My childhood memories of the beginning of Advent are quite lovely and wonderful in many ways. We started singing Advent carols—with a few Christmas Carols thrown in for good measure. At some point, dad and I would string up a few lights on the house around the beginning of December. We would light Advent candles at our dinner table, as we did earlier this morning, to mark the 4 weeks to Christmas. The tree came a little later, but we’d start putting up greenery and decorations; that happened around here Thursday morning by the Décor Team. I remember a growing jolliness in the air, and the cold temperatures seem to bring a feeling of Christmas and hope even as we felt the cold of NW Ontario where I grew up.
As I grew older, I became aware of other things this season brings, some of which are harder feelings; long nights and short days can be challenging. Feelings of loss at this time of year, whether of a loved one or something valuable like a job or a relationship, can be quite acute. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can also be more acute at this time of year. And the growing commercialism of Christmas has made it harder for people.
Despite the growing excitement that Advent can bring, the first Sunday of Advent Gospel reading is hard, I have to confess. The readings are assigned by an interdenominational group of biblical and church scholars, fyi. Matthew’s words are challenging; in referring to Noah and how, except for Noah and his family, people were left behind. And then, there’s the bit that has been interpreted literally and used to create the recent conservative and evangelical concept called the rapture, made popular in the “left behind” fiction series; I don’t believe in the rapture and it’s not my idea of hope and joy. And the thief in the night bit? In talking to refugees, including Palestinian families in the Holy Land, armed forces burst into homes in the middle of the night bringing terror; the thief in the night image doesn’t inspire confidence, really.
The other passages assigned to this day are the Isaiah prophecy about peace coming to the nations that we used in our Advent Candle-lighting: all good. Or Psalm 122 about going to God’s Temple with a sense of joy and hopefulness building on Isaiah’s vision of peace: again, good images and we can hope that peace will come to the city of Jerusalem. And Paul? We didn’t read from his letter to the early Roman Church this morning, but he wrote about waking up and living fully in the light of God’s promise. As a progressive Christian, I’m good with these readings and like the promise of hope and peace.
But Matthew’s reading? This first Sunday of Advent always has a provocative reading from either Matthew, Mark or Luke. Matthew’s judgement is a little stronger than Mark’s and Luke’s, but they all have what are called apocalyptic passages, like today’s. We do well to remember that apocalypse literally means “revelation, disclosure or uncovering.” Popularly, today, it has been interpreted to mean the calamitous end of the world; think the movie Apocalypse Now. In the Bible, apocalyptic passages were used by biblical writers to convey a message written in a kind of code; they were NOT to be taken literally but conveyed a message that God’s love and compassion would overcome hate and fear and those experiencing severe persecution would be vindicated. Apocalyptic writings need to be decoded.
So, what is the code we are to discover written in Matthew’s passage? Well, put simply, it is to be ready; we don’t know when God’s Kin-Dom will come for it will come unexpectedly, but we need to be ready.
Matthew refers to the flood story in Genesis. Did the flood occur in the way that it is portrayed? Did Matthew believe this literally? I don’t think so and I don’t believe in the kind of vengeful, petty God often literally interpreted in these passages. Did something calamitous occur in history? Quite likely and it was given religious significance as often happened back then; interestingly, the flood story is in many creation stories and myths in many different traditions and religions around the world. The reminder is that we need to let go of our expectations of what we need and be open to God’s gift of light, hope and joy, which comes in unexpected ways and places. We also need to be intentional in our living ethical lives of love and hope and clean up our acts.
That’s the real invitation of this 1st Sunday in Advent: to be open to what can come; to be surprised by joy; to set aside our expectations and our sense of control of what should happen; and be jolted to be open to something new that God is working in the world and in each of us.
We are living in times when there are pressing problems. The “Me, Too,” “Black Lives Matter”, “1st Nations Reconciliation”, “Climate Justice” and “Economic Justice for All” movements aren’t just fads. They are calls for the radical peace that Isaiah envisioned. They are expressions of hope for a different future, a future where the natural world can flourish, where our children will thrive, where people will be accepted by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, and where we don’t have to worry about war and violence anymore. We live in the times when these questions are pressing questions and require our intentional and diligent response.
The 1st Sunday of Advent—today—bursts on us with unexpected images, surprises us, and invites us to answer the hard questions with hope and love. We’re shocked into contemplating our readiness for the new life promised. In my estimation, that’s Matthew decoded and the message for this first week of Advent preparing for Christmas! Amen.