Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent Again

December 2, 2018 – Today begins the season of Advent – a time of preparation and waiting for the baby Jesus.

This is hardly surprising. We’ve seen signs of the season since early September when the tinsel began to appear in stores, although in retail settings the emphasis is on Christmas profligacy rather than prophecy.

Be that as it may, it’s hard to dislike a season that professes giving and love and brings Bing Crosby and Nat Cole back to life to croon beloved carols. The weather outside, thanks to global warming, is frightful, but in our hearts, the fire is so delightful.

Many of us will go to church today expecting familiar Christmas hymns, although many pastors will be loathe to provide them so far ahead of the actual Nativity celebration.

And many of us will search worship bulletins for favorite scriptures and prophecies that portend the coming of the Christ child:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6, Authorized Version)

But no. This week’s Revised Common Lectionary takes us to the opposite end of the story: not to the coming of the babe in the manger, but to the second coming of Jesus at the climax of history.

The scripture for the first Sunday in Advent is like a cinematic spoiler that skips the opening scenes and transports us directly to the stirring conclusion:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:25-36

What’s this? Not the birth of a baby but the end of life as we know it? It seems odd that scripture for the first Sunday of Advent begins at end of the story, long after the nativity, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Doesn’t knowing the ending take some exhilaration away from the plot? I keep thinking of a beloved nephew who HATES spoilers and plugs his ears and loudly hums the theme from Game of Thrones when he thinks I may reveal some crucial plot twist he doesn’t know, like, the beautiful call girl in The Crying Game is a dude. (Oops.)

Of course, many Christians are already so familiar with the Jesus story that it probably doesn’t matter at which point it begins. It’s all there in the Apostle’s creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

So here we are at the beginning of another Advent, reading the words of Jesus as he prepares his disciples for his post resurrection reprise. If it seems a little out of sequence to us, it’s good to remember that both the first and second coming of Jesus make the same point: God has intervened into the wretchedness of human history to rescue us from suffering and death, and that is worth celebrating any time of the year.

But I also like this juxtaposition of beginning the story at the end because it makes us think a little harder about an essential element of God’s nature: that is, God is not captive to the limitations of time as are we. God is time. God is as present in the past and future as he is today. The ancient Jews knew his name but never pronounced it because it was deemed too holy to utter: 
Yahweh. I AM

 is eternally present at the creation, is present at the birth of Jesus, is present at the rise and fall of the Caesars, is present at the rise (and, yes, the decline) of the United States of America, is present this very moment, and is present at the return of Jesus.

Our brains are not wired to comprehend the eternal continuum of being where there is no yesterday, today, or tomorrow, only now; where there is no I was, I am, I will be, but only I am.

Only the God who has the creative power to call the earth, planets and stars into being has the unfathomable ability to remain present – 
I AM– in all those events, including those we think are gone forever or may never happen. God is eternally there.

No wonder Jesus’ listeners choked on their tongues when Jesus associated himself with that unimaginable presence: “Before Abraham was, 
I AM.” (John 8:58). The revelation must have been a thunderclap, a slap in the face of those who knew the awesome meaning of the words.

The notion of 
I AM is so deep, so heaped in heaviosity (as my generation used to say) that it is exhausting to contemplate it. It’s a little like trying to explain Einstein’s Relativity to ourselves as we struggle to grasp the curvature of time-space that enables Superman to fly faster than time so he can rescue Lois Lane from an untimely death.

H.G. Wells, Gene Roddenbury, and Stephen King have made time travel seem an entertaining prospect. Isaac Asimov flatly rejected the possibility of time travel, noting it was illogical to suggest he could travel back in time to kill his grandfather because – ergo – that would effectively eliminate the chain of sperm that would have sired Isaac’s father or Isaac himself.

But perhaps it is not so illogical to imagine Dr. Asimov could have been an unseen observer in his grandfather’s dacha – assuming, of course, he had godlike powers to exist simultaneously at two points in the continuum of time.

That doesn’t seem likely, although it is not necessarily illogical that humans who play their appointed roles in God’s circular drama of existence might catch the occasional sideways glimpse of other players in earlier – or later – dramas.

One of the unusual attractions when I lived in England in the mid-1960s was the frequent manifestation of ghosts – or what appeared to be departed spirits of the formerly living. In High Wycombe, just west of London, there was an abandoned monastery supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of monks dispatched 500 years earlier by King Henry VIII. Late at night on certain high holy days, witnesses imagine – as did I in 1967 – they can hear the dead monks chanting mournful dirges.

Not far from RAF Bentwaters in Suffolk, where I was stationed for three years, there is an old castle erected by the Saxons to keep an eye out for the Normans. The bastion, billed as “the second oldest” in England, doesn’t attract a lot of tourists. But residents say that on moonlit nights they occasionally catch glimpses of a company of medieval soldiers dressed in chainmail marching silently toward the turret gate. When a cloud covers the moon, the soldiers disappear.

According to credible witnesses, Abraham Lincoln’s visage has been glimpsed at the White House years after his death. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, a guest of President Roosevelt after the Nazis overwhelmed her native Holland, reportedly heard a knock on the door of her White House bedroom. She opened the door, found herself staring into Lincoln’s eyes, and fainted. Winston Churchill, another White House guest, said he emerged from a bath and as he stood naked in his White House bedroom he saw Lincoln sitting in a chair beside the bed.

I do not for a moment claim credence for any of these stories, although they are nothing if not Dickensian. Most psychics describe such events as ghostly visitations of departed souls, not unlike the three specters who visited Ebenezer Scrooge.

But I like to think that ghosts are not always what they appear to be. Sometimes, I’m guessing wildly, they could be sideways glimpses of living persons still performing their roles at other points in the time-space continuum: chanting monks, soldiers marching in 11th century England, or the very much alive President Lincoln pacing the White House corridors as he struggles with very contemporary issues in 1863. I love to imagine that we are sometimes treated to glimpses of real events that are, to us, long past, but continue to unfold in the eye of the great 

I don’t claim credence for that flight of fancy either, but I regard it as an entertaining metaphor to remind us that when our earthly lives are over we will be liberated from the bondages of time and enter into the presence of the God 

Perhaps a bonus of eternal life will be the privilege of glimpsing history’s saints and sinners, medieval soldiers, and Abraham Lincoln, through the eyes of God, in their own times and places.

I know that wouldn’t work for everyone but, as an amateur historian, it would be heaven enough for me.

And for me, Advent is the perfect time to allow our imaginations free range. C.S. Lewis wrote that he never ceased trying to imagine Heaven, and his metaphor was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Dante imagined celestial spheres. Others imagine a dwelling place with mansions and angels and God on a throne. Johnny Cash sang of a beach on the far side of Jordan where he would sit drawing pictures in the sand. Alice Sebold, in her disturbing novel, The Lovely Bones, imagined heaven as a magical place you could modify in accordance with our own concepts of beauty and peace, and where your beloved dog would join you.

Of course none of us will know the whole truth until we get there. But Advent is that time of year when we can let our imaginations run wild and contemplate a wonderful place where we shall spend eternity.

That, after all, is the gift God gave us when God entered human history at a time the great 
I AM knew was perfect. In the fullness of time the Christ child was born and in the fullness of time the Christ will return.

And part of our preparation for Advent is to keep in mind that whatever God 
I AM does and whenever God I AM does it, the timing will be perfect.

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