On the way to Simone’s school this week, Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song” came on the radio. As I tried to teach Simone the words of, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” I suddenly became teary-eyed singing the familiar song. Something about Christmas songs on the radio can do that to me. Whether Judy Garland is singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or Mariah Carey is singing “All I Want for Christmas is You” a wave of nostalgia hits me and a sense of deep happiness washes over me. The tricky part about these songs though is that they do not connect me to the reality of my lifetime of Christmases. Instead they simply remind me of my idealized dream of Christmas – the glossy picture I have devised about the utter perfection of Christmas.
Our entrance into Advent is a lot like that contrast. You might have come into church today totally excited about the hope and love of Advent as we await the perfect baby Jesus. We imagine Advent as a sort of pregnancy, where we wait for four weeks to birth the Christ Child. We cannot wait to hear those stories that are coming – of Mary and Joseph, of shepherds and angels, of wise men. Advent in our minds is this great time of anticipation.
Of course, the actual gospel text does little to fuel this happy anticipation. Instead, our gospel lesson from Luke is an apocalyptic text about signs and fainting and fear. “Stand up and raise your heads…Be on guard…Be alert at all times,” says Jesus. The words from Jesus are not soothing or encouraging at all. In fact the kind of waiting Jesus describes does not sound like a joyful waiting for a birth, but sounds more like the dreaded waiting for judgment.
As modern Christians, we do not tend to enjoy apocalyptic scripture lessons for several reasons. First, apocalyptic readings are usually weird. We much more often associate these texts with crazy fanatics who make predictions about the end of the world that rarely come true. We have friends who like the Left Behind series; and even if we find the idea intriguing, we cannot really watch without feeling like the whole idea is strange. We even make jokes with silly bumper stickers that say, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”
The second reason we do not enjoy apocalyptic readings is that we often do not understand what apocalyptic readings mean or how to interpret them. If you have ever read the Book of Revelation all the way through, you know that your eyes start to glaze over as the images become stranger and more disjointed. That style of literature is totally foreign to us. Even John Calvin, theologian and father of the Presbyterian Church, who wrote a commentary on every other book of the Bible, did not attempt to write about Revelation.[i] If John Calvin cannot interpret apocalyptic literature, we do not have much hope for our own understanding.
Finally, we do not tend to enjoy apocalyptic readings because we find them exhausting. Even Will Willimon argues that, “It’s hard to stand on tiptoe for two thousand years.”[ii] We know that Christ will return, but how can we possibly keep vigilant constantly? Our life is already full of anxiety. Between the Fiscal Cliff, wars around the world, and our own financial, personal, and emotional anxieties, we have enough to worry about without having to also be anxious about Jesus’ return.
Fortunately, on this first Sunday of Advent, there is good reason for us to turn to this kind of text. The season of Advent reminds us that we cannot anticipate the first coming of Christ without also anticipating the second coming of Christ. The two activities are intimately linked. We celebrate the birth of this child because we know what this child will be. We do not simply anticipate the Christ Child because he will be a cute baby. We anticipate him because we know that he will be the Savior and Redeemer of the world and that he promises to come again. Our anticipation is two-fold because we know the rest of the story. Our anticipation would be like if we knew that baby Martin Luther King, Jr. or baby Mother Teresa were about to be born. We do not celebrate this birth for the everyday joy of life. We anticipate this birth because of the joy of this specific person and God-head, in whom we have redemption.
In this time between the two advents, the Church invites us through Luke to live a little differently than normal. Our everyday faith usually means business as usual for us. We know about the second coming, but we do not think of the second coming often. We go to church (most of the time) and receive the sacraments; we read scripture (sometimes) and pray; we try to live by the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments; we have our version of Christian music (hymns, Christian pop, or gospels) that enliven our faith; and we faithfully spend money and time every week on what we might deem “kingdom causes.” This is more than enough religion to keep us going in this in-between-advents time.[iii]
But this advent, we are invited to step back and look at the whole of our Christian faith. Sure, we may not want to be on guard at all times, but being on guard from time to time is a good thing. We can all use a little check-up from time to time – and not just during Lent. As Lewis Smedes argues the hardest part of anticipating the second coming of Jesus Christ is in “living the sort of life that makes people say, ‘Ah, so that’s how people are going to live when righteousness takes over our world.’”[iv] This is our work this Advent. Not just to look busy because Jesus is coming, but to be busy.
There is a well-known story that happened in the colonial period of American history. The Connecticut House of Representatives were going about their work on a sunny May day, when all of a sudden, an eclipse caught the entire legislature off guard. Right in the middle of debate, everything went to darkness. In the midst of panic over whether this might be the second coming, a motion was made to adjourn the legislature so that people could pray and prepare for the coming of the Lord. In response, one legislator stood up and said, “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I choose to be found doing my duty. I move you, sir, let candles be brought.”[v] Those men who expected Jesus went back to their desks and by candlelight resumed their debate.
We too light candles in Advent. We too move into a time of actively living in the time between two advents. We too take on the intentional work of living as though righteousness has taken over the world. Of course we do not do this work alone. We do this work “prayerfully, depending upon God to give strength to persevere despite temptation or persecution.”[vi] Jesus is coming. With God’s help, instead of “looking busy” this Advent, we can be busy this Advent. Amen.
[i] Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., “In the Interim,” Christian Century, vol. 117, no. 34, Dec. 6, 2000, 1271.
[ii] Will Willimon, as quoted by Plantinga, 1270.
[iii] Plantinga, 1270.
[iv] Lewis Smedes, Standing on the Promises, as quoted by Plantinga, 1272.
[v] Joanna M. Adams, “Light the Candles,” Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 24, Nov. 28, 2006, 18.
[vi] Mariam J. Kamell, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),25.