1st Sunday of Advent — 3 December 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 5:00 p.m. Evensong
Psalm 18 Amos 1:1-5,13–2:8 Luke 21:5-9
For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statues, but they have been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked.
And a Merry Christmas to you, too, ho ho ho!
One of the things that we all have begun fussing about in recent years is the growing custom on the local radio stations of playing Christmas music starting immediately after Halloween. Not just us stuffy old Anglicans, but even regular people were shaking their heads a month ago: “Can you believe they’re playing Christmas music already — 24/7?!” Although I noticed, on those rare occasions when I wasn’t listening to KSUI, that these stations were actually playing “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” and I don’t consider that those count as Christmas carols. And if they have to be played at all, I suppose November is as good a time as any.
But this brings us around to a time to reflect on the meaning of Christmas; and as a run-up, on the meaning of Advent. As I suggested a moment ago, in the Anglican tradition we make rather a Big Deal of observing Advent, and not keeping Christmas until Christmas, and everyone else thinks we’re a little loony, we and the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans. Ironically, there was a time when we got it from the other direction: the Puritans got after us for celebrating Christmas at all; they considered it a Papist and pagan festival, not fit for Bible-believing Christians. Oh well.
I am inclined to think that we ought to keep Advent with a little more intentionality than we usually do. We understand Advent as a preparation for Christmas, and it is. But we understand Christmas as a warm and fuzzy festival, and so Advent also becomes warm and fuzzy, and we get a bit off track. Christmas certainly has its moments of profound joy, but it really isn’t warm and fuzzy. (I am reminded of the race car driver Ricky Bobby in the movie Talladega Nights, who when he says grace before dinner always prays to the Baby Jesus; he doesn’t care very much for the adult Christ Crucified.) Christmas, despite its genuine joy, also has its dark side. And part of the Advent preparation is to call our attention to the dark side of Christmas. We say, or at least we have taken to saying, that “Advent isn’t like Lent.” Well, in a sense that’s so; but in a sense Advent is like Lent. At least one stream of the origin of Advent was to be a season of fasting and penitence in preparation for the Epiphany baptisms. And one of the major themes of Advent, especially this first week, is judgment.
In the first reading we hear from the prophet Amos, who was active in Israel and Judah in the middle of the eighth century bce. He begins by denouncing the surrounding pagan nations for their sins and proclaiming God’s condemnation: Damascus, and then the selection tonight leaves out Gaza and Tyre and Edom to reduce the tedium a little, and then the Ammonites and Moab. That pretty well boxes the compass: Syria, the Philistines on the Mediterranean coast, what is now Lebanon, what is now Jordan. (“For three transgressions and for four” is a Hebrew rhetorical figure that means “for a whole lot of transgressions.”) So much for all those sinful Gentiles! But then Amos turns his sights on Judah and on Israel. Oops. Being the chosen people is no assurance against coming under judgment.
Jesus is with his disciples in Jerusalem, after his prophecy-fulfilling entrance into the city, driving the moneychangers out of the temple, and tangling verbally with the religious establishment. The disciples are rubbernecking at the Big City, and the Temple — a magnificent structure built by Herod to try to curry favor with the Jews — most of them are Galileans and some of them may never have been to Jerusalem before — and they are terribly impressed. Jesus quickly deflates their balloon and warns them that although “Beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth, is the hill of Zion, the very center of the world and the city of the great King,” [Psalm 48] it is still not immune to judgment, any more in the first century AD than it was in the eighth century BC.
And neither are we. Advent, and the initial Advent theme of judgment, reminds up how utterly serious the whole enterprise of the Incarnation of God the Word in Jesus of Nazareth really is, and at what cost comes the redemption that we shall in three more weeks celebrate with such joy.
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead