First Sunday of Advent (November 27, 2016)
November 18, 2016 | by Bruce Epperly
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Advent is the season of provocative possibilities. Life is waiting to be born. Adventure is on the horizon. Dreams lure us forward. This is the season of hope and realism, and hope again amid anxiety about the future, in the biblical world and our own. In the next few weeks, I will approach Advent from an imaginative, theological, and spiritual vision.
Advent presents no guarantees. We are given the vision of a radically different world. But, the pathway is obscure. God is doing a new thing, creating a new world and we can catch glimpses of it on the far horizon. Yet, God can’t do it alone. For over two thousand years, we have been waiting for a divine dream – a holy birthing – to come to term. Some await a Second Coming, a divine rescue operation, to deliver us from encompassing evil. Yet, like those who wait for Godot, their expectations have been dashed and their prognostications rendered inaccurate. We cannot be saved by prophetic phantasms nor can we become citizens of a new world order by passively waiting. God may have an amazing future ahead of us, Advent proclaims, but we must prepare. We must stay awake and do our part.
The expectation of a Second Coming of Jesus has often proved to be a nightmare, inspiring people to be so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good, or worse yet, believing that because God will usher in an earth-destroying cataclysm, we can neglect our planetary home. Ethically speaking, we can trust God with the future, but we must also pray and act as if the future is emerging through our willingness to create a better life here on Earth. The hope of a Second Coming that solves all our problems, separates the sheep from the goats, and the saved from the unsaved, is at best ethically ambiguous, if not irresponsible.
In times of hopelessness, when we experience darkness descending, Isaiah’s words bring new hope. Sacred space, defaced, will be restored. The world center (axis mundi) will be rebuilt and with it a moral and spiritual order will emerge. Planetary unity, creating a world in which diversity is celebrated and affirmed, is on horizon, and God will create an environment of Shalom, peace, equity, joy, among the nations. “God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Unrealistic, though these words seem, they lure us toward a life-giving future.
The prophet Isaiah presents a provocative possibility, an impossible reality. We need great dreams. We need ideals that contrast with stark realism. We need to marry actuality and possibility in the moment and over the long haul to have any hope for the future. Isaiah’s words are aspirational and inspirational, and judge all history as incomplete and challenge us to be partners in the history about which we dream. The words of Isaiah remind us that we cannot be content with injustice and war, alienation and racism, and bullying and harassment; we must imagine a divine possibility growing within the meandering messiness of our personal and corporate histories. Advent tells us that we – and our congregations, nation, and planet – can be more and expect more of ourselves in light of God’s vision of Shalom.
“I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!” exclaims the Psalmist. I recall hearing these words often as a child. In the evangelical church of my childhood, worship was a highpoint. Church was the center around which our lives revolved. We were reminded to be glad to sing praises to our savior and redeemer. Long before the advent of American evangelical Christianity, the Psalmist reminds us of the privilege of worshipping God. We are completed by praise that enables us to live with gratitude and affirmation. Our character is shaped by the God we praise and the God we praise is one whose power is defined by love and majesty made known in unity. “Peace” guides us toward the future. Peace is the defining word of the temple and church. Divine Shalom inspires commitments that embrace friend and stranger, citizen and refugee, conservative and progressive. “Peace,” as Alfred North Whitehead asserts, takes us beyond self-interest to alignment with God’s vision. Peace invites us to let go of individualism and embrace world-loyalty. Peace opens the door to the gifts of otherness, even as we cherish and nurture our own unique gifts and the gifts of our faith, community, and nation. In the gladness of whole-hearted worship, the Psalmist commits her or himself to seeing goodness for others. Inspired by God’s embracing and ecstatic love, we embrace others, seeking their welfare though it may require sacrifice on our part.
Romans 3:11-14 challenges us to discern the signs of the times. As the band Chicago queried, “Does anyone know what time it is? Does anyone care?” The times are always challenging, creation and destruction, and life and death, characterize every age, and the times in which we live call us to care. There is a deeper providence at work in the “living of these times.” Salvation, wholeness, is nearer than we thought even though the times are threatening. Many of us worry that we are entering a dark time in our nation’s and planet’s history. Leaders want to turn back the clock and apparently reverse the moral arc of history. Yet, will they have the final word and will their actions lead to destroying the planet and body politic?
Paul believes that the nearness of salvation – and perhaps, he is thinking of a coming divine age or our reunion with Christ in God’s heavenly realm – is a call to personal transformation. We are to be wide awake, choosing to live as citizens of God’s heavenly realm already. Indeed, if God is omnipresent and omni-active, and constantly providing a vision of possibilities for this moment and the long term future, we are already in God’s presence, we are already receive hints of wholeness, and we are already challenged to become the change we imagine happening when God’s realm comes to pass. In our alignment with divine possibility, we become pioneers in creating the world God imagines.
Matthew’s apocalyptic descriptions join threat and hope. Pain and darkness are all around. Yet, so is divine guidance. God’s “growing edge” emerges, as Howard Thurman says, in the dark soil of challenge. Tempted to sleep through the tragic circumstances of life and evils that abound, Jesus calls us to “stay awake.” More than that, Jesus calls us to act with awareness and wakefulness, to invest our daily actions with heavenly purpose. We don’t need a Second Coming to experience salvation. God comes to us in each moment of experience, God awakens us in every encounter, and God guides us in every inspiration. The coming of Christ is right now. It must not be deferred. In our own small and apparently unimportant acts, we are creating along with God the possibility that love will trump hate, life will vanquish death, and Earth will abound with beauty.
Advent invites us to join dream and act, possibility and concreteness, despair and hope, receptivity and activity. The horizon of divine possibility lures us forward beyond this present moment to be creative, along with the Creative Artist, of new life in perilous times.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Centerville, MA.(www.souththcongregationalchurch-centerville.org/) and member of the doctoral faculty of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of forty books, including Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed;and A Center in the Cyclone: Twenty-first Century Clergy Self-care. He may be contacted for conversation and speaking engagements and retreats at www.bruceepperly.com.