Today is the First Sunday of Advent.
It is the beginning of the church liturgical year. It is the first Sunday of the Christmas cycle. Four Sundays of Advent then Christmas. Advent looks to Christmas, the first coming of Christ. It also looks to the second coming of Christ and to “the end” as it were. It looks back and ahead.
The season comes from a pre-modern time, in a three-tiered-universe with heaven above and earth below and the pit of hell, the lake of fire, beneath the earth. Christ is on the right hand of the Father but will come again, that is return from heaven above to earth below and make a new heaven and a new earth.
One could imagine this happening quite literally.
Today an eight year old after watching an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy could tell you that Earth is 4.5 billion years old and is probably only half-way through its life-cycle. There are billions of galaxies with more billions of stars and planets. Is Jesus going to return to each planet and set up a new kingdom there and here?
As we began to realize that this picture of the universe and the Christian future didn’t quite square with the universe unfolding before us through science, two options were left. The first was to reject the Christian view altogether as pre-modern and outdated. The second was to cling ever harder to the pre-modern Christian vision and try to squeeze modern knowledge into the biblical world-view.
One of the popular movements that found its home in option two was the Adventist movement. It was a product of the Great Awakening in the early 1800s. Characterized by revival preaching, the message was to get saved before the Second Advent of Christ, or the Second Coming of Christ.
Christ is coming soon. Look busy.
William Miller in New York State calculated the end as some time between March 21st 1843 and March 21st 1844. When the long expected Jesus failed to keep his appointment, they set another date and another and finally gave up on date setting. That is some did for a while.
Different religious sects were formed with many different theories including the development of the rapture when believers would be swooped up to heaven.
You might remember Harold Camping in 2011 predicted the rapture on May 21st, 2011. He was a Christian radio broadcaster and his radio company Family Radio spent a lot of money advertising the rapture. Billboards went up all over the country predicting the date of Christ’s return.
Every now and then a date comes up and then goes away. True believers hold that date predicting is a bad idea for obvious reasons but can’t resist pointing to signs of the end times and that Jesus will be making his Advent soon.
The point I want to make is that as the modern world made this doctrine of “the end” more impossible to believe, the doctrine became even more popular. Any Christian bookstore will have plenty of books about the end. Much of it centers around the tensions in the Holy Land and in particular the fate of the Temple Mount upon which sits the Dome of the Rock, the second holiest site for Muslims.
If global warming doesn’t get us the fires flamed by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists trying to bring on the end will.
Here we are. Mild-mannered, modern Presbyterians, lighting the Advent candle and singing “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” What are we doing? For what are we singing?
If option one is rejection of the Christian narrative whole cloth and option two is fundamentalism what is a progressive Presbyterian to do?
What we are in the process of doing is raking through the ashes of Christendom to see if we can’t find anything there that is worthy of use. We are asking what wisdom of our forebears outlasts the worldview in which it was constructed?
Since we still light the candle we say there is still something there worth keeping. Even this strange season of Advent may find a place in the faith we are constructing.
We know if asked that Advent, the first or second coming of Jesus, is not about date-setting or signs of the end or Jesus coming on the clouds. When I sing that beautiful Advent hymn, “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus” I translate it in my mind. I know the era it comes from but I have no illusions that Jesus is ever going to return any more than George Washington or Elvis will return.
Jesus did his work. He reimagined for us, like all the smart Jews of his time, a world in which humans live true to their better natures. He imagined a world in which we learn that the person we were supposed to hate is our saving grace. He taught us that warring siblings can be reconciled, that unjust authorities have weaknesses, and that courageous seekers will find what they seek.
Jesus did his work. He offered a vision. It is up to us to carry on.
It is hard keeping the dream alive. At times it is easier to be cynical. Ask anyone who works for anything worthwhile. By definition, if it is worth working for, it is hard. It is hard making a marriage work. It is hard raising children. It is hard building a church community. It is hard participating in democracy.
Habitat for Humanity’s vision statement is ten words long:
A world where everyone has a decent place to live.
It is only ten words but it is a pretty big vision. Everyone on the planet with a decent place to live? What is the target date for that? When is the end time for that vision?
Bread for the World’s vision statement is no less modest:
Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nations’ decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.
The end of hunger. A decent place to live for everyone.
