Advent, the first season, the new year of the Church, has begun! Happy New Year! Advent looks towards Christ’s birth, but also towards the second coming of Christ at the end of all days; when the holy narrative begun with Christ’s humble birth and expressed most deeply through Christ’s humble death and triumphant resurrection will be fulfilled as Christ comes to set all things in order by love.
As this Advent season begins, the liturgical color changes to blue, we light one candle to watch for Messiah, and we move from having read mostly in the gospel of Matthew for the past year to mostly reading in the gospel of Mark in this new year as foundational scripture support in our faith journeys as individuals and as a community.
And as our new year begins, we are invited into a time of reflection and preparation. Like a yearly wellness check up at the doctor’s office makes sure that things are working as best they can with our bodies, so the season of Advent and its companion season of Lent invite a time of examination of our conscience, examination of our whole lives to see where they have been reflecting or neglecting the loving promises of Christ our Savior. Even as the gospel lesson appointed for today describes the second coming of Christ at the end of days, we, too, are invited to consider the end of our days of living: what will those who knew us say about the character of our living? Did we grow in courageous striving for the sake of the gospel and the world, helping those in need? Did we, with God’s help, peel back the layers of our own sinfulness so as to give the best of who we are as a fragrant offering in lives marked by love and compassion, patience and kindness, gentleness and strong works for justice?
Will they think of us like Sojourner Truth, whose statue stands in Port Ewen and will soon stand at the entrance to the Walkway over the Hudson, a testament to the fortitude and courage and conviction of this former slave whose journey through this world meant freedom not only for her, but for so many others who she brought along with her?
Will they think of us like Greta Thunberg, whose global efforts to fight the tide of climate change began with her sitting in protest outside the government offices of her country as a teenager?
Will they remember us as citizens striving to uphold democracy and its ideals of freedom and justice not just for a few, not just for people who fit certain criteria, but freedom and justice for all?
Will they remember us as the striving children, teenagers, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles and grandparents and great grandparents; as those caring and loving “other” adults at church and in our communities, who always had a smile and kind and encouraging word for them?
As we enter the season of Advent, what will the wellness check-up for our souls and lives look like?
Sadly, I think that for some folks and certainly the Church at times through the centuries, talking about Christ’s second coming and the end of days, has been reduced to an exercise in fear. Almost, it would seem, a way to pressure themselves, and others, to do the right thing “or else.” A cautionary yard stick wielded in an authoritarian hand.
Certainly, the second coming of Christ at the end of the ages deserves to be taken seriously, and as an invitation to reflect on our own striving. Yet I am not sure how fear will help motivate us in the right direction to meet the Christ when Christ comes again. Hmmm…maybe we might take a hint regarding approach from theologians, as they have reflected on Martin Luther’s teachings about the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism.
In the Small Catechism we find that Martin Luther enjoins us, in his lessons on the Ten Commandments, to fear and love the Lord in connection with carrying out the commandments. The word “fear” in those writings, as some theologians have suggested, might better in our modern context be understood as “awe.”
Ah...so, then we ought to be in awe of God as part of gaining the courage and fortitude needed to face the temptations of the day and rise to God’s call in striving to live by the Ten Commandments, with Christ’s help. And, when we hear our gospel lesson today, describing Christ who will come in glory at the end of all days, and how we do not know the day or the hour of Christ’s coming, these words and images, rather than causing us to be fearful, can help foster the appropriate awe for us at the power and vastness and glory of God in Christ, like walking into an awe-inspiring cathedral, or listening to a sublime piece of music, or observing a gorgeous sunset.
Advent is not a time for cowering in fear, but rising up with faith as we consider God’s awe-inspiring nature of love, and the awesome gift that has been given through Christ who will soon, so soon be born again at Bethlehem, and who will come again at the end of all ages to gather up this world in love. This is house cleaning time for the soul so as to prepare a life of holy welcome for the Christ child, built one day at a time.
Let’s get prepared! Amen.