The First Sunday of Advent
Watch the sermon here.
When I was in college, I was a member of our chapel choir. Our school was centered around countless traditions and stories that made our little community “special,” and one of those traditions was the choir’s annual festival of Lessons & Carols. Constructed in the style of King’s College’s famed service, it was a month long affair to prepare — advertising went out months in advance, tickets were snapped up within minutes of availability, greenery was locally sourced from the ginkgo trees around campus, kept in the local flower shop’s coolers, and set up during an all day event full of coffee, snacks, and matching tee shirts. Our Lessons & Carols service had been featured in Southern Living Magazine & Garden & Gun, and rumor has it, though those tickets were free, donations raised countless dollars for the school every year.
As a chorister, many joked we were the “show ponies” — we spent hours each week rehearsing, but when the event came they wound us up and set us off to perform in between readings of nine lessons done by students, faculty, and community members. Many of our songs, as tradition is wont to do, were unchanging year to year. There were hymns, gregorian chants, and well known anthems, but my personal favorite was the opening sequence, the Matin Responsory for Advent Sunday, based on a Nunc dimittis by Palestrina. The chapel would be dimly lit, and we would process in and stop at the back after a short prayer outside. We would then light our candles, allow the silence to fill the space, and then a booming senior male voice would call out “I look from afar!” From there, the piece continued as a call and response on the coming of Jesus.
There was a kind of mystical feeling that would take over the space as we performed. In this dimly lit chapel, the sound echoing off the walls, you could make out a bit of our faces, and all eyes and attention was on us. Some say Hope itself is a light shining in a dark place, and I
think while that is true, it is more present to us when we pay attention, and what better way than to mark the beginning of a new liturgical year?
The first Sunday in Advent marks the coming of Christ. The season is one of preparation, of a faithfulness in Christ, and a sense of Hope. Our readings emphasize these themes. Apocalyptic in nature, they’re certainly difficult to wrap your head around, especially if you’re a seminarian and it’s your first time preaching. Yet, the messages of expectation, restoration, and God’s provision over God’s people are overtly present as we mark this new season and the coming of Christ.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians thanks them for their faith and their good works in their region, after concerns that the Church isn’t in its season of growth. Paul blesses them with a call for Love, and gives a sense of hope for providence within the second coming. In this way, the themes of preparation and expectation are intertwined — that as we await and stir up hope in our hearts, we might do as God asks of us within that preparation.
The reading from Jeremiah offers perspective on how God “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Like Jeremiah, the words God proclaims are present in a time when many of us are experiencing insurmountable loss: loss of family and friends, job, community, security, or the hope we may have not so easily needed to remind ourselves of. Especially in this season of Advent, we must remember how hope persists in the midst of darkness — that light is about to break in.
Another prophecy is given to us by Jesus in our Gospel reading from Luke. Wrapped within a parable, Jesus offers more of an observation and a warning than the typical parables has given in other Gospel readings. Jesus tells how the temple will be destroyed, and the disciples ask, “Teacher, so when will these things be? What is the sign that these things are about to
happen?” Jesus’ response tells of wars, earthquakes, plagues, and the destruction of Jerusalem, followed by the cosmic signs of verses 25-26, which is where our Gospel lesson begins.
Jesus emphasizes the coming of the Son of Man, calling the listener to have eyes to see the signs, and sense to be ready. Patience may be exactly what is at issue for the ancient audience, as well as our current Christian community, as we await the day of the Lord. Patience in the face of unkept promises, in enduring illness, dismantled relationships, and unrealized hopes; patience after all our patience has run out. The need for patience, endurance, and hope was present on the hearts of those Jesus encountered, and is still with us today.
This apocalypse, too, is a very different scene from what we think of apocalyptic stories and tellings today. There is no sudden Rapture, no one disappears into thin air or into the clouds. Jesus does not lift us above turmoil and suffering, but drops us into the middle of it. The ‘redemption’ promised to us is not a raft, saving a few people as everything is destroyed. Jesus’ purpose is to redeem us and to have hope, not to keep us from discomfort.
In the parable itself, Jesus says, “See the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see it and know by your own selves that the summer is already near.” This image, much closer to our own sense of earthly life, reminds us that summer is near. Jesus is connecting this transition to that of the coming of God’s kingdom, which we might anticipate with hope in expectation rather than fear. As Jesus taught us to pray, “May your Kingdom come,” we pray for a time when wrongs will be made right and God’s people will be redeemed from the things that cause them suffering. The coming of the kingdom, however, will be a turbulent time, and will not come quickly, as Jesus notes.
Jesus even points out that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away,” which we see ring true as we reflect on this gospel message and many of the
other stories of Jesus’ times and teachings in our Scripture. We, in our hope and expectation for the coming of the kingdom through modeling our lives and communities after Jesus’ messages of love and passion for our neighbors, are creating the kingdom of heaven. Our very lives, molded in the example of providing for one another as we are able, striving for justice in our communities and our lands, and seeing the dignity in every human being, are part of this expectation and in this redemption of the world. How then, are Jesus’ words ringing true for you in your life?
For me, I watch with great joy (from afar) as my college choir returns to their annual Festival of Lessons & Carols, after creating a virtual production last year. I celebrate how, amidst the anxieties uncertainty of the past year, my small space for hope, like one of those small flames burning in that massive dark chapel, grew into such a bright space as celebrating this season of Advent in this Saint Michael’s family. As we move forward in this season of Advent, may we continue to look for and celebrate the hope of this season together, and the hope we have in Jesus Christ.