1st of Advent — 2 December 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — Evensong 5:00 pm
Pss 12, 13, 14 Amos 1:1-5, 13-2:8 1 Thess 5:1-11
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
Well, we begin Advent this Sunday. We generally consider Advent to be a season of preparation for Christmas. Well, that’s right, generally, more or less. But it does leave a couple of unanswered questions: exactly what do we mean by “Christmas”? And how do we prepare for it?
Well, “Christmas,” most specifically speaking, is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in Israel near the end of the reign of King Herod of Judea, traditionally in Bethlehem. (Some purveyors of the Assured Results of Modern New Testament Scholarship are arguing that Jesus wasn’t actually born in Bethlehem, but probably in Nazareth. I’m not convinced. I’m working on a paper about this. Watch my blog.) The date was assigned more or less arbitrarily by the Church in the fourth century or so as December 25. Sure. Why not.
But the birth of Jesus, his coming historically, is only one of the Advents of Jesus that we attend to in the season of Advent. We also consider all the ways Jesus has come into the world, and is coming into the world, and has come and is coming into our lives now. And further, we consider the coming of Jesus, his Advent, at the consummation of the age. So Christmas, strictly speaking, is only a part of what Advent is about. In fact, in Advent we don’t get around to talking about the birth of Jesus for another three weeks. The focus today is the consummation of the age, and then we spend a couple of weeks on weird ol’ John the Baptist, before we actually get around to Christmas itself.
Meanwhile the rest of the world has been Christmasing for quite a while already, since sometime before Hallowe’en. Whatever. We clergy and other Especially Pious Folk used to get our socks in a knot about this. I’ve given up on it. At some point it struck me that all this stuff that the world has been doing for the last month or more under the name of “Christmas” isn’t about Christmas at all.
The other night there was a new Holiday cartoon show on television, called “Shrek the Halls.” It was cute, though it fell a little short of being the instant holiday classic it was touted as. But at one point in the story, Shrek (who is a green ogre, in case you aren’t up on the higher realms of American culture. Mind you, I like Shrek!) — Shrek reads the Christmas Story to the assembled family and friends in his house. And what does he read? “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse!” No! That’s not the Christmas Story! (At least in the Charlie Brown Christmas, when Linus reads the Christmas story he reads, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”)
There is “Christmas,” and there is Christmas. If the world wants to have a winter holiday and call it “Christmas,” sure, why not. And if some evangelicals want to get their socks in a knot because people are wishing them “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas,” I guess that’s their problem. (Evangelicals are better off when they pay greater attention to actually reading the Gospels. Oh well.)
In the New Testament reading tonight, from the First Letter to the Christian community at Thessalonica, Paul has been writing to them about the coming of the Lord, and he goes on to say, “You don’t need me to tell you about the times and seasons” — well, actually, some of them were probably hoping Paul would do just that. Already in this early generation of Christians, folks were already fretting about figuring out when Jesus was going to return. Never mind that not only Paul but even Jesus himself had made a specific and clear point that nobody would know when that day was coming. Jesus said that even he himself didn’t know. It was the Father’s little secret. Maybe even the Father hadn’t made up his mind about this yet! Paul goes on to say, “You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” “What is it you don’t understand about ‘A thief in the night’?” Jesus himself had said, “If you knew when the thief was coming, you wouldn’t have let him break into your house! Duh!” (Well, Jesus probably didn’t say “Duh!”) This is not rocket science, folks. “Don’t know when” means “Don’t know when”!
But, St. Paul goes on, there are some clues to be alert to. One of them was when they say “There is peace and security.” Who was saying “There is peace and security”? The Roman Empire was saying, “There is peace and security.” And Paul is suggesting here that it just ain’t so. A more inclusive way of saying this might be the core of the Gospel Paul was preaching, namely, “Jesus is Lord; and that means that Caesar isn’t.” (But that’s a path to follow further at another time!) So just when everyone thinks that everything is just fine, well, watch out!
So although none of us know just when the Lord is coming, it won’t surprise us (like a thief would), not because we know the time but because we know we must be ready at any time, at all times. For we know who holds the future. And it isn’t Caesar. (Who at this time was probably Claudius; this is a relatively early letter.)
You know, when we talk about “the coming of the Lord” we generally associate this with the notion of “the end of the world.” But it’s not at all clear that this is what Jesus means, or what Paul means, when they talk about the “day of the Lord.” The day of the Lord is not the end of this world, but its fulfillment, its completion, its judgment and the vindication of the faithful, the full establishment of God’s reign of justice, love, and true peace. In expectation of this Kingdom, and in the beginning of its implementation, we are called to keep awake and be sober.
Advent calls us not just to prepare for the Christmas celebration for another year, but to prepare our lives for the proclamation and service and fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.
© 2007 William S J Moorhead