Today we begin the journey to Christmas. Does this feel a bit anti-climactic? The decorations have been up in all the stores for at least a month. The world is already busy with the business of getting ready for the secular/commercial celebration. In church, we embrace a season to slow down, to be quiet, to prepare for the coming of God among us.
We begin Advent with a bleak reminder that the world as we know it is going to come to an end. This is the way the world ends, according to the Bible: with wars, and conflict, and fear. There is nothing like adding a little edge to the season of preparation. We are walking into the woods and we are not quite ready!
The first followers of Jesus waited for his return on the Day of the Lord. This was not a visit from St Nicholas or Sweet Baby Jesus. This was coming of Christ on Judgment Day, when the Almighty would separate the innocent from the guilty. They expected the world to end within their lifetimes – and the upheavals of the first century were considered the signs of the nearness of that day. Every cataclysm – war, persecution, or natural disaster – was a labor pain for the new creation being birthed by God.
Some in our own time anticipate that the end is near, and they prepare for an apocalyptic showdown. Will this pandemic be followed by famine? Will war lead to societal collapse? We do not know. We can labor to gain control over possible chaos. Or we can choose to live with faith.
This week, we light the first candle on the Advent wreath. It signifies the faith which brings light into a world marked by shadows. This is not just a quaint, antiquated practice. It is a reminder of a profound truth.
We can choose to live with faith even as we feel as if we are seeing the end of the world.
The world as we have known it is always ending. Faith invites us to perceive new life. The headlines provide ample material for speculation on how a global cataclysm might unfold. Yet even without the Apocalypse (with the capital A), it seems to me that life offers more than enough difficult experiences that bring an end to the world as we have known it. Plague. Death. Illness. Loss of relationship. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Each of these can be a portal to desolation and anxiety, which wreak havoc with our faith in a loving God, as well as with the hallmark holiday moments that the retailers are trying to sell us.
We can choose to have faith in the power of Christ, which offers us new life beyond what has fallen apart. We can perceive that new life can emerge out of the rubble of our recent experience.
Jesus tells his followers to stand up and to raise their heads as the rest of the world faints from fear. The powers of heaven and earth may be shaken, but the children of God know that the Day of the Lord is good news, for the time is near that the Reign of God will be completely fulfilled. So the stars will fall from the sky, and the powerful will fall from their thrones, and a new world will unfold as the Son of Man returns. The faithful will watch for new life, which is just on the other side of disaster.
We can believe that this is entirely true, even if we struggle to believe that the descent of Christ on a cloud could be literally true.
The most powerful threat to our identity right now is not the possibility of violence, or the inevitability of loss and grief, but the possibility of living in constant fear. Fear is both the weapon of terrorists and the tool of the Evil One. Fear can lead us to forget who we really are as followers of Jesus.
When we are afraid, we forget to do all sorts of things. Like breathing. Like loving. Like giving thanks. Like thinking clearly. When we are afraid, we tend to look down at the ground, to make sure our footing is safe. Which is both good for the feet and limiting for our vision. We forget that we are not alone.
How shall we find a way to live in faith and with less fear? We can pick up our heads and look for a familiar face: the face of Christ, who walks with us. This spiritual discipline requires imagination, as we need to see Christ in those with us.
If you want to see the face of Christ, look into the eyes of the children around us, who are open and vulnerable. Look into the eyes of refugees, who are frightened and needy. Look into the eyes of the suffering and the homeless, who need someone to care about what happens to them. Look into the eyes of those who walk with us. At one time or another in his life, Jesus was a child, a refugee, called himself homeless, and suffered terribly. Can we see and love the presence of Christ in those around us? This is a spiritual discipline that requires persistence.
Our world is packed full of the presence of God. Stand up and raise up your heads, my friends, and watch for it with the eyes of faith. In the words of the prophet Sondheim, No one is alone. Hard to see the light now / Just don’t let it go / Things will come out right now / [God] can make it so / Someone is on your side / No one is alone.
May it be so.