By the Rev. Darren Miner
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and the church begins another liturgical year. This season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the second coming, or advent, when Christ will come again in glory to judge the world.
In normal times, the church observes the season with the use of violet vestments and paraments. And each Sunday of Advent is marked with the lighting of a new candle on the Advent wreath. But this is not a normal time, so we don’t have these visual cues. Even so, there are changes to the liturgy that mark the change of season. For example, we now begin Morning Prayer with a Confession of Sin, and the canticles between the readings have changed to match the change of the season.
The first reading today from Isaiah speaks of the Day of the Lord. The prophet longs for a day of final judgment when God will act definitively against the nations that threaten Israel. And he laments that God has seemingly abandoned his people because of their sinfulness and lack of faith. On behalf of his people, Isaiah asks God to overlook the people’s sins and to continue to shape and mold them into a priestly people.
In the second reading, St. Paul reminds us that God is with us and that he has given us many spiritual gifts through Jesus Christ. Paul assures us that God will continue to abide with us, even to the very end, for God is faithful. We may not always be faithful, but God always is! And with God’s own help, should we choose to accept it, we will be made ready to stand before the throne of God and receive judgment at his hand.
Finally, we come to the Gospel reading from Mark. It is an excerpt from chapter 13, often called “the Little Apocalypse,” because it resembles the greater apocalypse of the Book of Revelation. And like all apocalyptic literature, it deals with what will happen at the end of time, using symbolism that is both difficult and disturbing.
In this excerpt, Jesus warns us that on the Last Day his chosen ones, the Elect of God, will be gathered up by angels for salvation. Precisely when this Day of Judgment will occur even Jesus doesn’t know. And so he urgently counsels his followers to keep awake and to be spiritually prepared at all times. Think of this scripture as something akin to those blaring alerts from the Emergency Alert System you get from time to time on your TV.
For a couple of centuries, Christians managed to maintain that sense of urgency, that expectation that the Last Day was at hand. But to be quite honest, it’s been 2000 years since the emergency broadcast was first aired, and we’ve stopped paying close attention! But even if the Second Coming of Christ does not occur in our lifetimes, the fact is that all of us will eventually face our Maker and be judged. And we should live each day as if it were out last. If we truly thought we had only this one day to set things right with God and our neighbor—what might we do differently? I suspect we might start doing what we should have been doing all along!
Now, if you’ve been paying attention in church, you already know what God expects of us. For the Scriptures have given us plenty of guidance. We have the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be pure in heart, to be peacemakers…. We have Jesus’ advice to keep the three traditional Jewish acts of piety: to pray, to fast, and to give alms. We have the hidden commandment in the Lord’s Prayer: to forgive others their trespasses. We have the continuing guidance of the Ten Commandments. And finally, we have the Summary of the Law: to love God and to love our neighbor.
Admittedly, it takes real effort to maintain righteousness. And it takes attentiveness. It’s so easy to fall asleep spiritually. Going to church every week can get to be a chore (even phoning in can be a bother), so our attendance starts to drop off. The cost of living keeps going up and life in a pandemic can be precarious, so maybe we stop giving to charity. Forgiveness is such hard work, so maybe we just hold on to that little grudge. Then there’s the task of daily prayer—it can be so tedious and time-consuming—minutes out of our life that we will never get back!—so we stop talking to God. And little by little, we drift asleep.
Well, “wake up, and smell the coffee”! Now is the time to prepare for judgment. Now is the time to make things right. Now is the time to put the house in order, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come.”
© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.