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Sunday, November 27, 2016 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.

The Urgency of Advent

Matt Helms
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 122
Isaiah 2:1-5
Matthew 24:36–44

If we want to transform life again, if Advent is truly to come again—the Advent
of home and hearts, the Advent of the people and the nations—then the great Advent question for us is whether we come out of these convulsions with this determination: yes, arise! It is time to awaken from sleep. It is time for each
of us to go to work.

Alfred Delp


I don’t know if you’re like me, but I sometimes find our lectionary readings on this first Sunday of Advent to be a bit jarring, particularly in coming off of Thanksgiving weekend. Jesus pleads with the disciples in Matthew’s text to stay alert and to keep awake, but my mea culpa as a disciple is that I spent much of the weekend in a tryptophan-induced nap after turkey dinners and turkey leftovers. “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” Christ warns, but the only preparations I took for the weekend were to pack pants with some extra room in the waistband. I strongly doubt that’s what Jesus had in mind when he was exhorting the disciples to be ready. Jesus, as always, was pointing to something bigger—a behavior to emulate in those seasons of life when we are anxiously waiting for something to arrive.

Having witnessed the fervor of children during Advent in years past, or even in thinking back to our own childhoods, I’d imagine we all know what it is like to anxiously wait for something to arrive. Our Advent calendars are ready and our countdowns to the celebrations of Christmas Eve and Day have just begun. But our passage from Matthew reminds us, too, that the season of Advent does not just look to Jesus’ arrival in the manger just over two thousand years ago. In the Greek text of the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew we just read, the word parousia pops up multiple times—a word that New Testament writers frequently used to describe the second coming of Christ, and a word that is translated in Latin as adventus, where the name for this season derives. As strange or as jarring as our passage from Matthew’s twenty-fourth chapter might be—a passage from the latter stages of Jesus’ life rather than the beginning—this season of Advent is built around this temporal contradiction. We are waiting for an event that has both already happened, but that has not yet arrived—much as the Kingdom of God throughout the gospels is paradoxically here, but not yet. Our Advent calendars are ready to be opened, carefully counting down the days until we remember Christ’s birth—but so too “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We are left in this season of Advent with something of a liturgical juggling act—looking back to the manger not out of a sense of nostalgia, but instead out of knowing that our hope for the future is meant to be sustained by the promises of the past. This is a theme that we see arise time and time again throughout the biblical text, and it’s one that our first lesson from the prophet Isaiah digs into deeply as well.

The book of Isaiah covers an unusually large timespan for a prophetic text, with scholars believing that the book was likely written in three distinct time periods, speaking to people before, during, and after Israel’s time in exile. Our verses today, coming from the second chapter of Isaiah, are from the time before Israel’s exile—a time of worry, tumult, and uncertainty within Israel as their Assyrian neighbors began to aggressively expand their empire. But while Isaiah begins his prophecy with heavy words in the first chapter, his tone changes dramatically in our reading today. “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains . . . all the nations shall stream to it. The Lord shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” It’s a beautiful passage—but in the context that Isaiah was writing to there was no rational way to believe any of it. Israel and Judah were small, divided kingdoms facing the horrific power of the Neo-Assyrian empire—they would be lucky to even survive an invasion, much less dream of a future in which all people would say “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that we may learn God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.”

 Isaiah’s hope for the future was sustained by the promises of the past—that God had been with the people in difficult times before and would continue to do so—but there’s also an important grammatical shift that takes place at the conclusion of this prophecy. While most of Isaiah’s words are spoken in a future tense, our passage closes by addressing the reader or listener with a present imperative—
“come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” This passage is not just speaking to the future; it is an urgent plea for whoever encounters it to wholeheartedly engage in the present as well. Writing on this passage, Stacey Simpson Duke, co-pastor of First Baptist Church in Ann Arbor, noted that Isaiah is offering “not only a vision of global transformation, but an invitation to live towards that day.” While the future may belong to God, “the first steps toward that future belong to those who have glimpsed God’s light and are willing to trust that enough light lies ahead.”

When viewed through a lens of facing towards the present, these words from Isaiah take on a drastically different tone and meaning. We are not meant to wait passively for God to usher in a new era of peace, understanding, and hope—we are meant to be a part of bringing it into being. Our Advent texts are not just reminders of past promises or promises of a brighter future—they are an invitation to be a part of God’s unfolding story here and now.

If we apply that same view to our Gospel text from Matthew, the strange urgency of the passage comes into focus. In one of Paul’s earliest letters—his first letter to the Thessalonians—he urges and pleads with the Thessalonians to live lives that honor Christ’s teachings rather than merely waiting for the day when Christ will return. “Encourage one another and build each other up,” Paul writes. “See that none of you repay evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another—indeed, hold fast to what is good.” That spirit is behind much of Matthew’s twenty-fourth chapter, with our passage today only underscoring the necessity for Jesus’ disciples to stay hard at work. Observing this season of Advent, of waiting for Christ’s coming, means that we are being asked to take steps towards a future that belongs to God’s light—the soft, gentle light found in the manger—and that we trust that light will still be there as we move forward.

