I was disappointed Sunday morning. In the calendar of this Christian year November 25th, 2012 was the last day, celebrated once upon a time as the Festival of Christ the King, Jesus' coronation, an anticipation of the brave vision of the Apostle Paul who foresaw the day when "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." (NRSV, Philippians 2)
Instead we were served Thanksgiving left-overs. Don't get me wrong. The message was eminently accessible and entirely palatable, to wit, that no one in God's sight is ever left over or behind. The music was quietly appropriate for a Sunday like any other; but I had been looking forward to singing "Crown Him with Many Crowns," or another hymn of brave certitude. Wasn't to be in this corner of Christendom. Which is curious, because the worship services at this church generally follow an ecumenical lectionary (check out Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary, the lectionary website I consult). The texts for 11/25/2012 make it abundantly clear that it's time for Jesus' coronation.
Of course, the calendar for the Christian year is a human construct; but then so is the chronological calendar we follow so religiously... er, closely. Not for a moment would any of those with whom I worshiped last Sunday abide a sermon this coming Sunday, the first in Advent, without some reference, however glancing, to that most wonderful of Christian "constructs," Christmas. Consequently, there will be one exceedingly curious worshiper in the same pew as seven days earlier listening for December 2nd's lection, Luke 21, the good doctor's version of the apocalypse, and the preacher's attempts to reconcile the end of the world with Santa Claus.
So here, dear friends, is how one old worn-out preacher, no longer asked to explain such dilemmas, would do it.
25 "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.26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34 "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 :35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
36 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."
The first Gospel lesson for Advent Sunday I 2012: and the text makes it obvious that Advent isn't just a synonym for pre-Christmas. Advent derives from the Latin "adventus," meaning "coming." Yes, Jesus comes at Christmas, born to Mary and Joseph in a stable, wrapped in cloths, and lying in a feeding trough. But that's the grand opening for the grand finale, when Jesus comes at the end of time.
Nor should we ever forget that in the eyes of faith Jesus comes relentlessly throughout the march of time. Supremely! Francis Thompson celebrates him as "The Hound of Heaven." Barbara (I'm her husband) directed a play by the youth fellowship in Brooklyn, a copy of the Tolstoy story, "Where Love Is, God Is," in which a cobbler, a man of many mercies, despairs of seeing Jesus at Christmas, until it dawns on him that in the need of others, others whom he has aided and gifted, Christ did indeed come to his shop. Twelve year old that I was, I portrayed in a church play (a precursor of Menotti's "Amahl...") a poor and lame boy on Christmas Eve waiting for the chimes to ring signaling Christ's advent, prevented from seeing that arrival (so he thought) for the chores demanded of him, including the feeding of three visitors from the East; when at the stroke of midnight, after the visitors had left, the chimes rang for the duties and kindnesses he had done.
Like the Letter to the Hebrews' benediction, advent celebrates Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
St. Nicholas, I've opined more or less, in a hundred different Advent sermons finds his place squarely in the middle of the Hebrews' equation, with the "today." He's the guy wearing the red hat delivering turkeys to poor families, bringing wonder and delight to children, along with a lump in the throat to the older among us for the hint he provides of a world where compassion and kindness trump our meaner impulses. When, according to Luke, Jesus comes in a cloud of great glory to gather his own, the guy in the red hat, the cobbler at his bench, the little boy limping, and everyone else, including you and me, sinners that we are, will be the saints that go marching in, rising on a cloud of grace, received and given.
The manger, the cross, the cloud of glory: God's design comes full circle. No wonder the second to last line of the New Testament reads in that book of last things, the Revelation of John: "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." Advent, indeed!