It is no wonder end times weirdness develops. Real life is too hard. Real goals seem impossible. It is easier to resort to superstition and fantasy.
“Rapture me, Jesus, so I don’t have to build homes or end hunger.”
That isn’t the assignment. The assignment is a houseless stranger and a hungry child. Yes it is hard. Yes there is opposition. Yes there is disagreement about how to go about it. So what?
Here is option three.
Advent is about keeping the dream alive.
We light a candle not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and because the dream is compelling and demanding and bigger than any of us.
Today we lit the candle of hope.
What are our hopes? Advent is a time to name them. To bring them to the surface and to offer ourselves to hope’s work.
Augustine, the fourth century theologian, was definitely pre-modern. He thought Jesus was literally coming again in the clouds, too. But he also had timeless wisdom about hope. He said,
“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”
We light a candle at Advent to ignite our anger and our courage, to keep the dream alive.
In the Northern Hemisphere the season of Advent gets progressively darker as it moves toward the Winter Solstice. It is a via negativa season, a Dark Wood season, to use the metaphor by Eric Elnes and his book Gifts of the Dark Wood. I am basing my sermons this Fall on the seven gifts he describes in his book.
The gift today is temptation. The text I used is the temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness. That text is normally used for the First of Sunday of Lent. As I see it Christmas and Easter are really about the same thing, keeping the dream alive. It is the same for Islam and Judaism, too.
Why do Jews have so many festivals and what do they mean? Here is the answer in three sentences.
They tried to kill us.
Islam, Judaism, Christianity, all the religions, I think, as well as plain old-fashioned humanism are about keeping the dream alive. They have different ways of symbolizing it, but if you boil it down, human beings have far more in common than we might think.
Here is the temptation. As Eric points out in his book, the temptation is not a temptation to do evil. It is not to do sexy naughty things as we commonly think of the word temptation. Temptation is about doing the good that is not ours to do.
My spin on this, is that the temptation for Christianity is to allow the work that needs to be done by us to be projected onto a divine being.
So Jesus in the wilderness. This is not a story about the historical human Jesus. This is about superpower Jesus. Jesus could, the story assumes, do these things, turn rocks to bread, control the planet, jump off buildings unscathed. Those would be good things. Jesus could feed the hungry. If he controlled the planet, he could make people enact his vision. If he did a big fancy miracle in the public square like jumping off a building, everyone would be impressed and listen to him.
Jesus says no to the adversary, not because these are bad things, but because they are not his to do. As the legends of Jesus over time began to accrue and he took on super powers, people asked as children ask, why didn’t Jesus use his magic to make things all better? These stories like the temptation of Jesus by the adversary are read back into the tradition to offer an explanation. The explanation was that he could but chose not to do so. He could have done the good things: turn stones to bread, make the world a better place, jump off buildings unscathed, but that wasn’t his job. He could do all that son of God stuff. But no, he said. His job was to be a human being.
The Christian story has its own corrective. The temptation is to resort to the supernatural, that Superpower Jesus will make it all right. Yet even the story of Superpower Jesus tempted in the wilderness is really a human story. Amidst all of the pressure all of the temptation to turn Jesus into a supernatural figure, a temptation that the church has given into time and time again, within that tradition is the story of Jesus himself saying no to that.
Whatever is going to happen on Earth, whether we find a way to live in peace, to house the houseless, feed the hungry, make peace with justice, tall orders all, they will be done or not be done by human beings working together.
I light this Advent candle not because I think or put my hope in magical solutions that Jesus will come again and make it all better. He has come. He did his work. He inspired us with a vision.
Now the task is courageously, against all odds, to articulate this vision and to live it.
Now that I am coming up on my first anniversary with you, I do see something perhaps emerging in the way of an identity for our congregation. Housing justice is a term that seems to cover what this congregation has done in many ways, through Rebuilding Together and Habitat for Humanity, for instance. There is a broad need for housing justice in our own county. It requires advocacy as well as hands-on work and thoughtfulness.
This congregation took on LGBT justice issues and we will continue certainly with that, but now I would like to engage with you about housing. I put my cards out there that I am interested in exploring this and will be talking more about this and listening to you about possibilities for Southminster.
A decent place for everyone to live. That is an Advent hope I can believe in.