Trusting in God’s promises will be difficult for most, or perhaps all, of us at different points in our lives, particularly when we feel we aren’t seeing any evidence of those promises being enacted in the world around us. We run the risk every Advent of feeling disillusioned rather than hopeful in hearing the promises of Isaiah and the prophets, or in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, because despite their hopeful tone, so many of the problems facing the communities that Matthew, Isaiah, and others were writing to still exist today. Swords have certainly not yet been beaten into plowshares, and any peace we might discover feels ephemeral. We celebrate the coming of the Christ child into the manger, and yet Christ’s parousia, or return, feels ages away at best. We, at the start of another season of Advent, are filled with the paradoxical combination of hope and disillusionment, desperately wanting to believe in Christ’s light but unsure of where we might catch glimpses of it in the world around us.

It was with that sort of spirit—one caught in that hope and disillusionment paradox—that I found myself turning this past week to a familiar Advent companion, a devotional book aptly titled Watch For The Light that compiles reflections on the season of Advent from both religious writers and leaders alike. But while I pulled the book off my shelf looking to sink into a comforting devotional routine, I instead opened the book to a devotion entitled “The Shaking Reality of Advent.” There was no escaping the urgency of this Matthew passage, I realized, so instead I read on.

The devotion, a small part of which appears on your bulletin cover, was written by a Jesuit Priest named Alfred Delp. Delp was born in Germany and spent his whole life growing up in church, first going through confirmation at the Lutheran church where his father worshipped before converting to Catholicism and being confirmed at the Catholic parish where his mother worshipped. After spending nearly a decade studying religion in colleges and universities, Delp was officially ordained a priest in Munich, 1937—shortly before Adolf Hitler began to consolidate control of the German government. In the years that followed, Delp’s preaching and writings often came under suspicion by government authorities—but when he joined an underground movement in 1942 that sought to tear apart the ideology of the Third Reich on religious grounds, Delp’s eventual fate was sealed. Because of his ties to the group, he was inaccurately implicated in the assassination attempt on Adolf Hilter’s life in 1944, and was eventually imprisoned for six months before he was sentenced to death for treason. During this time in prison—much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer—Delp spent much of his time writing and reflecting, focusing in particular on the season of Advent and its meaning for humankind, even as he sat awaiting his own death.

It is not hard to imagine disillusionment outweighing hope for Delp as he reflected on Advent—that the promise of a light that would shine brightly among the nations would sound hollow while sitting in the darkness of a prison cell, or that the promise of a peace that would pass all understanding would sound foolish in the heart of the Second World War. And yet hope rings out loudly in his writings, punctuated only by his pleas for each of us to work to bring our hopes into being. “If Advent is to truly come again," he writes, “then the great Advent question for us is whether we come out of these convulsions with this determination: yes, arise. It is time for each of us to go to work." Trapped in a prison cell, separated from his parish and family in one of the darkest periods in human history, Delp believed not just in the promises of God’s future, but in the necessity of living out those promises in our present. Our Advent promises are in the present imperative tense—an invitation to help others experience the love and joy surrounding that child in the manger, or to help build that better, fairer world that Christ will return to bring.

We often try to look for the light of those promises breaking into our world through bold and powerful ways, but oftentimes some of the most powerful reshaping of the world happens in the quiet, simple moments where our lives intersect with each other or with total strangers—things that any of us could do. God’s Advent promises can be found in the high school girls who responded to the presence of hate crime graffiti in the restroom at their school by covering the walls with hundreds of post-it notes proclaiming messages like “listen with an open heart,” “stay strong,” “you are loved.” God’s Advent promises can be found in the mother and son who discovered another student didn’t have money to afford lunch at school and so they packed an extra lunch for him every day for months. God’s Advent promises can be found in the police officers who discovered three children left alone in an apartment and who not only found relatives to care for them, but who have returned throughout the year to throw birthday parties for each of the kids, raising money from their whole precinct to get them gifts. God’s Advent promises can be found in our Christmas Wishes campaign here at the church, getting gifts to children who may not know if anything will be under their Christmas tree this year, or in our Light Up a Life donations, our volunteers who serve meals on holidays and during the week, or the many other ways that people give of their money, time, and talent here.

Friends, we may be waiting for Christ in this season, but we don’t have to wait to make a difference in the lives of others. The world needs each of us to participate in bringing our Advent promises into being, not for an unknown future—for that future belongs to Christ—but for the present instead. In the words of Alfred Delp shortly before he died: “light your candles, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.” We all have different roles to play in spreading the soft, gentle light found at the manger at the end of this season—but our work, our voice, and our love is urgent and vital. So in this Advent season as we carefully listen, hoping to hear that small, but persistent voice of love, hope, and peace once again, may we each be a part of spreading that message that Christ came into this world to bring in whatever ways that we can, trusting in the promise of God’s future. Amen.