Advent 1: The sudden presence of God

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD! (Isaiah 2:4-5)

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14)

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:36-44)

It is no accident that Advent begins for us so shortly after Daylight Savings Time, when we are keenly aware of the shortening days and early-falling dark. Anyone who has ever slept with a nightlight as a child knows the gripping power of the dark; the way that shadows move differently and the air seems thicker and quieter. In the darkness, the things that we were sure of begin to feel more uncertain. Darkness heightens our awareness of all the things that we fear.

In its own way, Advent also gets us in touch with our fears and uncertainties. The only way to look with hope toward the coming of the savior of the world is to take an honest look at a world that needs saving.

I probably don’t have to work too hard to convince you that we live in a world in need of a savior. Everything from pictures of war on the news to rude drivers on the highway remind us of the places of deep darkness in our world. And everything from our anger to our grief remind us of the places of deep darkness even in our own souls.

The dark of Advent gets us in touch with the places in our lives where we linger on the edge of despair, and then pulls us back into the light, showing us God’s alternatives to the paralyzing nature of grief, fear, and uncertainty. All of the beautiful Advent imagery of light in the darkness - the candles we light, the gold and silver threads in a fabric of deep blue, the glittering stars in the night sky - give us hope that God’s light will combat and vanquish the fear and darkness.

Isaiah today promises us God’s peace, and Paul in his letter to the Romans promises us the light of salvation. Both of these readings encourage the faithful to walk in God’s light, which illumines even the darkest pathways with hope for God’s future. These readings encourage believers to be ready for the coming of Christ - the first and the last - by persevering in faith.

Admittedly, it is not always easy to walk as children of the light when there is so much darkness around us. But theologian Tom Long, in his commentary on the gospel of Matthew, says "when tomorrow is just more of today and all labors of love seem poured into a bottomless pit of human suffering, indifference, and cynicism, then it is hard to march out the front door to be a disciple. In the face of the crushing needs of the world, the only way to preserve hope, the only way to maintain a willing sense of discipleship, is to trust that at any moment we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God."

What a beautiful thought: the remedy for the paralyzing nature of despair is the knowledge that at any moment, we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God. The antidote to the apathy that comes from fear and grief and pain is the gift of attentiveness, the sort of watchfulness that Jesus talks about in today’s gospel. While his words may seem ominous – people being snatched from fields as they work, thieves coming in the night, a day of judgment – they actually encourage us toward watchful anticipation of the surprising and sudden presence of the God who is hope for the hopeless and peace for the restless.

For those of us who live in a world that so-often feels as if it is spinning out of control with war and violence and destruction, the promise of the sudden presence of God among us empowers us to keep going, day after day, living into our daily routines with watchfulness and perseverance, trusting in God’s healing promises of salvation and peace for all the world.

Philosopher Joanna Macy, when interviewed by Krista Tippett earlier this fall on the NPR program Being, said that “The biggest gift you can give [to the world] is to be absolutely present, and when you're worrying about whether you're hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you're showing up, that you're here and that you're finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That was what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.”

The main thing is that you’re showing up. The main thing is that you wake up every day, you get out of bed, you live the life that God has given to you, complete with its joyful times and contemplative spaces and heartwarming bits…but also with its tedious tasks and grumpy moments and bumpy patches.

The season of Advent tugs most of us in opposing directions. On the one hand, Advent, being a season of reflection and preparation, calls us to seek out contemplative places in which to ponder the mystery of the Christ child for whom we wait. It is a time where we wish to relax in front of the fire in a room illuminated by candles and Christmas lights, listening to our favorite quiet music and living into the quiet anticipation of the season. It is a time where we want to find set-apart spaces to examine our hearts and reflect upon themes of dark and light.

But on the other hand, Advent is full of busy, bustling preparation. Before we can relax in our clean, perfectly decorated living rooms by the fire, we have to first pull out the boxes of decorations and figure out how to fit all of the ornaments on our Christmas trees, and where to go to buy an extra string of lights when one of them won’t light. And before we can retreat into contemplative spaces, we have to make sure that homework gets done and that the kids have rides to their extra dance practices and play rehearsals for their special Christmas performances. And before we can set aside special times and places for self-reflection, we have to figure out how to fit out-of-town family visits and company Christmas parties into our already-full schedules.

And so, as much as we want to create special, quiet spaces in which to seek out sudden appearances of God, the lesson to be learned from today’s readings is that God’s sudden appearances are wild, untameable, and just as likely to happen in the midst of our daily bustling routines as they are in the times we can escape those routines.

Jan Richardson, on her blog The Advent Door says, “Perhaps the preparation and expectation to which Advent calls us are not to be found solely in the spaces we set aside during this season. Although it’s important to keep working at finding those contemplative openings in these days, I suspect that Advent is what happens in the midst of all this. We find the heart of the season, the invitation of these weeks, amid the life that is unfolding around us, with its wildness and wonders and upheavals and intensities.”

During this Advent, we are called to combat fear, to embody hope, and to live in watchful expectation…and we do all of these things by remaining faithful in the daily callings of our lives. The greatest gift of God in Christ is not the promise of life after death, but rather Spirit- and light-filled life before death. The sudden presence of God doesn’t wait for death, nor for intentional, set-apart moments. The sudden presence of God, like a thief in the night or like the rushing of a flood, comes in unexpected moments in the middle of life-as-we-know-it.

The watch-and-wait nature of Advent is really nothing more than a matter of paying attention. It means living out each day both alert and faithful. It means being receptive to sudden moments of peace or joy or comfort, of sudden expressions of love and kindness, of sudden assurances of hope and the warming of our hearts. It means appreciating the fact that only in deepest darkness can the brightest lights shine. And it means keeping our hearts open to all of the sudden and unexpected places in life where we can stop and say, with confidence, “God is here.”

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