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Rooted in History, but Looking Ahead in Hope: The First Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 2, 2018
Genesis 3:1-15
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Isaiah 35:1-10
Isaiah 64:1-9a
Zephaniah 3:14-18
Baruch 4:36-5:9
Luke 1:26-56

This past Friday night I organized a dinner out with a bunch of my old high school friends. And it was a great time. But it was absolutely surreal when some of them started talking about their kids, and I realized that some of them are almost teenagers. Which is to say, that their kids are almost as old as we were, when we were friends. And so the reality started to sink in, that quite a lot of time has passed. Which — don’t worry — I knew on an intellectual level. But I guess it hasn’t ever sunk in on the ‘gut’ level.

Whether in our daydreaming, or our reminiscing with friends or family, we often tend to be oriented toward the past. When things were simpler; quieter; more peaceful; more family-friendly; the Sunday school had 200 children; neighbours were friendlier; we were happier, etc. etc. And I suspect that if we were to engage someone on the street — someone without much of a connection to the Church — we would find that a lot of folks have the impression that Christians are a group of people trying to claw back to an era that is long-gone. Like 1950. Or 1250. Or maybe just plain 50 AD.

But in that nostalgia and longing for the past, we tend to forget the deeper, more complex story. Our memories emphasize the good times, but filter out the bad. So we remember the best parts, and forget the depression, the tragedies, the societal issues particular to that earlier time, especially if they lurked beneath the surface, and weren’t talked about as openly as things are today.

So the deeper story seems to be that life is all of that: the good and the bad lumped together. When I think about my two short years here, there have been stretches where a number of folks have been in hospital, or otherwise dealing with sickness. But then things improve. And everything seems to be going pretty smoothly. And then the basement floods. But then we pull together and we get through that. And things are going really well. And then there’s a conflict, or some other challenge, or another wave of health complications.

But that seems to be what life is like. History is full of progress, but also missteps. Relationships are like that: smooth periods, and then rocky ones. But when we’re nostalgic we tend to gloss over the tough bits. I’m reminded of a quote from Earl Warren, I believe a former Governor in the US. This quote is displayed prominently at a sports store in the Distillery District of Toronto. He speaks of, when turning to the daily newspaper, going to the sports section first. Because that’s a record of humanity’s accomplishments. Rather than going straight to the front page, which is a recording of humanity’s failures. The newspaper, like our lives, contains both these ups and these downs.

The first reading today, from the Adam and Eve story from among the first pages of Genesis: it speaks to how conflict, and alienation, and the reality that things don’t always go right, and that we don’t always choose right… that goes right back to almost the very beginnings of our existence.

We might remember this as we start a new church year, and enter this season of Advent. Advent, especially in its original observance, wasn’t just about counting down the days to Christmas. It’s not just a churchy version of the Advent calendars some of us grew up with, where every day you peel back the cardboard to get at a piece of chocolate with each new day.

Advent’s about how in our often fairly cruddy lives, we are waiting for… and expecting… and hoping for God’s coming to make things right. We start with that story of losing the Garden of Eden and all that that might represent. But we move from there to those subsequent Old Testament writings that are all about waiting, and expecting, and hoping for God to come, with justice and mercy, to a world that needs it, and people that need to feel it. As we heard in our readings: “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

Those ancient Jewish scriptures give voice to a people that were looking, in hope, for God’s coming. People not STUCK in the past. But ROOTED in the past in a way that orients them toward the future. And they cast a vision of a future where the cruddiness of life is transformed and made right:

    “The desert will blossom.”
    “The burning sand will become a pool.”
    “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”
    “The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst.”
    “Take off your garment of sorrow and affliction, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.”
    “For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low.”

And then we come to Mary, in the last reading. And she embodies the hopes of her people. And in this tradition she speaks with just as much, if not more conviction and power than the great Hebrew prophets:

“The Lord has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and set the rich away empty.”

Those are strong, heavy, important, and powerful words. Coming from the mouth of a teenage girl. But she gets it. She gets that life isn’t perfect, but that she is in the middle of the story of God making things right. Recreating the world in a way where the powerful are held to account, and the hungry are filled.

And as God brought new hope through the words of the Old Testament prophets, and as God brought salvation through Mary, by coming to us as a human being, our Advent hope is that this same Jesus will come again, to make things right, and this time, for ever. On one level we’re counting down the days and weeks to Christmas, and our celebration of the first coming of Jesus. But we’re also looking ahead to — whenever — to the second coming of Jesus. And to the Reign of peace that he is going to bring.

So imagine a Church… imagine a Church that doesn’t care about clawing back time to an idealized Norman Rockwell image of Christmas. Imagine, instead, a Church that looks forward, with Advent hope. And acts as ambassadors for this hope in our community and world.

“Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst.”

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter