of wrath and doom impending.
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.
Or, since medieval Requiems are not exactly Top 40 radio fare, a better fit might be something from the hard rock genre, like alt-rock band Thrice’s “The Earth Will Shake,” with its raw vocals and heavy, crunchy guitars. Lyricist and lead singer Dustin Kensrue (himself something of a lay theologian) sets the song in a jail, blending allusions to Saint Paul’s miraculous escape from prison in Philippi and Christian apocalypticism, depicting the imprisoned and visions of coming freedom:
We dream of ways to break these iron bars
We dream of black nights without moon or stars
Look to the day the Earth will shake
These weathered walls will fall away
The Coming Judgment, rightfully, gives us pause. As nations tremble and the powers of this world fall like so many stars from heaven, we know instinctively that this threatens the world we live in. The coming of the Mighty King is a direct threat to the powerful interests of this age and all those who would claim what rightly belongs to God. The coming of the One who will make the last first and the first last is good news to those who will be ushered to the front, but it’s bad news to those who will be forced to the back. The One who will cast the mighty from their thrones is, well, to be blunt, bad news to those mighty who will lose their seats of power.
The advent of the Messiah forces us to take stock of all the times we have failed to live up to God’s holy Law: how we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. Of where we have failed to love God with our whole hearts or to love our neighbors as ourselves. Last week’s reading, of the judgment between the sheep and the goats, especially gives me pause as I think of the hungry and thirsty I have not fed, the stranger, the homeless neighbor, the refugee, and the immigrant I have not sheltered, the sick and the imprisoned I have not visited or cared for.
The world is going to be turned on its head, then we at the top face the very real risk of ending up on the bottom when God comes again in glory. Good news of liberation for the poor and the oppressed can seem like bad news for the wealthy and powerful, for those of us in positions of privilege, just as Paul’s liberation from jail seemed like dreadful news for the jailer (who, if you remember the story, feared that he would be killed for the escape attempt until Paul met him with assurance of grace; the jailer and his household were baptized and welcomed Paul into their home).
God’s ways our higher than our ways, and the Lord’s will for us isn’t that we should be punished but reconciled. God will not remember our iniquity forever but rather reshape us as a potter re-forms clay.
The earth may shake, and the stars may fall from heaven. The former things shall pass away but the assurance of God’s forgiveness will endure forever. Our greed, our prejudices, our fear of others will tremble and fall into the sea, but that which our Lord intends for us – faith, hope, and love – shall endure, and we will enter the restored creation as the people God created us to be, to be reconciled with our enemies, and with our neighbors, and with the Lord our God. Amen.