Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Spirits of Advent

Just days after Halloween I was in Canadian Tire. There were still a few shelves of Halloween decorations, but they had been all shoved to the side. Busy employees were filling the shelves with snowmen, Christmas trees, lights, candy canes and anything that twinkled with a wintery theme. The snow hadn’t even hit yet, …. and in Edmonton that is saying something. We want to skip ahead so quickly to Christmas.
Today we are starting a new year in the church’s calendar. The Church year always begins with Advent. Advent is a season that brings a certain level of tension. Our culture wants to sing Christmas Carols, but the spirits of Advent say “wait”. Our culture wants to celebrate by eating cookies and decorating Christmas trees, but the spirits of Advent say “wait”. On the way to church we hear frank Sentara’s voice on the radio singing “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas”, and our heads are filled with cozy images of sleigh rides and fire places and hot chocolate. When we get to church we hear readings that (as expected) prepare us for God’s coming to us, but unexpectedly our readings also call us to repentance, and warn us to prepare for a coming judgement.       
Advent is a season that many of us want to “bah-humbug”. “Give us Christmas”, we say.  But, the three Spirits of Advent stand in between us and Christmas.

The first spirit that will visit us is the Spirit of Advent Past. This Spirit looks like an old prophet. He carries an old scroll filled with prophesies and longings. This Spirit reminds us of human history. A history that is filled with war, violence, disease, and suffering. There is good there too, but this Spirit reminds us to not be naïve about the world we live in. This Spirit stands between us and our cozy images of warm fires and eggnog and reminds us of the suffering of humanity. From this mass of humanity there are voices that cry out with hope. The Spirit of Advent Past points to prophets that foresee a future that is better because of a coming hero.
Some see this Spirit active even outside of Israel among non-Jewish peoples. There were prophesies and yearnings all over the world- from the Roman Empire to China. Among yearning humanity we hear the prophet Isaiah speaking about the one who was to come who would patiently suffer on behalf of others, and because of their sin.  The expected one will be born of a young woman, and the Greek version says “a virgin”.  Hints about this coming king are littered throughout the ancient scrolls of the prophets of Israel. They all point to the one who was coming. But they also point to why things are so bad. They call humanity to look at itself. To human beings who always want to find the problem somewhere outside themselves the prophets point to them and make them view the reality that they don’t live up to their own standards, let alone God’s. The prophets call for justice in the midst of a human race that fights and claws to get ahead- even at the expense of others- even at the expense of justice. But this Spirit gives us hope by reminding us of the ways God has saved His people in the past, and that God will not allow injustice to persist. The Spirit of Advent Past points to hope, but it is hope to be saved from a mess humanity created.   

As the Spirit of Advent past recedes we see another figure come forward- The Spirit of Advent Future. This Spirit is mysterious and comes with a box. We don’t know what is inside. We aren’t sure if it is a present or a bomb. When we are sending Christmas cards with pictures of a cute baby in a cozy looking manger she reminds us that this baby will grow to be the king of kings, and the lord of lords. She points to a coming time of judgement- when what is wrong with the world will be made right. Surely part of what needs to be put right is us. We don’t know how we will stand at the time of judgement. We trust in Jesus, but we can only hope. He owes us nothing.
In many of us there is a little twinge of fear when we think about Christ’s return.  The preacher, Austin Farrer, said, “The God who saves us is the God who judges us. We are not condemned by his severity and redeemed by his compassion; what judges us is what redeems us, the love of God. What is it that will break our hearts on judgment day? Is it not the vision, suddenly unrolled, of how he has loved the friends we have neglected, of how he has loved us and we have not loved him in return; how, when we come before his altar, he gave us himself, and we gave him half-penitences, or resolutions too weak to commit our wills? But while love thus judges us by being what it is, the same love redeems us.” The Christ who judges us is also the one who loves us and died for us.
The Spirit of Advent Future points us to a time when the one who we waited for- Jesus Christ- will come again. Christ himself says we will not know the day or time. He will come at an unexpected hour. This Spirit claims that anyone who predicts a date for Christ’s coming is a liar. Christ himself, like the church, does not know the day or time. The angels don’t know. The first sign that someone is wrong is that they claim to know. We know it is in the future and so the Spirit of Advent Future points, but we don’t know if she points to tomorrow or a thousand years into the future. .. She might also be pointing to the end of our life, when we will stand before Jesus and with him look at our lives. She stands before every generation and points to the future reminding us to be vigilant and prepared.        

Another Spirit comes forward- the Spirit of Advent Present. This spirit carries a bell to remind us to be alert, awake, and ready. She reminds us that if we live in the present moment, full of the Gospel, full of Christ, then we have nothing to worry about, and we need not care about when that end might come. The Spirit of Advent Present calls us to be ready at every moment, because the Spirit know that Christ is coming to us at every moment. We often miss it by being stuck in the past, or fearful of the future.  Christ is coming at every moment and if we are prepared we can receive him. We see him in the poor.
There is a story I heard once about a pastor who was called to serve a new congregation. His first day he dressed up like a homeless man and came to the church early. He grew out his beard. He played the part. He dressed in old clothes, and he asked people for spare change. As expected, some were kind and some were cold and thought of him as a nuisance. As the service was about to begin he walked to the front of the church and read from Matthew chapter 25:
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 
And he ended the service. No doubt this is an oversimplification of very complex issues, but that story is a powerful reminder that Christ is near us and we are free to receive him or reject him. He is always just around the corner. We see him in each other. We are the body of Christ. Christ will eventually come, bursting into the world in an obvious way, but he comes to us now, disguised.

As we go through this season there will still be those who ‘bah-humbug’ the season of Advent. But I encourage you to remember the three Spirits of Advent. Remember the longing of humanity for a future filled with justice and the presence of God. Be diligent, knowing that there is a coming time of judgement. And more than anything, be present now- be awake and alert to welcome Christ now. If we pay attention to the Spirits of Advent, we will truly be prepared for Christmas.     

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