27 November 2022 – First Sunday of Advent
by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I grew up as a child of the Cold War in Southeast Texas. This was a particularly threatening combination of circumstances, as the local economy consisted almost entirely of the oil industry. Somehow we were aware from a young age that if nuclear conflict emerged, our region would be high priority target.
I was also raised in a religious tradition that preached apocalypse and judgment in a way that could have been drawn directly from today’s Gospel. In my child’s mind, these two influences could blend together. Sometimes, during summer thunderstorms that could be so vivid and powerful in that part of Texas, at the explosive sound of thunder I might wonder: is that a nuclear explosion or is it the second coming of Christ?
As I read today’s texts, this memory came to mind. We have two men working in the field together, one will be taken and one will be left behind. Two women grinding meal together, one will be taken and the other left behind. And nobody, not even the Son of God, knows when it’s going to happen. If we read earlier in Chapter 24 and continue beyond today’s text into Chapter 25, the imagery Jesus uses to exhort his followers to stay awake…it’s pretty harsh. If they fall short, they might be “thrown into outer darkness,” or face the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30).
So, believe me, I would rather skip this text altogether – especially given my background with passages like this. I would rather turn to Isaiah and linger in images of “all the nations” streaming to the mountain of God (Isaiah 2:2), and people “beat[ing] their swords into ploughshares” (2:4) and “learn[ing] war no more” (2:4). I would much prefer that over apocalypse, judgment, and the consequences of being found on the wrong side of that judgment.
Meanwhile, here we are in Advent…
When I think of Advent, the thing that comes to mind for me is preparing for Christmas, preparing to mark God’s coming into the world, preparing to celebrate love made flesh in the form of an infant in a manger. But this “little apocalypse” of Matthew as these chapters are known, kept pulling me back. What is this all about? Why do we have this apocalyptic imagery in our preparation for Christmas?
Maybe it helps us consider the question if we to think about where this material in Matthew may have come from. The Gospel of Matthew was most likely written sometime around 80-90 CE. Jerusalem had been flattened, Jews scattered, and the temple destroyed. The community of this Gospel were refugees who had lost their home, their faith community, their whole way of life. What we see in this text is that in a time of tremendous violence and dislocation, this community was imaginatively insisting that God’s justice would prevail. Though they might not see any cracks in the invincibility of Rome, still they insisted that God could bring justice, at any time.
Just as I – as a child – picked up on the Cold War imagery of the 1970s and 1980s to grapple with the fear of living in my place and time, these followers of Jesus picked up on the imagery of their time – Jewish apocalyptic thought that symbolically imagined a world in which a just God will see to it that the world is turned right-side up, that justice wins out, that truth and mercy prevail.
Far from indicating an arbitrary God who randomly casts people into darkness, Matthew’s “little apocalypse” shows this community’s trust in God to bring about a more just, more merciful, more secure, and more peaceful world than the one in which they lived.
There is a lot in today’s texts. But a few things are clear; this we do know: Jesus has come. Christ is present in this world, here, now. We also know that this world has not lived up to God’s vision for creation. We have not lived up to God’s vision for creation. This, this is not the Reign of God we yearn for, that we were taught by Jesus to pray for. We all could make this list, right?
- An environment is in crisis.
- Another day, another mass shooting.
- Loneliness, isolation.
- Continued displacement of immigrants and refugees around the globe.
- Persistent racial inequity.
I don’t know about you, but I say we could use a little bit of Matthew’s apocalyptic imagination. We need that community’s faith that God will bring justice, and mercy, and humility to our world. We need Isaiah’s vision of the mountain of God’s house being raised above all others, of all nations streaming to God’s mountain, rejoicing in God’s teaching, reveling in God’s judgment. We need the weapons of violence, war, and death to be transformed into implements of well-being.
We’re given a chance, each year, to take a fresh look at God’s dream for our world. That’s Advent. In Advent we are invited to stop and see the world with fresh eyes – with the eyes of our imagination, with the eyes of God’s imagination. Can we transform our sense of apocalypse from one of violence—as was my childhood vision—to one of hope? Can we hold fast to God’s promise that God will have the last word, in the end, in a way that we can’t know?
While we’re at it – while we’re engaging our imagination – a second challenge emerges from today’s prayers and readings. Can we also take a fresh look at our tradition’s use of the “light” and “dark” imagery that abounds in the season of Advent? This imagery does have its uses, and it emerges from well-grounded biblical precedent. But it also can be and has been mis-used… If we are going to use this imagery, we need to take responsibility for considering it more closely. Lenny Duncan – a Lutheran pastor, author, and racial justice advocate within the church – makes this observation about the use of light and darkness in the Christian tradition:
“Over and over again in our music, liturgies, displayed artwork, and language and word choices, we have reinforced the idea that white is holy and black equals sin…most pastors wear a white alb or surplice while they lead worship—using whiteness to represent baptism, purity, and closeness to the creator… The person who administers the sacraments: clothed in white. The colors of resurrection and ultimate victory: white…The message is clear, whether we realize it or not. White equals pure. And the inverse is also true: the absence of white—darkness or blackness—equals bad or evil” [Source, p. 67].
The dominant image in the season of Advent is the contrast between light and dark – struggling through darkness, waiting for the light; emerging from darkness into light. You hear it sprinkled throughout our texts today: “put on the armor of light,” “cast away the works of darkness,” “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
I’m not suggesting that we need to jettison this image, but what if we broadened the symbols of the season? Instead of reducing Advent to a season of “from darkness into light,” perhaps we might, as Duncan suggests: “…focus more broadly on Holy Anticipation. Or the God Child being born into a world where empire will try to lay waste to him. Or a God who throws God’s own self upon the world, clothed in vulnerability and dependency. Or the place of unwed teenage mothers in our world. Or the slaughter of innocents by a leader grasping for power” [p. 67].
And if we put our holy imaginations to work, that list could grow. Wouldn’t that bring a richer experience of God’s coming into the world?
Or what if, in addition to broadening the images of the season, we also expanded our sense of the darkness. As the psalms remind us, darkness is graced by God: “Darkness is not dark to you, O God…darkness and light to you are both alike” [Psalm 139: 11]. Or “Yours is the day, O God, yours also the night; you established the sun and the moon” [Psalm 74: 15]. Darkness can bring peace, time away from daily obligations, time for withdrawal and reflection, for rest and recovery. A “dark night of the soul” can be a time for deepening and growth, for learning to rely on God’s presence. As Brother Geoffrey Tristam of the Society of St. John the Evangelist recently commented, we are all invited to “share in the dazzling darkness which is at the heart of our crucifixion / resurrection faith.”
So, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of God into the world this Advent, let’s make it real. Let’s embrace whole. Let’s welcome the apocalypse, the revelation, the coming into this world of God’s justice and mercy – in a way we can’t know. Let’s leave behind what can become a lazy interpretation of this season of waiting – “light / dark” – it’s easy to fall into. Instead, let’s enrich the church and ourselves with a broader, more nuanced, ultimately more nourishing experience of what this season can be. Let’s take on the harsh and the precious, the sorrow and the hope, justice and mercy…and the light and the dark. Let’s open ourselves up to the God who holds it all.
That’s the God we need.