Fourth Sunday of Advent 2022
Karen Baker-Fletcher, a professor of systematic theology at Southern Methodist University wrote the following words about 25 years ago:
…the reign of God does not have to do with a far-off, abstract, otherworldly, alien, and alienated place. To the contrary, the promise of the fulfillment of the Spirit’s healing, creating presence on earth is woven together with apocalyptic hope in the midst of the daily work and struggles of life.
The reign of the Spirit is an ever-present reality. The hereafter is in the here and now. We live into it in our everyday acts. God moves as the strength of life, present in history and creation. God as the strength of life is the power of life. Given such power, whom should we fear? That which is the very strength of life transforms fear into faith, salvation, and hope. It means that we do not have to accept injustice and abuse while we wait for some better, eternal life in a world beyond the present. We can live into a love that is eternal and does no harm in the here and now.
This passage struck me because it captures what I have come to see as the two fundamental paradoxes of Advent. The first has to do with a phenomenon that in my calculus classes I used to call “jerk.” To explain the concept I used to invite my students to perform a little experiment as they were leaving for work or home. “On your way out of the parking lot, get your car going about 15 miles an hour and then slam it into reverse.” Not to worry, none of my students hated their transmission enough to try my little thought experiment in real life.
During the first three weeks of Advent our readings are all focused on the future-”in days to come” and “on that day.” We are bombarded with promises: “they will beat their swords into plowshares”…”the leopard shall lie down with the kid”…”the eyes of the blind shall be opened.” The tense of all of the verbs is future.
Then, on the 17th of December, the Novena of Christmas begins. We whip around and our focus shifts abruptly to the past and the telling of Christmas stories. One of these stories, Joseph’s dream, is presented in today’s gospel. That story references another further distant one-the story of Ahaz, king of Judah and the prophet Isaiah. During this week we become immersed in the ghost of Christmas past.
The 2nd Advent paradox that the passage from Baker-Fletcher captures so beautifully is that of the deep intertwining mysteries of apocalyptic hope and the incarnation.
Throughout the early part of advent the readings from the scriptures capture the eschatological desires that humans have clung to for centuries upon centuries. They emphasize that day at the end of days when the world will be radically transformed:
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be as full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.
Beginning today, the vision is so different. The sign given to Ahaz who cannot bring himself to ask for one is so ordinary-“A young girl will become pregnant and bear a child.” How many thousands children will be born throughout the world even during our short gathering here at worship-in hospitals, refugee camps and fields in every nation and neighborhood. And the name given to each and every one: Immanuel, God is with us.
The coming feast of the incarnation is not the promise that we will be removed from struggle and pain. It is the promise that in the midst of all that life brings God is with us. Our eschatological vision has been transformed, anchored in the present moment. The future is now. God’s kingdom is both a distant longing and a present reality.
Advent is a wondrous, if curious, season. A time when every tear will be wiped away and a time when God is with us as we weep. In whatever quiet moments the coming week provides, I hope to sit with this mystery we call Advent. For revealed within is a love that is very much worth “living into.”
Let us pray:
For an end to war and violence Ukraine, Ethiopia, Palestine and in places far too numerous to name. O Wisdom come and teach us the way of your compassion, we pray: Come, Christ Jesus, Come
For all who believe, in whatever way, may we listen deeply to each other and thus come to live more deeply in the mystery of God. O Adonai, come and cleanse our faith of every of all hatred and bigotry, we pray: Come, Christ Jesus, Come
For all who are sick and suffering, for those approaching death, those listed in our book of intentions and all who have asked us to pray for them. Please mention quietly at this time any individuals for whom you wish especially to pray:
O Rising Dawn, give hope and healing to all who are in need and comfort and companionship to all who mourn, we pray: Come, Christ Jesus, Come
O Emmanuel, grant all of these prayers and touch our hearts that we might live ever more deeply into the mystery of the promise and presence of God among us: Come, Christ Jesus, Come
In whatever way in which you are comfortable we offer one another a sign of God’s peace…