Starting at Sunset: the Seeds of Advent
A Sermon for First Advent
Today is the beginning of our church calendar. You might think that it is strange and arbitrary to celebrate "new year's" four weeks before Christmas. You might think, perhaps we should have chosen a more celebratory kick-off, like maybe Christmas should begin the church calendar. After all that is the day we celebrate Jesus' birth, shouldn't that be when things begin? Or maybe we should celebrate the beginning of the year on Easter Sunday? A resurrection beginning full of spring flowers to celebrate the new life we all embrace in our baptism.
Instead, we begin our year in the quietness and darkness of the days getting shorter and the nights growing longer. We begin in the darkness of Advent. We begin in the stillness of naked tree limbs and rustling dead leaves on the ground. We begin in the growing coldness of winter.
For thousands of years the Jewish tradition has been to count the start of the new day at nightfall. The next day begins when the sun disappears behind the horizon; darkness signals the change from one day to the next. In our own era of sophisticated clocks, we officially count midnight as the moment when Saturday becomes Sunday, or Sunday becomes Monday. And really, don't you simply consider waking up the start of the new day? Your alarm goes off or the sunrise brightens your room and you rise to greet the new day? We are so accustomed to this kind of modern world view that we have forgotten that the true beginning of new things is hidden, in the darkness, after the sun has retired and the land is still and silent and sleeping. In this dormancy, the new life gestates and develops unseen and unnoticed by us. The Jewish tradition of beginning the next day at sunset is still with us in a few of our calendar habits. We celebrate the Eve of Christmas with worship at the manger in the darkness of night. Or the Eve of Easter with a Vigil begun in darkness and then bursting into the light with Alleluias. All Hallows Eve. New Year's Eve. There are still a few traditions in our culture that remind us that the day begins when the sun goes down. The year starts in the sundown of our seasons.
I believe that the wisdom our church year and a sundown calendar is trying to teach us is that transition and transformation begin before we can see the evidence of the change that is coming. Sometimes, we don't even notice the transition to a new phase of our life journey until it is all over and we look back over the months or even years that led up to a major shift in our path and our identity. Only then, from a distance, can we see the seeds that were planted in the darkness of our night, grew quietly until all was ready to be revealed.
In the chapter for today's gospel, Jesus has been warning his disciples about an apocalyptic change coming to transform the world: the Messiah will come again at an unexpected hour. The temple will be destroyed, the old order will be turned upside down, a great battle will be waged and many will try to lead you astray in your fear. Be not afraid, have faith, endure to the end and be saved . . of course, the disciples are frightened to their bones. "When will this happen? How can we be prepared? Rabbi Jesus, we want to endure and be saved!"
"About that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
The new era, the great change, the beginning of God's incarnation on earth, will be planted in the dark where you cannot see it. The start of new life is hidden in the womb of God's belly and only God knows that something is growing in there. The rest of us will have to wait for further evidence of the incarnation.
Jesus goes on to explain that it is impossible to prepare for the second coming of the Son of Man. Like the flood, only Noah will know that it is time to get in the boat. The rest of us will only notice when the water is rising. The return of the Messiah will be a surprise to everyone, whether you are working in the field or grinding meal or driving to work or doing laundry. The second coming will just come at a mundane moment in your life and you need to be ready to receive it . .
The people who were listening to Matthew's gospel "hot off the press" in first century Palestine were expecting that Jesus would be right back . . pretty soon. They figured that God would not wait too long before coming again in human form to conquer the world and establish the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. There is still a theological strain amongst some Christian groups who are waiting for the rapture to come, any day now, and save some and leave others behind. Maybe you read that series of novels? Our Episcopal theology is not quite so literal in our understanding of how Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. Some folks are expecting that one day, another baby will be born to faithful parents, possessing the full divine nature of God. I'm not so sure that God is planting the seed of God's second coming in the life of just one child. I'm of the opinion that over the last 2000 years, God has been planting the seeds of a second Advent in all of us. This long darkness of waiting and wondering when the Son of Man will come again has been a gestation period for US to become the new Body of Christ. You see, maybe God isn't going to come again in the life of one child, maybe God is waiting for all the children of humanity to develop into the Body of Christ and then, when we are all one body and ready to be born, the second incarnation will be complete and truly the world will be transformed because all together we have become the Christ we seek. We will all be saved.
But remember, all of this transition and transformation begins in the darkness and mystery of night. It is hidden from us, maturing and developing in the womb of our lives — by the time we feel the kicking of new life, that life is well established and rearranging our internal organs; changing us from the inside out. This is the silent work of Advent. Waiting for change takes patient energy and attention to all of our holy habits of self care and health. We begin this new year with the wisdom that the start of any transformation is hidden and protected deep inside — our job is gather around the flickering lights, put on the armor of light, and prepare ourselves to welcome the new life already planted within us.
—The Rev. Adrien Dawson
November 27, 2016