Today we find ourselves in an awkward place.
On the one hand, we find ourselves remembering last week, Christ the King Sunday. On that final Sunday of the church year we focus on the culmination of all things, that day when Christ’s realm will be fully and completely inaugurated, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
And so, on the one hand, we find ourselves still lingering on thoughts about Jesus’ second coming.
But, on the other hand, just look around. Christmas, the birth of the baby Jesus, Christ’s first coming, is all round us. Shopping malls remind us of this; commercials remind us of this; our neighborhoods remind us of this!
Today, we’re in an awkward place.
Why, just last night in fact, my wife told me of a kind of tension she is seeing on Facebook these days. On the one hand, a good portion of her friends are posting things like, “Thanksgiving is over; time for the Christmas decorations!” But, on the other hand, she’s got a significant number of friends saying things like, “Advent is here; gonna light a candle!”
So, what is Advent?
The word itself, advent, means “arrival.” But, to press the issue, which arrival? Are we looking ahead, to the future, to Christ’s second coming? Or, are we looking behind, to the past, to Christ’s first coming?
And then we come to today’s Gospel. Its main point seems to be that we should be ready.
But what are we to be ready for?
If we look ahead, to be ready for Christ’s return, well, after all, no one knows the day or the hour, not even the Son himself, but only the Father. So how in the world are we to be ready? I mean, if a thief might one day strike my house, there are some certain things I can do to be ready, like install an alarm system, buy a fireproof safe, whatever. But in the end I’m just going to get back to my day-to-day life of eating, drinking, carrying on business, and relaxing with my family.
But, on the other hand, if we look back, at Jesus’ birth, his first coming, how are we to get ready for that? Buy a tree in anticipation of this new life? Plan on family visiting from afar, bearing gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh? Prepare my own home for hospitality, to receive Joseph and Mary and Emmanuel? Give gifts of my own?
The celebration is sure a lot of fun—even if it’s a lot of work. But here too, in the end, after we clean up and put things into storage for the next eleven months, we just get on back to our daily routines—of eating, drinking, exercising, working, relaxing.
So, which is it? Jesus’ first coming, or his second?
The answer, of course, is yes.
During Advent, yes, we look ahead, to the future, the unknown, the scary—to Christ’s second coming. And, yes, we simultaneously look back, to the past, to what we know, to the stuff of history books—to Christ’s first coming. During Advent, yes, we prepare for Christ’s return; and, yes, we prepare for his birth.
It’s a sort of in-between time.
And, thus, today we find ourselves in an awkward place.
But is it really all that awkward?
I’ve told the story of my childhood before: raised in southern California in an idyllic setting for a boy—an outdoor playground, really: an avocado orchard, a swimming pool with a rope swing, grapevines, gardens, fruit trees, chickens, even a donkey for a while; with hiking trails a short walk away; and so on.
Man, I miss that place!
Anyway, reminiscing with my brother and mom this week over a Thanksgiving meal, I recalled how bored I used to get in elementary school, often wiling away my hours of classroom confinement daydreaming about what I would do when I got home from school that afternoon!
Life on Alosta Drive was certain for me, sure, predictable, and—when I wasn’t in the classroom—generally awesome.
Then, at 12 years old, my brother and I were completely blindsided when our parents announced that Mom would be moving out and they’d soon be divorced.
Now, divorce happens often. I knew that even then. Several of my school friends had already experienced it. But it was one of those things I just assumed would never come to my life.
When it did, all that certainty and predictability and general awesomeness I just mentioned, well, now it flew out the window. Suddenly, in the matter of just a few days really, my life became terribly uncertain; and terribly frightening.
No longer was it predictable. No longer did it seem to provide all the answers I’d ever need or want. No longer did I daydream about what I’d do that afternoon once I’d left my studies behind in my junior high locker.
Instead, I worried. I became anxious about the future, the unknown, and the uncertain.
From there, my story gets better. For my anxiety over life’s uncertainty drove me to Bible study and, in time, a personal relationship with Jesus.
But even here, I came to Jesus with some unrealistic hopes. I wanted answers to questions that really can never be answered. I wanted stability again. I wanted my anxiety to disappear. And I wanted the same mom and dad I’d always known—or at least the ones I imagined.
The mom and dad of my boyhood imagination were perfect, you see. They knew all things. They didn’t grope their way through life, worrying over silly things like how the bills were going to get paid; whether their kids would turn out okay; or if God existed. The parents of my imagination were certain, sure, stable, and predictable.
I wanted these things again! And I looked for them in Jesus.
So my early experience as a Christian was filled with wanting to know. Jesus was sure, certain, stable, and predictable, I’d tell myself. So, surely, all the answers to all of life’s perplexing questions were there in the Bible. I just needed to hunt for them, to find them, and to apply them to my life. Then I would know certainty, surety, stability, and predictability again.
And, best of all, I’d have no worries or anxieties about the future!
So: I did. I read the Bible. Cover to cover. Several times!
And every time I did today’s Gospel would confront me. Other passages too. Like those about the dysfunctional lives of the patriarchs, losing their hope and trust in God when they ought to know better! Like those about Moses leading a whole nation through the wilderness, groping his way through life and leadership. Like those about David, trusting in his own “wisdom,” which resulted in adultery and murder. And like those about Jesus, God himself, being led away like a lamb to the slaughter.
The future is unknown. It is uncertain. It is even scary.
On the other hand, the past, what we’ve already lived through, is just that: the past. It’s out of sight and out of mind in a sense. Sure, we’ve made mistakes; we’ve lived through difficult times, as well as times of immense joy. But there’s nothing scary about the past. Well, scary, maybe, in hindsight. But there’s nothing about the past to make us anxious. For there it is: in the past; where we can just forget about it.
No, this in-between time called Advent is not really all that awkward at all.
So, what does this mean for us today?
We live in a time characterized by fear.
The housing bubble burst in 2008. 6 million people lost their homes. Our nation’s economy entered a Great Recession. And, because our nation’s economy is so large, economies around the world were affected. And we’re still not totally out of it. What’s going to happen?
And we all remember September 11, 2001. Since that time, ugly, desperate acts of terrorism and hatred have risen to unprecedented levels in the world—unprecedented at least for my lifetime. Will it keep getting worse before it gets better?
And even if these things get better, what about all the hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes? Every time I turn on the news it’s something terrible! Is there no hope?
We fear the future.
Yet, at the same time, we are apathetic towards the past.
The history books were written by a bunch of European males, after all, who have put their misogynistic, Caucasian, patriarchal spin on things.
Also, we tell ourselves, our technological advances prove that we know more in our generation than all other generations combined.
So, we put these two premises together and conclude that we really don’t need history at all.
Ah, but don’t you see the fallacy?
We are anxious about the future; yet we are apathetic towards the past. Maybe we are anxious because we are apathetic.
Advent comes along and names it. On the one hand, it says, “Look at the future. It is uncertain. It is unpredictable. No one knows the day or the hour. The end will come when people are simply going about their day-to-day routines.”
But, on the other hand, Advent also says, “Look at the past. We know, from history, that God has come into the world as a Baby; and that this Baby is a tremendous source of comfort for an anxious world.”
Advent teaches us not to be apathetic about the past, about history; for in it we see God working to set this world to rights.
And at the same time, Advent teaches us not to be anxious about the future. Yes, it is uncertain, unsure, and unpredictable. But it was just the same for God’s people of old—and history shows us that it turned out okay for them. So with us!
Here it is, then: this is what Advent means for us today: By looking back, to the past, Advent teaches us to have faith and hope when we look ahead, to the future.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.