“This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.” - John Wycliffe,1384.
Isaiah 2:1–5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11–14, Matthew 24:36–44
The First Sunday in Advent which is graced with these tests follows Christ the King Sunday, which in turn brings Pentecost season to an end. The end of Pentecost has a character of its own in the Common lectionary. It deals with matters of “the end.” By the first Sunday of Advent, the idea that: “all things must pass,” has been spoken in most pulpits. Christ the King Sunday asked a question of its own: “In spite of this, and in spite that Jesus Christ died on the cross, will you have Faith?” Faith is a heroic thing. It casts its lot, it bets its life on this Jesus. At the end of Pentecost season, on Christ the King Sunday, it might have been good to recall the words of Henry Nouwen: “The words heard most often in heaven are: Oh, that’s why!”
Advent begins, maybe regrettably, with texts that seem to carry on the theme of end and destruction. Advent ought not be about that though. Unlike the last weeks of Pentecost, Advent is not about teleology but about Hope.
That theme of Hope is evident in our Old Testament and Epistle readings. Jerusalem will see the Lord redeeming and setting right all things. The night is almost over now, says St. Paul, it will be daylight soon, prepare yourself. We can stand ready in fear and trepidation as the bumper sticker suggests: “Jesus is coming! Look busy!” That sentiment is not for Advent. Advent awaits the Lord in longing. One keeps the lamps full of oil because one is looking forward to meeting the Lord. (Matt 25:1-13) One keeps the house in order because one eagerly awaits his return, one treats ones fellow “wait-erers” with grace because one longs for the whole house to express a joyous sense of awaiting. (Matt 24:45-51) One expresses ones hope by working as if one knew him and his graciousness, for the way we do our work says something about our attitude towards the one for whom we do it. (25:14-30) One expects his judgement to be based on the theme: have you done as one belonging to my house would have, have you been eager to meet me to the point that you served all as if they were me for serving all is what I have done? (Matt 25:31-46)
Advent also has a penitential character to it. The history of Advent as a season is penitential. It is not clear when it became a Season of its own, but when it did, it became a purple season. In the 6th century it seems to have been observed from November 11th all the way to the Feast of the Nativity. It became a four Sunday season - the Sunday closest to the feast of Andrew (November 30) and embracing four Sundays - sometime in the 10th century when it also became very much a fast, penitential season in preparation for the Christ Mass.
Hope is not without its enemies and often hope is placed in things other than the Kingdom and the return of Christ. Some sense of penitence is therefore not out of order. Hope found in places other than the Christ has causes, not the least one being that, well, we have waited a long time and he ain’t here. When will he finally get here? Am I going to wait until I die? (in most cases, yes, by the history of faith) In waiting is the temptation of getting distracted. Distraction causes chaos in all places where it occurs, be that faith or the operation of motor vehicles, be that worship or roasting the Thanksgiving turkey. FailBlogs are full of videos of the results of traffic or cooking gone wrong by distracted operators.
Distraction brought on by a sense of spiritual exhaustion is not unknown to the spiritual guides of the church. Evagrius (346-399) is one of the earliest sources to devote some time writing about it. His term for it is “Acedia.” One caught that way does not want to pray but wants something else - anything else. He does not want to wait for the Lord, he wants to be about other business whatever that might be. He asks: “why do I live different,” but has no sense of how to live better and so drifts into the life around. (Jude) Evagrius feared that acedia barred its victims from the drive to repent, as they no longer cared about the things of God and began to be distracted by just about anything that demanded their attention or allegiance. Acedia drives away the possibility of sanctification.
How then do we find hope again and make our lives a joyous waiting for the Lord that spills out into a life that is always ready for his return and is seen as such? If they see us do they think that we are waiting for one whom we trust or do they think we fear his return? Are we calculating his “day” so we can be ready for that day on some schedule or do we pray the Lord hasten the day? And why do we want it to be hastened?
I am a Kraut. I am of the post war generation that spent their youth sharing the loathing over the character and honor of our country. There was a sense that we were all ontologically guilty - somehow. And something had been lost but no one wanted to say. Something and someone was missing. It was not spoken. It was not talked about. Stories of the 40's, if mothers and grandmothers told them, were told in hushed voices often with tears. Beneath the surface of my elders there were dark pools. There rested the memories of brother, sisters, friends no longer seen, laid in graves unknown if they had been buried at all. In those places rested memories of which no one was proud. Memories of being swept up in the moments, memories of doing what had to done to survive.
As my generation came of age, we stirred up some of the dust because it was time to know. What happened, dad? What happened, grandpa? How could you?! And we shouted those accusations into loving eyes that were downcast in guilt and shame and those eyes, those faces, favored our own ever so strongly. After the rage was over. After all the self justifications were said, refuted, after all the helpless cries saying: "I don't understand myself," had faded, my generation is now left with faces in mirrors that we know are capable of the greatest evil in our time. There were no excuses. There are no excuses. The devil did not make our grandparents do this. Luther, often blamed for making Hitler’s hatred of the Jews possible, did not make them do this. They - we - did this.
As German Lutherans, as human beings with a conscience, we know that what was done was wrong and evil. It is all right there to see. Luther would have condemned it in one of his all so famous tirades if he had seen it. The problem is that my generation will not let you be so quick to say that you see and you condemn. We have seen faces of very good people who saw but went along. We know that no one is above it all, but God.
I use the word "charmed" to describe what happened. You, yes, you who read this, can be charmed by evil when it holds out its bright shining objects of false hope. It does us no good to find rationalizations that make us feel better about what happened once the evil is exposed and our participation is clear. We are not any good at telling good from evil. The snake lied. The snake also did not eat the fruit. We did. The next Holocaust is within your grasp. You are capable of it. It can happen here. You, yes: you, may very well shout adoring praises as the next Pol Pot rides by, his limousine escorted by goose stepping soldiers.
It gets dark around Hamburg at about 4 PM in the winter. At my house Advent candles were lit and Christmas decorations were made on dark winter afternoons. The stories of the war were told by grandmother and mother, with wet eyes cast down. It was at no other time in the year that these stories really came up. But in this season souls that had seen what people can do to one another were crying: "Redeem, Lord Jesus! Redeem." This is Advent for me. The cry of the soul: "This all must be answered for. This all must be judged. We must be judged. Come, Lord, judge the nations beginning with us."
Advent is a contemplative cry for the Lord to return, having done self examination and realizing the need for the world to be visited by the kingdom of heaven. Hope, repentance, and sanctification meet in these places of tears, guilt, remembrance, and longing. “Oh, happy towns and blessed lands that live by their true king's commands,” begins the 3rd verse of Fling Wide the Door (“Macht hoch die Tür") These happy towns, may they, like Jerusalem of Isaiah 2, welcome the Lord and his ways. These happy towns, may the Word of God be for them and govern them so thoroughly that it governs from within and becomes of them as much as it is for them.