Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5
Kitty Cooper Holtzclaw, reflecting on the gospel lesson for this morning, said, “The idea that God might break into my life disrupts my safe, comfortable scenario. I am threatened by the thief, violated by the intrusion.” It is much easier to think of God as “the protector God, the righteous Judge, the Good Shepherd.” In this holiday season we treasure all those images of being safe, being protected, being at home with family and friends.
I was thinking earlier this week of those families in Chattanooga, TN, whose children were killed or injured in that horrible school bus accident. How hard their Thanksgivings must have been! How hard the holiday season will be for them! But their experience isn’t isolated. I had a friend who called me one year during Advent. Her father had died – rather unexpectedly. She and her husband were both on the phone with me. He said, weeping, “We took down his Christmas stocking and threw it away!” For many this season of celebration is difficult. As the world focuses on good feelings, on happiness, on nostalgic gatherings, they see loss, emptiness, and grief. Poet Ann Weems wrote:
Some of us walk into Advent
tethered to our unresolved yesterdays
the pain still stabbing
the hurt still throbbing.
It’s not that we don’t know better;
it’s just that we can’t stand up anymore by ourselves.
On the way to Bethlehem,
will you give us a hand?
The world around us is driven by the hope that the season’s requisite observations and celebrations can fill the emptiness. And those who are “tethered to unresolved yesterdays” either withdraw – or strive to keep pace and ignore the pain.
Too often, even in the church, we push on with easy proclamations of hope, peace, love and joy – and shut our ears, our minds, and our hearts to the pain in others’ lives and sometimes in our own.
Today’s gospel lesson seems to be a jarring note. We are given not the Prince of Peace, not the Good Shepherd, but a thief who comes unexpectedly. We have disturbing images of people disappearing – the Rapture it’s called in some circles. You’ve seen the bumper stickers stating that if the rapture comes, the car will be driverless. I heard of another this week. “If the rapture comes, can I have your car?”
Perhaps, however, we need to recognize the jarring note as a reality in life – if and when we are honest about our experiences and the experiences of those around us. This season does not provide a break from the world’s challenges and ills, no matter how hard we might try to live as if it does. Holtzclaw quotes a professor who had studied apocalyptic literature (literature that speaks of the end days.). He said, after years of work, that he could be certain of only two things. “First, we are now closer to the Second Coming of Christ that we ever have been, and second, one of two things will happen to us: either we will die before Christ comes again or Christ will return in our lifetime. Either way, the result is the same. We won’t get out alive.”
It is true that in this gospel passage it is Christ who comes unexpectedly – and we have to be careful about saying that the ills we experience are given to us by God. But, maybe, instead, we can hear this as a promise that Christ is present in the disruptions that shake us – and sometimes threaten to destroy us. In the midst of the earthquakes of our lives, we are promised that God is at work.
One of the traditions that has arisen in the last quarter century has been that of offering Blue Christmas Services or Longest Night Services. One resource explains it: “We acknowledge that the holiday season can be difficult for those of us who are grieving the loss of loved ones, who have difficult family relationships, who struggle with addictions, physical and mental illness, depression or stress, and who feel deeply the pain of those in our world who suffer the effects of war, poverty, and disease. So we gather as a community to express and acknowledge these conflicting emotions, as we remember that it was into such a world as this that God’s love took on flesh in Jesus, our Redeemer.” The service uses the Advent Candles, renaming them Grief, Pain, Fears and Struggle. Such feelings seem out of step with the world’s frantic observances that seek an idealized and nostalgic feel good holiday.
There's a lot of "Ah, isn’t that sweet” tied up in this holiday. We look back to the birth of Jesus. And the birth of a baby is sweet. But, Jesus came – centuries ago. That birth happened. It’s over and done with. So, the season of Advent isn’t about preparing for a long-ago birth. Holtzclaw says, “Advent is a time of preparation for something that has not yet happened, something totally new, something that will happen in the fullness of time. It will be a time like no other, and many biblical images used to describe it are not fearful, but full of hope.” She looks at Isaiah that promised that when God disrupts our lives, “it will ultimately be for good, not ill. In that inbreaking, God will inaugurate a wonderful new reign of peace and justice. People will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nations will study war no more.”
Retreat isn’t possible. It isn’t the way of faith. We need to seek and live into the presence of God that speaks to grief, pain, fear, and struggle – the world’s and our own. The gospel lesson speaks of being watchful and prepared. In this season we are invited to hone the practices that allow us to be more watchful and more prepared – not to avoid the world, but to know God’s presence in the midst of all that life brings.
It's been interesting that using the communion liturgy weekly has brought certain phrases into my consciousness in new ways. “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again,” we say. We live in that in-between time – between the Christ has risen and the Christ will come again. Or do we?
Maybe the good news we forget is that Christ is always coming – always breaking in, to bring hope, to bring light to our darkness. Christ is always coming to be with us in our grieving, to ease our pain, to allay our fears, and to strengthen us in our struggles. We don’t have to wait for Christ to come. He has come. He is here. The ultimate days may not yet be upon us – but when that day will be is not our concern. Our concern is how we live these days, with the awareness that God has not abandoned us or the world. We should live in ways that proclaim in word and deed that there is always hope, not a hope that what we once knew will return, but that God is working for and toward that image that speaks to us, the world where the wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and lion and fatling together, with a little child leading them.
We need, and the world needs, a good news of the season that can hear the grief of families who lost their children in an accident, that makes space for all grief, pain, fear and suffering. When my friend’s husband told me that they had thrown out her father’s Christmas stocking, I asked, “Why?” We talked about it. I suggested that not putting it up that year made good sense. “But, next year,” I said, “wouldn’t it be nice to pull it out and share stories about who he was and what he meant to you?” “I’m going to go get it out of the trash,” her husband said.
One of my favorite Ann Weems poems speaks to the season. It’s titled “Not Celebrate?”
Your burden is too great to bear?
Your loneliness is intensified during this Christmas season?
Your tears seem to have no end?
You should lead the celebration!
You should run through the streets
to ring the bells and sing the loudest!
You should fling the tinsel on the tree,
and open your house to your neighbors,
and call them in to dance!
For it is you above all others
who know the joy of Advent.
It is unto you that a Savior is born this day,
One who comes to lift your burden from your shoulders,
One who comes to wipe the tears from your eyes.
You are not alone,
for he is born to you this day.
He was born. He lived. He died. He is born to us this and every day.