With an Advent Accent
Text: Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14
Thanksgiving is over. December has arrived and for most people the Christmas countdown is on. As for me, I have been on a quiet countdown to Advent long before the first leaf started to fall.
It is hard to blame those who ignore Advent. It is a tough season to sell, with no “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday” sales, a season filled with bizarre images and even more bizarre language. How can one flickering candle compete with the seductive peddlers of wishful thinking who work round the clock like Santa’s elves to capture our consumer attention?
These peddlers of wishful thinking somehow seem to know just what we really need – a new outfit that will expand with our increased holiday girth, a remote piece of land where we can get away from all the stress, a new phone that can do everything from take pictures, to do research, to write term papers, to serve up a seasonal cinnamon latte.
How can preachers with all their tired, old words sound anything but arcane and irrelevant in the face of such peppy peddlers of our every want and wish? What can preachers say to compete with these persistent peddlers of fun and fantasy? If hope can be contained in one of the ten thousand Christmas catalogues that clog our mailboxes, real and virtual, or can be delivered to our doors, same day, by UPS or Amazon Prime, then preachers cannot compete. It is no contest. The peddlers win and we can blow out the candle.
Advent, though, is a season that is not so easily deterred. Ready or not, it has stormed back into this sanctuary in the form of one, lonely candle. Along with this Advent, Matthew is back and is speaking in strange tongues, or at least with a strange accent. It is the accent of urging, urging even the most skeptical believers to fan the flame of hope.
Advent language is apocalyptic language. It is extreme language meant for extreme situations. It is not the language of casual persuasion, “By the way, did you notice that your house is on fire; you might want to consider planning an exit strategy.” No, it is the language of urgency, “Your house is on fire. Get out -- NOW!”
It is definitely not language for literalists. “If your eye offends you, pluck it out” is language Jesus speaks with an apocalyptic accent earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus speaks these words not to cause massive eye damage to sinners, but as a powerful metaphor urging all to move beyond destructive behaviors. To turn apocalyptic language into literal language is not only to leave you blind but to blind you to the power behind the language.
So, why does Matthew speak with such a strange accent, an accent that so many people struggled to understand then and struggle to understand now? Because at its core apocalyptic language is the language of hope; it is the only language powerful enough to compete with the finest peddlers of wishful thinking. Spoken often in harsh and foreboding tones, apocalyptic language never mistakes reaching for the stars or chasing happily ever after with hope.
Matthew does not write one word about Advent, but he writes many words about the difference between wishful thinking and hope. He knows that our hope rests not in what you and I can accomplish, but in what God can accomplish in us and through us. Our hope rests not in what you and I will find under the tree on December 25th, but in what God can inspire us to give to those who have no tree. God-given hope survives the harshest tests and the darkest nights because hope’s final confidence is not in us, but in God.
That is why Matthew speaks with an Advent accent, the apocalyptic accent of hope. In a world where cynicism reigns and God is often no more than a political football for the rhetorically adept, what does the church do? It lights one candle to usher in Advent. It turns its attention not to a child cooing in a manger in Bethlehem, a family scene that we can mimic with our cute creches. Nor does the church turn to the empty tomb to give us a good story to go along with our grief.
Advent points far beyond a manger and an empty tomb to a future that you and I cannot begin to imagine and asks us to imagine that in every future, God waits, waits for us, waits in us. Advent reminds us to take hope not that we will win the lottery, but to take hope that the living God will have the last word and it is a word “full of grace and truth.”
Matthew says that God’s word of life will return not when we are best prepared, but when the house is a wreck, the dishes are still piled in the sink, the list of things to do is a mile long, and our faith is hanging on for dear life. The only assurance that Matthew can give us when he speaks with this strange accent is that in the end as in the beginning – God.
“Advent is a wake-up call to our human limits,” writes our own Jill Duffield. “We do not know the day or hour of our end or of Christ's return. We do know, however, that our days will end and Christ will return . . . If we are awake and alert, on the lookout for these certain truths, how then will we live? I suspect we will be prepared to focus on what really matters and let go of so much that, in the end, is utterly irrelevant. And in so doing we will radiate the light of Jesus Christ until he comes again, and come again he will.”
So, beware. Advent snuck into this sanctuary while most of us were finishing up the leftovers from Thanksgiving. Advent is back and it is speaking with its strange accent. When you and I walk forward to this table and eat this bread and drink from this cup, we might hear, well beyond all the Christmas commotion and wistful wishful thinking, the gritty and contagious and holy language of hope.
Welcome home, Advent. It’s about time you got here. Welcome home.