Advent 1

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Surely you’ve seen the bumper sticker celebrating 1/20/09, the date of the next presidential inauguration. We know that on that day, we will have a new president. But what do we really know about that day? Some of us have a vision that it might be better (more peaceful, more open, more collaborative and cooperative). The only thing we can be certain of is that it will be different; but we do not know the whole story.

Today, most Christians are convinced we already know how Christmas turns out. We know the beginning and the end of the story. We already know that this is our Savior who will fulfill his purpose on a humiliating cross one spring after being born in the requisite humble manger in the cold darkness of December. But is that really the whole story?

Looking at the lectionary texts for the first week of Advent we find writers who did not know the whole story. They had different images and processes that they were hoping for…they each had their own ideas of what a better life (their salvation) might look like. Each reading this week is written in a different historical context, and each of them seem to be looking toward a future day when things will be different (presumably “better”) for the people of God than they are today. It reminds us of lines in Reid Bush’s poem “Unforeseen”: “It's hard to know when you need to / what it is you're going to want.”

In Psalm 122 we find a poet that could not be a bigger fan of Jerusalem. This writer is so happy that she has had the chance to spend time in “the house of the Lord”. Jerusalem
is the place that gives all of Israel a common history and a current common location to “give thanks to the name of the Lord”. She prays for its peace, its prosperity, its security, and its goodness. The writer of this psalm is hopeful that the future of Jerusalem will bring more of the same success and power and glory it has already enjoyed in the past.

Isaiah shares with us his idyllic vision that one day Judah would be the nation held above all other nations—the Israelites would determine how everyone else acted and lived. He saw an especially nationalistic vision of the law governing the world coming from Zion—the word of the Lord would flow from Jerusalem and the God of Israel would teach everyone how to live together. It was a dream and hope and prayer of how the future would turn out.

Paul takes it a bit further and offers more explanation and direction. He has the luxury of knowing the history of Israel. He knows the story of the temple being built and destroyed and rebuilt, he knows the national history of Israel and its sporadic fidelity, and he knows the Psalms and the visions of Isaiah. He saw the life and death of Jesus play out in front of him. And he had his own intimate and dramatic and powerful connection with Jesus through his own call experience. As he writes to the new community of Jesus followers in Rome,
he does not emphasize national salvation and glory, but instead puts much more energy toward how the individual believers should live so they could be ready. He does this because he, like Isaiah, sees “being saved” as imminent: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

But in Matthew we find Jesus setting a different tone. His vision of the future…of the coming of the Son of Man is not as rosy. He talks about unknown hours, about women being swept away, about people disappearing, about thiefs in the night, about keeping watch at an unexpected hour—these are much less comforting and welcoming thoughts than those of a great nation rising to the top of the world. He does not explain what “the coming of the Son of Man” will mean or look like…only that we must be ready because it will happen. Jesus is pushing toward something more than national power. He seems to be speaking more directly toward the individual listeners present. He turns the other three texts on their heads. He reminds them all that we do not know when or where or how “this” will happen—he only assures folks that we must be prepared.

Today many of us hope the future will be better. We remember how good things were and hope those days will return. We dream, hope, and pray that our world will somehow get its act together and all of our humanitarian and ecological problems will be solved and we will be “saved.” We think that because we can look at the whole Christian story found in the bible we know exactly what we are getting when we pray “O come, o come, Emmanuel.” We assume, like the Psalmist, Isaiah, and Paul, that we know what it means when we ask for Jesus to be born in to our hearts again this Christmas season.

So often the theme for the first week of advent is “watchfulness.” Unfortunately, we spend a lot of our time watching only for things (events, solutions, scenarios) that we want to see. We are a society focused on products and outcomes. We have goals and we benchmark our progress toward those goals.

But the reality is that like the psalmist, Isaiah and Paul, we don’t know the whole story. We’re watching for something that we can’t see quite yet. We’re racing toward a finish line with an unknown location. What if we were, instead, mindful…mindful of what we do not know and faithful in our prayer that God’s will be done and that our hearts and minds and hands are prepared as instruments in the construction and realization of the Kingdom?

What if in our mindfulness, in our understanding that we must be ready, we ask ourselves some guiding questions:

+How do I expect the story to end?
+How am I prepared to participate in the story?
+What do I need to move toward a reality that I cannot fully understand or imagine?
+Am I willing to let God’s story prevail over mine?

O come, Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind. From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

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