The End Precedes the Beginning
A very happy Advent to all of you! I’m thrilled to begin my first Advent at Christ Church. This is my very favorite season of our liturgical year. But I will say, I always feel a little pang of sympathy for the frustrated parent or Sunday School teacher or youth leader, who was all set to talk to young people about joyfully preparing for the birth of the baby Jesus, only to arrive at church this morning and hear “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Even though all three years of the Lectionary cycle begin with some version of this alarming prophecy, it seems to catch us off guard every year.
When I was young, the bishop made his annual visit to my church during Advent, and every year, he preached pretty much the same sermon. As a child, I was very frustrated at having to listen the same lecture every December. But as an adult, and now as a preacher myself, I not only deeply appreciate the value of a good sermon recycle, I am also grateful that the bishop’s Advent lesson is so ingrained in my mind. His message was that in the season of Advent, we start over in one of the most fundamental practices of our Christian faith: our year-long retelling of our story. And he didn’t mean our story as Christians, he meant our story as God’s creation – a story that begins not with the Nativity of Christ, but the Nativity of the world.
The story of God and God’s people is much longer than a Christmas pageant, longer than Christ’s 33 years on earth, longer even than the entirety of Scripture. And God starts the story as only God can: with God, the end always precedes the beginning. Our story begins with the promise of salvation at the end. We launch our Advent readings not with the first coming of Christ in a manger in Bethlehem, but with a vision of his second coming, in power and great glory. God did not bring the world into being on a whim, but with the purpose of divine union between creator and creation, and there can be no story about God that does not start there.
Starting at the end might seem like a tough concept to grasp and you might worry, will this whole Advent thing go right over my head? I’m with you. But last week, just in time for my sermon preparation, I witnessed a boy and his mother discussing the book they are reading together. The boy was pretty anxious, because as happens to the best of us, the ending had been ruined for him. I was thankful that this boy was not alive and on Facebook when the last few Harry Potter books came out. But his mother assured him that knowing how a story ends does not take away its power. She said, “even if you know what’s going to happen, you still have to find out how it happens – and why.”
I do not know if this mother realized the deep Advent truth she had revealed to me. When we retell our story starting at the end, we have nowhere to hide from the painful truth that the difference between our world today and the divine union of the Kingdom is vast and stark and even discouraging. And as our Gospel passage so vividly explains, to get from here to there may be brutal. It’s a shocking reminder that we do not know how or why our salvation takes place, and it’s easy to lose track of the goal amidst the chaos. Luckily, the first Sunday of Advent showcases several of the more mind-boggling aspects of our God. Just as God starts the story at the end, God uses darkness to point us toward the light.
We have no shortage of darkness surrounding us today. Headlines stop us in our tracks, whether it is the number of children in foster care or dead from gun violence, whole cities burned to the ground or deprived of clean water, or just the every day poverty that we witness day after day, week after week, year after year. Whatever circumstance hits us right in the gut and holds the breath in our chests, it is a sign, a darkness that is pointing us toward the light, reorienting us away from the present and toward God’s vision of divine union. It is calling us to wake up and rethink our own lives, how we are working to bring about the Kingdom of God.
American theologian Ched Myers said that one of the gifts of Advent I is that it awakens our political imagination. I firmly believe this is true every year, no matter the political climate. Sometimes our elected officials are the ones we voted for and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes poverty is on the rise and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, the status quo in our society benefits us, and sometimes it doesn’t, but Advent I reminds us that whatever the status quo is on earth, it is not yet God’s divine purpose, and we must be about the business of changing it. This requires courage, it requires creativity, and it requires that we break out of our comfort zones.
As ever, God is doing something totally new in the world and in each of our lives, and the gift of Advent is how our focus is sharpened to it. So this is how we begin retelling our story. We are shaken out of our slumber by the realization that we have work to do to reach our divine purpose. But the God who starts the story at the end and uses darkness to point to light, that God never leaves us without hope. We are not on our own to find our way into heavenly peace. If we are awake to see and notice, as Advent calls us to be, we’ll find that God is already creating new life in the midst of violence and destruction, new life that is embodied in a manger in Bethlehem. Our hope for a better way ahead is renewed as we await the coming of Christ. This is what we have to look forward to this season. Amen.