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1st Sunday of Advent – November 27, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Advent 1A

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

These Advent texts offer a series of contrasts this week: light and dark, awake and asleep, alert or numb, preparedness or caught off guard.

The question of time runs throughout. Do you know what time it is? You can’t know what day and hour. Salvation is near. The days are surely coming.

Talk of Christ’s return and making ready for his expected, albeit sudden, appearance is a tough sell in our context. Despite all the catastrophic language of recent days, none of it has to do with Jesus’ judgment and redemption. Most of the cries of doom bring with them corresponding admonishments to save ourselves. Have you noticed that? We seem to lack confidence that God is at work. Many on both sides of the political divide proclaim that the world is about to turn, few claim that the earth tilts toward a just, compassionate, loving God.

I confess that I am guilty of too often equating God’s providence with history. I am particularly susceptible to this fallacy when history is headed in a direction with which I agree. However, as Christians, we need to avoid the heresy that God’s will and ours line up neatly. God’s ways are not our ways, after all. And isn’t that a relief? Acknowledging that God’s providence is bigger than our disappointments and our hopes frees up the energy we spend on angst and allows us to put it forth in preparing to welcome our Savior.

As we begin a new liturgical year, we would be wise to remind ourselves and our hearers that God is still solidly in control, despite our best efforts to manipulate God’s plans and message. The vision of Isaiah remains the vision we are to both participate in and look toward. We may not know the hour and day that Christ will return, but we can be certain the time is always right to do the right thing. We can be sure that beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks constitutes a worthy enterprise and one that Christ would be pleased to find us engaged in whatever day and hour he appears. We can walk in the light of the Lord even if the light is more a firefly than a flood lamp. We can be alert to any flicker of justice, kindness and humility we might illumine in this in-between time.

Salvation may be near, the darkness deepest just before the dawn, the challenge to keep awake greatest in the ninth hour – but always we are called to consider that any moment could be the one in which we meet our Maker. Is that comforting or frightening? That’s worth considering, too. If we find the thought a terrifying one, we might want to use this Advent season as an opportunity to repent. We might as well, for John the Baptist enters the season soon enough. Let’s get a jump on the rest of the brood of vipers.

The Matthew text for this week highlights the mundane into which the divine invades. Eating, drinking, marrying, working in the field, doing laundry, driving to work, watching the game – nothing is off limits for the Lord’s arrival. Remember the time of Noah? People were going about their day-to-day business when – without warning – the flood washed everything away. So, too, with the Second Coming. Given that, how is it that we are prepared, alert, awake, ready?

Perhaps it is as simple and as complicated as remembering that regardless of the day and hour, the time is always right to do the right thing. Perhaps it is as simple and as complicated as remembering that God is at work in our world, in the midst of the daily grind, present and surely coming, even when history seems counter to our understanding of God’s providence or character. Perhaps it is as simple as walking in the light when we see it and putting on its armor when we don’t. Would any of this preach? Could we talk about Christ’s coming to bring peace even as war rages? Could we proclaim the return of the One who took on the sin of the world and in so doing made a way for reconciliation and redemption? Could our speaking these truths boldly free us to let God do the saving so that we can eat, drink and marry without limits and in joy?

The radical message of Advent is that the divine enters and assumes the mundane. Jesus is coming to save sinners and Christ will return to judge them. This should be sobering, but not scary because even if we don’t know when, we do know who. In “The End of Memory,” Miroslav Volf writes, “Christians have believed that the day is coming on which our past, marred by wrong doing, will be bathed in the warm light of God’s truthful grace. … The Christian tradition identifies the Judge not simply as God, however, but as Jesus Christ – the one who bore the sin and pain of the world as he, the Innocent One, died on the tree of shame outside the gates of Jerusalem. … Through his judgment of grace, we will be freed from the inescapable injustice of the suppressions, lies, evasions and half-truths in which we, as bearers of memories, are presently ensnared, our best efforts not withstanding.”

The warm light of God’s truthful grace – are we preparing to bask in that, not because we are worthy, but solely because God is good? Freedom from half-truths and downright lies – could we anticipate the relief of such revelations and honesty? If these are the gifts we are to be on the lookout for – staying awake to welcome and embrace – could this Advent be one where we participate in them partially until they are made fully manifest on the day and time of the Father’s choosing?

As we eat and drink and marry, work and play and rest, can we remember that God is at work, beating swords into plowshares, even when it looks like the warmongers have won? Believing that promise, could we also remember that the time is always right to do the right thing? Could we prepare to meet our Maker by being as honest as our sinful selves allow in our daily living, looking toward the interest of the others in the field with us, caring for the vulnerable, strengthening the fainthearted and upholding the weak? I can’t think of a better way for us to walk in the light of the Lord and be ready for the coming of the Prince of Peace!

This week:

  1. What do you make of the connection to the story of Noah and the flood? How is this comparison helpful? Troubling?
  2. How do we talk meaningfully about Christ’s return and judgment when many of our hearers equate such talk with interstate billboards about heaven or hell or the “Left Behind” series?
  3. For what do you truly prepare? How does this preparedness compare to being spiritually prepared?
  4. What role do spiritual practices such as prayer, worship and generosity play in being alert to the coming of Christ?
  5. What are the dark places in your life and community that need the light of the Lord? How might the bushel basket be removed so that your light might shine there?
  6. Look in the “Glory to God” hymnal for hymns that use the images of light and darkness. How do they relate to Advent? How do they relate to the lectionary texts for this week?

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