A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 2, 2012 (I Advent, Year C)
I’m feeling pretty relaxed this morning. Sure, it’s December and most people around here have been untangling Christmas tree lights or stressing about entertaining or shopping or dealing with ramped up children. I usually have all of this plus a slew of sermons to write and liturgies to plan and bulletins to proof, but I’m feeling pretty relaxed this year.
I’m able to breathe deeply and take it slow and enjoy each moment because, according to the Mayan calendar, everything will be over on December 21st. The end of the world; the apocalypse; the end times — whatever you want to call it. And so, those four services on Christmas Eve? Not happening. Christmas presents for the family? Won’t need any. All those sermons? Whatever. This is the most relaxed I’ve been on the First Sunday in Advent in, well, ever.
I guess you could argue that I’m delusional or that the 2012 date found on those ancient hieroglyphics wasn’t intended to predict the end of the world. You could tell me that archeologists believe the Mayan king was simply using a metaphorical mathematical formula to tell his people he would reign for eternity. Or that we’ve endured so many predictions about the end of the world that the whole thing has become a joke. Everybody who’s anybody has made a failed prediction — from Charles Manson to Jim Jones to Pat Robertson to Y2K to last year’s 11/11/11 date. Though my favorite was Astrologer to the Stars Jeanne Dixon who, after being wrong about the world ending in February of 1962 simply got up, dusted herself off, and changed it to 2020. But despite all the passionate predictions over the years, despite the various street preachers holding up the “The End is Near!” signs, the world hasn’t ended; we’re still here. But I don’t want to hear it. While I may be in for a rude awakening on December 22nd, please let me enjoy my state of bliss for just a little longer.
We enter this season of Advent focused on time. Jesus speaks of a time when he will return and bids us to be watchful and ever-vigilant. And Advent itself is a time for holy waiting. Each week as another candle is lit on the Advent Wreath, the light increases and we are drawn ever closer to the birth of our Lord. The growing light marks the passage of time and our opportunity to meet Jesus anew through the incarnational moment of Christmas draws nearer.
There’s another approach to this season, of course. Most of society treats this time of year more like an hourglass — not the slow soap opera version “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” — but the small one you set before a round of Boggle that leaves you frantically scrambling to find words before time runs out. The sand of our seasonal hourglass drips out all too rapidly, reminding us of the time slipping away; precious time we need not for spending time with one another and enjoying this holy season but for all that we need to get done. Christmas becomes yet another deadline in our deadline-driven lives rather than a joyful moment of expectation and hope.
If opening windows on your Advent calendar brings you more stress than joy, it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate. If Advent feels more like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode on December 25th, it’s time to rethink your priorities.
Fortunately, there is a better way. And the church helps point us in the right direction. Because there is nothing more counter-cultural than spending time in church during December. Not in a tye-dyed, VW bus, hippie kind of way but counter-cultural in the sense of being out of step with the rest of society. Because while you’ll hear Christmas carols in the mall, you’ll get those wonderful expectant Advent hymns in church; and while the over-the-top Christmas decorations in shop windows are just peaking, we don’t pull out all the stops until Christmas Eve; and while for most of the world Christmas ends after the wrapping paper on the last gift is torn off on Christmas Day, we’re just getting started with the 12 Days of the Christmas season. We don’t just drop Christmas and immediately go on to Valentine’s Day or whatever the next holiday is — we savor the joy of the moment.
So simply being here this morning is a counter-cultural act. It’s an acknowledgment that, to quote the Grinch, “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” I’m not saying shopping is evil or putting up Christmas decorations during Advent is the work of the devil. Hardly. But I am saying it’s so important to have a foot in both worlds; to take time to reflect upon why we’re doing all of this; to think about the meaning behind the madness. Otherwise we’re simply feeding what I like to call the Christmas-Industrial Complex and missing the larger message of hope and salvation.
In this gospel passage Jesus is talking not so much about the end of the world as his return at the Second Coming. We generally leave this type of thing to the evangelicals to sort out. But we do so to our detriment. This season of Advent — which literally means “coming” in Latin — is really about a dual coming. The first coming of Jesus to a manger in Bethlehem and the second coming when Jesus will return to judge the earth. Not a judgment of fire but of compassion. And when this happens we aren’t to be fearful of the unknown but confident in the gracious and merciful goodness of God. We’re not to cower in fear but, as Jesus says, we are to raise our heads in hope and thanksgiving to receive the redemption that is drawing near. And we can be confident because we know that behind the unknown stands God; eagerly waiting for us with open arms as he welcomes us into his kingdom.
Time is of the essence during Advent. We wait, we watch, we pray. Jesus doesn’t say that the end is near. He tells us that the Kingdom of God is near. This place where people are loved and valued as children of God; where peace trumps violence; and justice reigns. The kingdom is near because Jesus is near. As we wait to meet Jesus anew, we can say with deep conviction, that only time will tell.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2012