A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts,
on 2 December 2018 [Advent 1]:
Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

The Curtain Opens

My sabbatical experience began in St. Petersburg, Russia; and among the many experiences that mark the memory of that time, one that continues to stand out is that I attended my first ballet there.  My ballet baptism occurred in the historic and world-renown Mariinski Theater, and my first ballet performance was “The Nutcracker.”

From the moment I sat in my seat, I was mesmerized by what I saw.  I felt like some yokel, rubbernecking the theater’s elegant interior, until the orchestra started to play.  An instantaneous, expectant hush overcame the audience, as the tuxedoed musicians finished the overture.  And then, with the hall lights darkened, everything stopped.  Suddenly, as if by some unseen hand, the tall, red-velvet, stage curtains rose straight up, elevated beyond sight to reveal the action on the stage.

In the suddenness, the site was transforming: A winter’s bustling street scape in 19th century St. Petersburg; with three story brownstone buildings, snow-covered as back dropped; and people in their finest and warmest scurrying to and fro — all amidst a gentle falling snow.  I shivered with delight at what I saw and at what I anticipated might come.

Advent, the time and experience we inaugurate today, reveals what is coming.  It unveils before our eyes what God sees and what God knows.  And for mortals like us, what God sees and what God knows overwhelms our sensibilities.

Now I grant you that the words and images of this morning’s gospel lesson do not have the same transporting quality of the opening scene of “The Nutcracker,” but what we hear and see in this morning’s gospel is very much in keeping with the experience of a great stage curtain, opening up to transport us to something larger and more significant than our own, limited immediacy.  And the way such a sweeping vision is biblically conveyed comes through a special literary device known as “apocalyptic.”

Our gospel reading for this First Sunday of Advent represents this kind of biblical literature and experience.  The Bible’s “apocalyptic” parts are meant to function much in the same way as what I experienced in the Mariinski Theater.  Like the great opening of the stage curtains, the apocalyptic aspects of Luke’s scene provide a revealing (that is what “apocalyptic” means) – a revealing, an unveiling, an uncovering of life as God sees it.

Now having said this, let’s be honest: For the most part we don’t like these apocalyptic scenes.  They put us off; they threaten us.  So, is it any wonder that our attention spans spring into action, fast-forwarding our focus to something more pleasant?  And truth to tell, I would rather preach to you about more gentle things, too.  Yet, appearances can be deceiving, which is the reason I want to encourage you to pay attention to what we have heard in this morning’s gospel.  We might see something important, namely, what is “coming” (which is what the word “advent” means) –what is coming in terms of the God-life in our midst.

As I have mentioned to you in the last two weeks, this time of the liturgical year always brings us face-to-face with biblical apocalyptic imagery.  As we complete one liturgical year’s experience following Jesus and prepare to start another, what the worship tradition provides is perspective.  Where are we?  Where are we headed?  What is needed to make the trip?  In a very real sense, these are Advent’s apocalyptic questions; this is the purpose of the apocalyptic passages in the Bible and in today’s gospel reading.  This is what it means to begin a new season and a new spiritual year.

In the simplest terms, most of us know that we gather for worship in the season of Advent to prepare for Christmas.  Yet, if we listen to the words of our Eucharistic prayer, Advent speaks about much more than this.  Whether we give voice to the “Memorial Acclamation” with these familiar words: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again or with different words – ones we will use now until Lent: We remember his death; we proclaim his resurrection; we await his coming in glory,[1] we are acknowledging the reality of Advent in our daily experience of faithful living.  What I mean by this is that you and I live in the “Memorial Acclamation.”  This is to say that we live in-between Christ’s resurrection and Christ’s fulfilling return.  Yes, you and I live in the in-between-ness of faith, the “already begun but not yet finished” life of God.  Hence, the apocalyptic Advent questions: Where are we?  [In the transition times] Where are we headed?  [To life with God fully at the center]  What do we need to make the trip?  [Things are changing: some we like and some we don’t.  How do we stay steady through it all?]

