Today is the first day of Advent, a time of hope and anticipation for the coming of Jesus into the world. The word Advent comes from the Latin, adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival,” which itself is derived from the Greek word parousia, for “presence” or “appearance.” Parousia occurs 24 times in the New Testament scriptures–seven of these refer to the arrival of a person or individual, such as when Paul sent some of his associates to visit the churches in the cities to whom the epistle was addressed. 17 times the word refers to the return of Christ after the Ascension –the Second Coming of Jesus to the world after his present absence. And one of those occurrences is in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, when he writes about his hope that the Christians of the Church there would be blameless before God at the coming–the parousia–of Jesus Christ.
It is fitting, therefore, given that the meaning of Advent has origins in language about Jesus’ return to us, that our readings for this morning would focus on that idea–that Jesus is coming back in this glorious return.
I often wonder if someone not from a liturgical tradition would join us for worship this morning, would they be shocked to hear these Scriptures read in our midst. You know, it’s December, or just about December, we have an Advent Wreath and Advent Calendar, and it’s a month long Christmas season!
Perhaps even for those who have been lifelong Episcopalians, this is a time which we focus on the birth of Christ–the story of the baby Jesus who was born to Mary and to Joseph, in this miraculous union between divine and human. But instead, our readings present a sense of terrible signs appearing in the sky and fear and foreboding of what will come upon the world.
That’s right. “Old Testament, real wrath-of-God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes… The dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria.”
Which, if you didn’t catch that, is from the movie Ghostbusters. Nyuh-Nyuh.
But back to the signs which Jesus ACTUALLY is recorded to have said.
Now, I can’t help but to wonder what role movies such as Like a Thief in the Night and books like Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series have played to influence our thinking. (If you’re not familiar… ad lib). At least, they influenced my thinking, growing up Evangelical. The world of such End Times thinking is one which I am quite familiar with, given my upbringing in the faith. In fact, I’m kind of proud to say that I’ve read the first few books of the Left Behind series–I’m familiar with them and their premise, but I was smart enough to stop early on in the series! And, for anyone else out there who bought the books, thank you, because the authors donated a lot of money to my college which helped pay for my education.
But given that influence, we hear the scriptures like our Gospel and think of all the terrible, horrifying things that have been written about the days before Christ’s return, about violence, famine, war, earthquakes, suffering, and death. We get the image that these are going to be dark, awful days, with suffering upon suffering.
Notice, however, what Jesus says to his disciples. He says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Stand up. Raise your heads, because redemption is near. In the midst of terrible signs and uncertainty and great fear, take heart. Be of good courage. Because the hope we have about the power and love of God for us, are real. And God will fulfill the promises made in the teachings of Jesus.
Paul, in our reading from his letter to the Thessalonians, echoes those words when he writes his exhortation to the Church in that city. He prays for the Church, that they would abound in love for one another, and that they would be strengthened to be holy and blameless before our Lord, because God does not desire that we would be weighed down with fear and anxiety, but in faith to be confident and hopeful of the salvation which has been promised to us by the Holy Spirit who has come to us.
That is the power of the Gospel, right there. That when all the world around us is afraid and anxious, that we still have hope and confidence. Our Gospel reading literally says that rather than being driven to drink because of fear and anxiety, that we are to pray for our deliverance and to do so with confidence that God will come to our aid at the right time.
Now, I have to say, it strikes me that, whereas the scriptures paint a picture of the future that is filled with spectacular and epic events, a future of great urgency and horror, real life as a follower of Christ is actually rather mundane. Day in and day out it’s become much the same. Yes, there are problems in the world around us, but nothing that rises to the level of what we hear in the Gospel reading this morning. So what are we to do, when instead of eager expectation of the Messiah’s imminent return, we find ourselves wondering what we’re going to make for dinner or watch on Netflix? What is our calling? How do we live out our hope in the Gospel?
By being holy. By being loving. By doing better each and every day. By being faithful, day in and day out.
By forgiving those who have hurt us, and letting go of resentment. By repenting, and turning away from those words, thoughts, or deeds that hurt one another. By not getting even or wanting to get revenge, but by being forgiving and letting go of anger. By being generous with the abundance which has been given to us, sharing with those in need. Because that is the way and the path that Jesus taught us to live in, and the way of love that has been modeled for us. May that be true for us this Advent Season.