As the passing of Thanksgiving brought on the presence of Christmas music radio stations, my husband and were talking about our favorite classics. His grandfather and I both loved Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song” with its images of, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Our conversation swept me up in wave of nostalgia as we talked about other favorites like Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or Mariah Carey’s admittedly cheesy “All I Want for Christmas is You.” 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.
But the actual gospel text for today 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. 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 even make jokes with silly bumper stickers that say, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” Second, we often do not understand what apocalyptic readings mean or how to interpret them. 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. And, 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] Our life is already full of anxiety these days. Between the state of the economy, a devastating pandemic, deeply divisive political tensions, and our own financial, personal, and emotional anxieties, we have enough to worry about without having to also be anxious about Jesus’ return.
Despite our hesitancy, 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 he promises to come again. We anticipate this birth because of the joy of this specific person and Godhead, 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. 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. 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.’”[iii] This is our work this Advent. Not just to look busy because Jesus is coming, but to be busy with works of righteousness.
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.”[iv] 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.”[v] Jesus is coming. With God’s help, instead of “looking busy” this Advent, we can be busy this Advent with works of righteousness. 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] Lewis Smedes, Standing on the Promises, as quoted by Plantinga, 1272.
[iv] Joanna M. Adams, “Light the Candles,” Christian Century, vol. 123, no. 24, Nov. 28, 2006, 18.
[v] Mariam J. Kamell, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),25.