Like the Mariinski Theater stage in St. Petersburg, Advent’s apocalyptic elements orient us through the three apocalyptic questions.  In the instance of this morning’s gospel from Luke, the stage curtains are drawn swiftly away to reveal a scene, one that immediately contains things we do not like or at the very least confuse and bewilder us.

Specifically, these apocalyptic scenes depict a great deal of turmoil in this world.  So does the evening news, but the biblical expression is not just about the daily round of violence and tragedy.  The apocalyptic message conveys a perspective, one that confronts us with the difference between what life is like on our terms and what life is like on God’s terms.

The language the biblical apocalyptic uses is extremely visual, but it is also essentially poetic: A point that is crucially missed by the casual observer.  The apocalyptic message is code language (which is the reason I have called it poetic).  Nonetheless, the temptation is to attempt to crack the code and to figure out when all this will happen.  Then, the fearful illusion goes, we’ll be able to avoid the difficulties.  Don’t fall for this!   To do so completely misses the point of what is to be seen and what it to be lived.

Remember the three apocalyptic questions: Where are we?  Where are we going?  What do we need to make the trip?  The answers have all to do with seeing and remembering life on God’s terms and what it takes for the faithful to live in the in-between times of the world.

The descriptive phrase for this Advent life-stance is “to be in the world but not of it.”  This is the reason I say that the message of these apocalyptic passages has to do with perspective: How we keep our eyes on God’s prize and still live responsibly and with hope in this world.

In this regard the apocalyptic aspects of Advent work like a spiritual GPS.  Advent locates us, as it also puts us in relationship to the larger picture of our continuous life with God. Living with this perspective in mind and with the hope that such a “big picture” provides makes connecting the intervening dots of each day a meaningful exercise of memory, resilience, and hope.

We remember his death,
We proclaim his resurrection,
We await his coming in glory …[2]

Vision.  Hope.  Action: These items can be seen as Advent’s mantra.

We remember his death: Have we dared to see the reality of the cross?  Have we contemplated what it costs God to love us?  Dare we deal with how much we need to change so that we will be liberated from fear and death?

We proclaim his resurrection: Do we recognize that the love of God is stronger than our fear of death’s threat?  Have we opened our eyes to see that we are free to live, delivered from the prison of a life limited by our puny imagination and our addiction to self?

We await his coming in glory: God’s love never forces us to love him.  So, God waits for us, silently, relentlessly, with a passionate yearning to be in Communion with us – no matter what – until that time when our hearts and souls crack open the dividing door and the reviving fresh air of holiness and God’s life fill our lungs.  At last, we breathe.

The difficult aspects to the apocalyptic vision (what we don’t like about readings like today’s gospel) stem from the proclamation that the life of the world and our own lives will continue to change until all life is fully God’s life.  Clearly, it is not immediately pleasant (for instance) to discover that, in spite of our best efforts, we are headed in the wrong direction.  It is painful to lose our way or to think one destination is as good as another.  The apocalyptic vision reminds us – often painfully — that life on our terms does not last.

To the extent that the apocalyptic vision threatens us is in direction proportion to our insisting on holding on to such temporary things and refusing the necessary dying of letting go,.  Yet, Advent teaches us to see and to let go of what is passing away and to embrace what lasts.  And in this willingness to let go, in our necessary  practice of dying to what is temporary (albeit cherished), we have the ongoing hope of receiving the life we see in Christ, risen and glorious.

So, we begin as we always begin Advent: With a deep reality check.  Where are we?  Where are we headed?  What do we need to make the trip?  Advent asks these questions of us, and each day Advent also leads us to the answers.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel:” God with us – now and always.  Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer. page 363, 368.
[2] Book of Common Prayer. Eucharistic Prayer B, Memorial Acclamation, page 368.