The Reverend Kathleen Killian
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Opening to the Horizon
Earlier this morning, as the first candle of the Advent wreath was lit, we prayed that Advent is a season of hope. Yet, Jesus’ prophetic vision of the future that we have just heard seems anything but; rather, the cataclysmic events he describes of heaven and earth passing away and people fainting from fear of what is befalling the world are difficult to comprehend in and of themselves, let alone as hopeful or cheery.
According to Google, today officially marks the “Seasonal Holidays.” But in any of its three billion—in less than half-a-second hits—about said secular celebrations, we would be unlikely to hear anything like our gospel from Luke; nonetheless, today is special and holy as it’s the beginning of a new church year. Advent and the new church year always begin with Jesus’ dire prophecies about the end of time and his second apocalyptic coming; as in her wisdom, the church aways provides the faithful with lectionary lessons and readings that point to the very end, so that from the get-go, we Christians set-off in the right direction—eastward—towards the horizon of the rising Son.
There’s an old Irish saying of which I’m fond, which is that a good beginning is half the work. How true, as the start of anything—be it new year, a meal, a relationship, a life—is the first step towards its eventual end, though perhaps not the end we had in mind, if we had an end in sight at all. Advent especially calls the Christian soul to awaken to the coming mystery and turn towards it—not run away in the opposite direction or bury our heads in our hands—because a good beginning is half the work, which is what we are doing here today—making a good beginning that measures and eases our work.
So, as I’ve been thinking about this week, what is our work?
During this season of Advent, part of our work is to wait in hopeful expectation for God to come; to prepare the manger of our hearts for the birth of Jesus, and ready our souls for the second coming of Christ and the days that are surely coming as Jeremiah prophesies; for a righteous Branch will spring up and he shall execute righteousness and justice.
In our gospel today, Jesus also tells us what our work is, for he said to the disciples, there will be signs—stand up, raise your head and look at them. What do you see? Because if you don’t look you won’t see; you won’t see the signs. And if you don’t look and you
don’t see the signs, you’ll be caught off guard. Jesus reiterates and repeats—because he knows how hard of hearing we can be—be aware and alert at all times, ever praying, because your redemption is drawing near.
Jesus goes on to talk about the fig tree and all trees, that when they sprout leaves you know that summer is near. For us, if we look and see that the leaves have fallen off the trees, it’s a sign that winter is near, if not here. But how do we read other perhaps more subtle signs? How do we see the signs of God’s present and approaching kingdom?
Learning to look and see and read the signs is part of a disciples ongoing work and discipline. We are called to pay attention to God’s work in and through each moment and breath; for God is always working to bring about our redemption and the redemptive end. Yet seeing the signs or becoming aware is not only or primarily about looking out there, but turning within to do the interior work of conversion. Much of our conversion or spiritual rebirth takes place in the inner darkness, where God is, and where together we search out all that is buried, repressed, oppressed, askew and tangled up; for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light (Luke 8:17). This “coming to the light” is the redemptive revelation of God who comes to free us from sin and death in all of its various and nefarious forms. God always comes to free us from sin and death. So when we read the signs—whatever they may be—we always read with hope and toward hope.
Our psalm 25 this morning is a beautiful prayer of hope and trust, and yet in the Hebrew it also contains three of the most telling and imaginal words for sin: to miss the target (ḥāṭā'); to rebel (peša); and to be twisted out of shape (āvâ). To sin is to be headed in the wrong direction and then to rebel, resist, and reject being rerouted—the result of which is the twisting and deformation of the spirit and heart. Though we are not the embattled people of ancient Israel, waiting for deliverance, we are in our own time embattled by illness, grief—a pandemic—estrangement, addiction, violence and sins undisclosed; we too are waiting upon the Lord for deliverance.
Waiting on the Lord, as we do during Advent, doesn’t mean we are passive or uninvolved; rather, we remain active in our work. The psalmist also prays, let none who waits on the Lord be ashamed, or as some translations read, let none who hopes in the Lord be ashamed. In the psalm, “shame” is more so tied to our trust in God being broken than to guilt or embarrassment as we understand it today. But as the psalmist goes on to sing, God’s compassion and love are everlasting. The Lord teaches sinners in his ways; he teaches his way to the lowly. God always comes to save and redeem. Our trust in God will never be broken. So while we work and wait, we can do so in hope and trust.
In a different kind of Advent, Jesus himself waited for God to come as he waited for his end on the cross. So too we enter into his waiting, which is bound up in his work. But then at once, Jesus sweeps us up into his vision of the future, a future beyond contemporary or historical horizon, beyond his time or our time; a future that calls the people of God to look forward to the restorative end. And if and when we do, we will see that that the “good news” stands, even when all else fails and falls. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. For twenty-one centuries, through all the iterations of time and history, Jesus’ words have not passed away; promise fulfilled.
Jesus invites God’s people to step into the depths of their faith by entering a future with God. Faith is never only for or about this day. The urgency of the Christian faith is that we stand with this generation and generations to come, and with the prophets and saints, ready and willing to pass through the darkness to get to the light—quite literally during the season of Advent—as our days grow shorter and darker. While the secular world makes a beeline to Christmas, the holiday, as followers of Jesus, we weave our way through the dark for the next four weeks to Christmas, the holy day, starting as we have at the end of time. Christ is cloistered in this darkness, like a pearl inside its shell, a hidden numinous promise awaiting to emerge again and again in any way of its holy choosing: coming in a great cloud of power and glory, coming in the manger of a humble heart, coming in the worn souls of hurried harried feet, coming in the Word made Flesh, coming in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78).
May we open to God’s saving horizon. Let us turn together towards the place of the rising Son; let us face East, ad orientem, and worship the glory of God’s light-giving Christ. May our common orientation be a sign of our common humanity, and our uncommon hope.
As St. Paul ever prays in our Epistle: May the Lord so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we are blameless before our Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus.