Looking Forward to .... what?
If the season of Advent were really all about getting us ready for the birth of the Christ child, then maybe the lesson we heard today should have been read on the First Sunday of Advent. This morning’s gospel is the beautiful account of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will be the mother of the Messiah. That would be a great way to begin Advent, wouldn’t it! Then, on the second Sunday of Advent we could have Mary’s reaction, the Magnificat, where she sings that her soul magnifies the Lord. Then, maybe on the third Sunday we could read Matthew’s genealogy which traces the baby Jesus lineage all the way back to Abraham. Then, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we could hear the angel of the Lord come to Joseph in a dream telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife – that she would give birth to the savior. This could be the order of the lessons if Advent were really all about getting us ready for the birth of Christ.
But listen to these actual themes and see if you can find a baby in any of them: On the first Sunday in Advent we were warned to “beware” and “alert” for the master of the house could come back at any time and find you asleep. On the second Sunday we heard of John the Baptist coming out of the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey. Last week we heard from John the Baptist telling us about the adult Jesus who would be coming. Not until this Sunday do we have any hint at all that a baby is on the way as Gabriel gives Mary the good news.
No, it would appear that the texts which have been appointed for us to read during Advent don’t have as much to do with preparing us for a baby as they do with preparing us for the end. They don’t have as much to do with preparing us for the first coming of Christ as they do with his second coming. They are texts which point to that householder who is about to return. They speak of the axe which is laid to the root of the tree. They talk about “the promise of new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” In all of those texts – except for the one read today – the birth of Jesus has already taken place (Jesus is already grown up) and our attention is focused on the horizon of time – that time and those circumstances in which the Lord will bring a culmination to all things, will judge the righteous, and will call home the faithful.
In Advent we are to prepare ourselves, not for the birth of the savior which has already taken place in history, but for the coming of the Lord in our future. We are to prepare our hearts, our minds, and our souls for the coming of God TO us and FOR us at the end of all the ages. We are called upon to look forward – not just to December 25th – but way forward to the new heaven and the new earth which the Lord promises.
But the disconnect is that we don’t WANT to talk about the END in December. We want to talk about BEGINNINGS. After all, it is the beginning of a new church year. “Ends” are depressing. Signs of the end time ar so, so … solemn. Wars, earthquakes, rumors of wars! Hey, who wants to talk about that when we want to hear of sleigh bells, chestnuts, and warm woolen mittens. The problem is that we have romanticized Christmas so much that we get upset if the department stores (much less the church) fail to live up to our visions of sugar plums. And how many people do you suspect come into our Christmas Eve services for the greenery, poinsettias, candlelight, and feel-good music instead of the message – the message that the God who changed the world commands that our hearts and minds, too, be changed in a way which actually and really speaks to the forces of darkness which grip our real world: the forces of loneliness, depression, oppression, and evil.
In my previous parish I had a woman who had her hands full with two very active children. She had a difficult time with her daily tasks because she was house-bound. She couldn’t drive! She couldn’t take the children to the doctor, school, or the grocery store. So I set out to teach her to drive myself. Each time we went out to practice was something of a life-threatening experience for me. She simply wasn’t reacting to things down the road – cars pulling out, lights turning yellow, etc. So I turned to a friend of mine who was a driving instructor and asked him, “What can I do to tech this woman to drive?” He said to me, “She wants to see what’s closest to the car so she’s focusing on the road right under the hood ornament. Have her watch the horizon. If you watch the horizon your eye automatically picks up everything between the car and the horizon. If you focus on the horizon you automatically see things both near and far.”
That seems to me to be good theological advice for us as well. December 25th is the road right under our hood ornament. Let’s get our eyes out on the horizon and we will automatically see everything in between.
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her that she would bear a son and name him Jesus he gave her this promise: “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Then, after telling Mary what the next nine months of her life would be like, he immediately took her eyes to the horizon. “He will be great,” Mary, “and he will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Keep your eyes on the horizon. Look as far as you can into God’s future. Look as far as you can into YOUR future with God. As you gaze way out there your eye will automatically pick up what is happening right under your nose – a young girl in an intense spiritual conversation with a messenger from God whose wings were as drifted snow, whose eyes were as flame. “Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ, was born in Bethlehem all on a Christmas morn, and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say: ‘Most highly favored lady, Gloria!”
(sermon hymn: 265: “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came”)
Text: Luke 1:26-28