A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ our Lord, who is coming again in glory. Amen.
Have you ever gazed up at the heavens and marveled at the lights piercing the inky black expanse?
I’m not much one for finding stellar constellations, those mythic signs traced through the stars – not for lack of trying but for lack of ability. But without fail, I can find Orion – the great hunter with his tell-tale belt and Canis Major steadfastly by his side. As a teenager in Kansas and on long, late-night rides through the Georgia countryside in college, and now, watching him rise over the trees in my neighborhood, I know that Orion’s appearance in the evening means one thing: winter is coming.
Throughout the summer, Orion is below the horizon when through the night. But come autumn, he rises when it is still dark; the first time I see him every year is early in the morning, walking to school before dawn or leaving before the sun to come to the church. It’s a sure sign that the first frost is not far away. And by November, he rises in the evening, the Hunter dominating the fall sky.
This is but a small taste of how our ancestors kept time and tracked the passage of days and seasons, but it is a powerful connection – to the farmers who kept track of the stars and moons to know when to harvest, to the priests of old who tracked the celestial bodies to find holy days, to sailors who used the stars to find home, to the enslaved people who “followed the drinkin’ gourd” and the North Star to freedom.
Our Lord says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars…” Not their normal course, like the falling and rising of a constellation, but cosmic phenomena that make a person take notice – when the sun is darkened or the moon turns blood red, when hundreds of stars fall from the sky or grow long tails. These are the signs that, for an ancient astronomer, might herald great tidings of the awe-ful and awe-some, tiding of doom, of newborn kings or military defeats or impending disaster.
These are the signs which herald distress among the nations, which cause people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming.
But it’s more than just a single cataclysm – not simply a military defeat or an earthquake that will eventually pass into history. No, this is more like the changing of the seasons, a long-term shift of the way things are. The old season is passing away into cataclysm and something new is coming to replace it.
To be sure, this might be terrible news for some. For the wealthy and the powerful, for the unjust and corrupt.
And beloved, it is so tempting to point the finger. To say, Ah yes, this will be a glorious day when those people are punished. Let them approach that day with fear and trembling, but I, good, church-going person that I am, shall be spared the pain. I don’t murder or steal, I try not to lie. Surely I am among the chosen, and so I will continue to thrive as those other people lose it all.
I must confess before Almighty God and before you, my kindred, that I have grown terribly comfortable in this present age, clinging to the very things which will pass away. I know that I lead a good life in a wealthy nation. I enjoy peace and prosperity because of where, when, and to whom I was born. But I also know that my prosperity comes at the expense of others who bear the cost of my consumption. The extra coat in my closet is a coat not given to its rightful owner – the cold neighbor without a coat. It sits, unused, but it represents the labor of underpaid workers and pollution spewed across the world so that I can feel ever so slightly fancier on that rare night when I need a dress jacket. The natural gas heating my house is damaging the environment for the those who live where it is produced and those who will suffer in the unfolding climate catastrophe. But even if I perfectly lived the nobly simple life of a monk, free from the comfortable trappings of this world, I would still be unable to save myself on that dreadful day, for I still fall prey to the more personal sins. The deeply-ingrained racism passed down unknowingly from generation to generation that has benefited people who look like me only hardens my heart and isolates me from my neighbors. The swears and oaths I yell out in traffic are, if we are to believe the Lord and Luther’s own writing, like committing murder in my heart.
We are all ensnared to sin – both sins we commit individually and sins perpetuated by the powers of this world that hold us in bondage. We are enslaved to the things those soon-to-be-former things which will pass away.
This is Advent – not a mere waiting period before the real festivities of Christmas but the time when we turn our attention to Christ’s return in glory at the end of the age. Our readings demand we turn our focus to the last things as heaven and earth and all things not of God fade.
Now, beloved, is the time for us to examine that in us which will be stripped away. Where are we clinging to the things which will pass away? Let us listen to the words of Pope Gregory the Great:
Do not lave what you see cannot long exist.
Look up at the heavens and marvel at the signs and the seasons. The days are surely coming when these things will pass away – the power, the wealth, the gains of this world. Moth and rust and flame will claim them just as surely as the seasons change. See, already the signs of this world’s passing are at hand – the trees are now baren, the grass has faded to brown, and the days grow short.
But beloved, do not let your hearts be troubled. These things must come to pass – and not for our destruction. The Son of Man is coming in a cloud with power and great glory, and the Kingdom of God is near. Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
The fallen world will pass away. Sin and death shall die. The powers shall be toppled from their thrones and set int their proper place while the lowly are lifted up.
Yes, we shall see signs in the heavens – but do not be distressed. The very One, the lowborn King, whose birth was heralded by a star and drew magi from the east, shall return on the last day riding on the clouds, announced by signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and this King of Kings will establish the Peaceable Kingdom.
Even as all things pass away, his word will endure like a mighty Branch of Righteousness coming forth to execute justice and righteousness.