Happy New Year

First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3:9–4:2
Luke 21:25–36

Happy New Year! No, I’m not a month early. Today is New Year’s Day in the Church. A new year – new possibilities, many new promises.

When we begin something new, we begin at the beginning, right? This new year will feature the Gospel of Luke. So it makes sense to start at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Yet that’s not where we start at all on this first Sunday of Advent. We hear a passage that is way back in Chapter 21 (of 24)! Seems a little backward, don’t you think?

And besides starting Luke’s Gospel toward the end, this new day in the Church year also starts out on a double note – one of hope and one of warning. We had words of warning on the last few Sundays of the old year. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel remind me of somebody else’s words written centuries later:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times;

it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness;

it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity;

it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness;

it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair;

we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us;

we were all going directly to Heaven,
we were all going the other way.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

The Scripture readings for this first Sunday in Advent have a double message similar to Charles Dickens’ words:

I will fulfill the promise,
and there will be distress among nations;
A righteous branch shall spring up,
and people will faint from fear;
Judah will be saved,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken;
How can we thank God enough for you,
while you will be confused
by the roaring of the sea and the waves;
You will be blameless,
but be on guard that you may escape all these things.

The worst of times, the best of times all right … The Good News of God’s coming is a Christmas present wrapped in predictions of doom. Hmm, ironically this fits well with today’s global terrorism …

This vision of the coming of Christ seems to clash with the meek, gentle, infant Jesus. It seems worlds away from sweet Mary and Joseph huddled in the stable. Light years away too from our culture’s mad rush to decorate everywhere, and buy everything all before December 25th, so that in a few brief moments presents get unwrapped and the meaning of the season thoroughly ignored.

But, in fact, the best of times and the worst of times have everything to do with our preparation for Christmas. Advent indeed announces God coming into our world. But Advent is not only about God coming like a cute little baby. Advent is about two kinds of “comings:” The birth of Jesus into human history – yes. And it’s important to remember that holy moment over 2,000 years ago. But Advent also announces that Jesus, that same “baby” Jesus, will come again in glory at the end of time.

So Advent kind of puts us in a time-warp between past and future, the infamous “already-not yet” mode of waiting and watching.

Life in fact occurs in between only two realities: between birth and death, between light and dark, between past and future, between hope and despair. Life always happens in the best of times and in the worst of times, both at the same time.

The news media give us a daily diet of good and bad times: Flooding and power outages are reported alongside finding a child missing for several years. Suicide bombings and war atrocities flash across our screens in between good news stories of local ordinary folk. Police raids and murders are reported in between ads offering us promises of the good life with Coke, with a certain deodorant, or with just the right insurance. Every day, somewhere in the world, somebody lives acutely in “end-times” conditions. The loss of home, children and family, the sudden diagnosis, the loss of dignity and worth. The current streams of refugees live in an eerie resemblance to the features of end times described in Luke’s Gospel today. So did those who experienced the tsunamis of 2005 and 2011 – talk about the roaring of the sea and the waves, and the powers of heaven and earth shaking, trembling, cracking.

At the same time, somewhere in the world, somebody lives in the best of times: the birth of a new baby, the accomplishment of an arduous task, the healing of memories, or the reunion of old friends will bear resemblances of the best Christmas ever.

The best and the worst of life are constantly mixed in a messy blend of despair and hope, of dark and light, of birth and death. In and among the dire predictions there are, however, some very reassuring messages in today’s holy Word.

First, God speaks hope into a very dispirited people. Just when we’re tired and discouraged, God breaks through and holds out for us the promise of new life. God did this with the people of Israel time and time again. And God will break through with each of us in the time of our greatest need. God will break through, maybe not in ways we expect, but always in ways we need.

Second, Paul emphasizes to the Thessalonians the importance of the love and care they share. Within the Thessalonian community, as within our own communities, at the dawn of this new year of faith, God reminds us anew to nurture relationships, to breathe hope and encouragement into one another, to celebrate and pray together, and to attend gently but faithfully to resolving tensions and disputes.

Thirdly, Paul deems us all capable of holiness. Despite our propensity to make our own suffering worse, God says – turn to me; turn to me and find me in your deepest desires and yearnings. Turn to me, says God, in your heart and find there the way to perfection, the way to living fully and faithfully, both in good times and in bad.

Fourth, Jesus is right; we are indeed capable of reading signs. We do it all the time with the seasons and with the earth. We do it with the stock market and  business trends (well, we try). We do it with relationships; we know what the signs are of healthy and wholesome living, and which signs alert us to danger, problems, crisis. And so Jesus reminds us: use that skill of reading the signs so that your hearts will not be weighed down.

Fifth, God’s Word says that God believes in us. Despite the suffering, setbacks, loneliness and pain of the present, God reminds us that we can stand tall and confident, that the despair of the moment does not have the last word in our heart. God believes in us, even when we stop believing in ourselves.

These are Advent gifts given with good cheer by a loving God who both desires our salvation and warns us of danger. Advent – full of double messages of hope and despair. Advent announces that God cherishes each of us so much that the Eternal Word took on human flesh, and continues to take on human flesh still today.

Two features of Advent: birth and death, light and dark, despair and hope. They go hand in hand. Merging the full despair of reality with the unbridled hope of faith; that’s the message of the Gospel. In the midst of this life and the many events that evoke despair, it is the seed of hope in a bright future, a future in which God is made manifest, that provides a sense of confident faith.

I will fulfill the promise,
and there will be distress among nations;
A righteous branch shall spring up,
and people will faint from fear;
Judah will be saved,
and the powers of the heavens will be shaken;
How can we thank God enough for you,
and you will be confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves;
You will be blameless, but be on guard
that you may escape all these things.

Happy New Year!

Prairie Encounters

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