Happy New Year!
No, I did not skip a page in my calendar and think it’s now January. In the church, our new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a peculiar way to begin a year, don’t you think? It doesn’t start with The Big Event: we don’t start our new cycle at Christmas with the birth of the baby, or at Easter with the Resurrection. We start our year with a time of waiting and preparing for something big to happen. Advent isn’t even just about preparing for the birth of the baby Jesus. That’s already happened. 2000 years ago. In Advent, we’re waiting and preparing for something else. Something unpredictable and perhaps even unknown.
I was reflecting on this in the midst of cleaning up after the messy storm that started Monday night and never really blew out of range until sometime early Wednesday morning. I’d gone out Monday afternoon and picked at the thick ice covering spots of my deck—from last week’s storm—to make things easier for the next day. Shoveled four inches of snow off Tuesday morning before it got any heavier from the expected rain, then, just as the sun was setting, went out with my handy-dandy electric shovel (like a mini-snowblower) and scraped the last inch of rain-soaked slush off.
I will confess I had a little snort when I read the line in the Gospel about seeing the sprouting fig trees as a sign that summer is near. Summer felt very, very far away as I peeled off wet gloves and socks and planted myself in front of the fireplace to try to warm up. I hadn’t really prepared myself for winter yet; thinking about summer just seemed…foolish. A waste of energy. I should stay focused on the season in front of me, not dream about warmer days to come.
In this Gospel reading, Jesus isn’t really telling them to look for summer when it’s not summer yet, either. That’s not the point of the reading. Likewise, when Jesus uses these apocalyptic images of political upheaval and natural disasters, he’s not telling us to be focused on them. He’s saying that they are a sign that things are in transition, something new is coming into being, but it’s not coming easily. There will be resistance by those who would rather things stay as they were, because it’s more comfortable for them.
He’s also saying that don’t spend so much time looking for signs and omens of the future that you forget to pay attention to the right now. There is plenty to be done in the present moment. We can be dreaming about the party we might have on that deck next summer when the roses are blooming and the herb garden is beginning to look lush—but we also need to do the tedious work of clearing the snow out of our way right now.
Most importantly, says Jesus, don’t let those signs of change frighten you. While there are important evolutionary reasons for the physiological fear response, it is actually harmful to be afraid all the time. Not just because of the damage it does to our bodies, but because it keeps us from recognizing any real danger coming our way. A lot of people in this world count on being able to control you through fear. They get you to focus on the bad things that happen in the world, and then make promises that they can keep those things from happening to you if you just give them a little more. A little more money, a little more power, a little more of your soul. But we were not created for being constantly afraid. When we are constantly afraid, we do horrible things or allow horrible things to be done on our behalf. Things like tear-gassing children.
I have said this before, I think, but I’m going to say it again because it’s still relevant. If someone is telling you to be afraid, they are not from God. Even in today’s Gospel reading, as Jesus lays out all the terrible things that could happen, he is not telling them to be afraid. What does he say? “Stand up and raise your heads…be alert…pray that you may have strength…” He is promising that this image of the coming of The Son of Man is a good thing. It is the promise that the kingdom of God—the way of being in community with all of God’s beloved children—is at hand. Until then, we wait and prepare, not in fear, but in hope. That is the lesson Advent has to teach us. We wait and prepare. But for what, exactly?
In the reading from Jeremiah, the answer is that we are waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled—for righteousness and justice to reign on earth. In the reading from Thessalonians, it’s that we are waiting for God’s love to grow ever more perfect in us, so that we live in community and harmony
And as I’ve already mentioned, in the Gospel reading from today, Jesus promises us that we are not waiting for an ending so much as a beginning. We are waiting for God’s kingdom to be fully revealed.
We are waiting and preparing for the new start Jesus offers us.
Advent is about preparing for Christ to return. Not just in some end-times Rapture scenario, but in small ways. Kingdom-breaking-in ways. In those tiny moments when we see it already at work in the ways we treat one another. Those moments when the love of God urges us to make a difference in the life of one person, one patch of earth. When we discover that our tiny little flickering Christ-light is enough to break the darkness. It’s a time of clearing the old ice off the deck even as the new snow begins to fall, because we know that further down the year, there will be warmth and sun and greenness again. Christ returns again and again, whenever we welcome the invitation to turn around, to follow him, to let go of the old and make a new start.
We make many new starts in our lives. We celebrate a variety of days as the beginning of a ‘new year’—our birthdays, our anniversaries. The first day of school. The day we met someone special. The day we moved into a new house or started a new job. For those of you in recovery, the day when you said, “Enough” and surrendered your will to God.
The new year doesn’t just start on January 1. Your new year can start today, if you want. That’s what I offer to you as you move into this season of Advent. Go ahead and prepare: think about how you would like for Christ to make himself known in your life, work on your spiritual life. And yes, do the shopping and wrapping and sewing and baking in preparation for Christmas…but then be open to the unexpected. God will come as God will come. And even if that coming turns your life upside down, it will still be worth the wait. That’s a promise.