Saturday, December 8, 2007

First, Second and Third Advents

9 December 2007 * Advent 2A – Isaiah 11:1-10/Matthew 3:1-12

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

Watch It, Seek It, Become It

Advent is a season that gets lost somewhere between Halloween and Christmas. Advent, of course, means “coming.” What is coming is variously understood, as well as what our posture is meant to be in the mean time. Although “waiting” is often associated with Advent, something slightly more active like “watching” might better capture the spirit of things. So what might we be watching for?

It is often said there are two Advents: Waiting and Watching for the Coming of Christ in the Manger; and Watching and Waiting for Christ to Come Again to Judge the peoples of the Earth. Since this “Second Coming” makes us uneasy for obvious reasons (who wants to be judged?), Advent tends to collapse into The First Coming in the Manger. Cuddly babies are more to our liking than a Judge who is sorting us out into groups of sheep and goats. Baaaaaaaaaa!

The keen observer has noticed that the Green hangings on the altar and the vestments have given away to Advent Blue – the customary seasonal color in the Sarum Rite. And for those of us here at Saint Peter’s, we have on the altar perhaps the most mysterious of all altar frontals I have ever seen – a several hundred years-old embroidery of Jesus hanging on a palm tree. This may seem more apt for a time like Holy Week what with a cruciform Jesus and palms and all. We might, however, consider two observations about the incarnation of God in baby Jesus.

The Koran depicts the birth of Jesus as taking place beneath a palm tree. There are several variations on this story, but my favorite is that the wind (the Holy Spirit?) blows through the fronds of the palm tree, and baby Jesus falls into the lap of the Virgin Mary who happens (by arrangement of the same Holy Spirit) to be sitting under that very tree. This makes our frontal a potential bridge between Christians and our sisters and brothers who are Muslim.

The second observation was made by an old priest in a rural church far far away, many many years ago. He began preaching in such a soft voice that Christmas Eve that people in the pews had to lean forward to hear what he was saying. The quieter they got, the more clearly they could hear him saying, “The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross, the wood of the crib is the wood of the cross.” That is, Christmas and Good Friday really mean to celebrate the same truths about the incarnation.

Take your pick. For reflecting on the impossible truth of what Christmas is all about, it is hard to get any better starting place than looking at our Jesus in the palm trees for the next few weeks.

As to the Second Coming, alas, all too much is said on TV, in books, on websites all claiming to know just when and how it will all come down. Whole series of books and movies have been made. All, I am sure to our Lord’s own personal amusement. Since it was he who said, “Of that time and that hour only the Father knows, not me.” It might help to think of it all this way. Whether it is the First Coming or the Second, Advent proclaims a God who does not stay distant from creation, or impassive in the face of creation’s need for redemption, prosperity and peace. God answers the cries of his people, says Mary Hinkle Shore (Ass. Prof. of NT at Luther Seminary, St. Paul) and God will, in Christ, come to lead them home! Judgment means that the notion that might makes right will be replaced by love makes all things right. Only those who subscribe to the first notion have anything to fear in the Second Coming.

But at last, we might do well to consider what Professor Shore proposes as a Third Advent, or Third Coming – the daily coming of Christ into our individual and communal lives with a vision for how we might live in such a way that our lives bear witness to the hope we have for the future and to the justice God will establish for all peoples!

Having experienced this Third Advent, I would like to share with you an example so you too might keep an eye out for the daily coming of Christ into our lives. I was in Syracuse at a Stewardship Conference. I was in a room of about 100 people. In the front was a table of about six deaf persons, with an interpreter signing what was being said and sung. It was beautiful to watch the interpreter doing her best to communicate with her hands what the rest of us were saying and hearing. As we sang hymn 711, Seek Ye First The Kingdom of God, all six of the persons at that table were signing the song. It was extraordinarily beautiful and powerful. Soon I put down my guitar and joined them on the “Alleluias” while my partner Wiley Beveridge kept playing the piano.

Then it happened. One by one everyone in the room began to sign the “Alleluias” along with the people in the front of the room. Our collective signing became a sign of the kingdom breaking in right then and there. We had left our world and entered into their world. Of course, they were in front and facing forward and could not see that. The interpreter motioned for them to turn around and look. The looks on their faces, smiles, tears, looks of being accepted, seeing a roomful of people enter their world for just a few minutes, said it all. The look on their faces was the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven in Christ. We all saw it. We all felt it. We will never forget it.

Isaiah offers a vision of what the kingdom will look like – predators and prey all sitting down together, a weaned child near the den of the asp. John the Baptist announces the Kingdom is at hand. It is here every day if we just look at it. It is here in our midst for those who are watching and joining in with those who are announcing it. We are not called to Wait for the kingdom, we are sent to Seek it. Seek ye, first, the Kingdom of God….Allelu, Alleluia! As we take the time to enter into the world of “others,” those who live lives completely differently from ours, the closer the kingdom will look.

This Advent Seek and Watch. It might mean reflecting on the mysterious truths of the incarnation and nature of God as depicted on our Advent frontal with Jesus in the Palm Trees. It might mean watching for signs of the kingdom here and now. It may be as simple as singing and signing Alleluia. For as John says, the kingdom of heaven has come near – it is at hand, here and now. Watch it, seek it, become it. Amen.

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