Be the Already
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
And so, our story begins. This first Sunday in Advent our gospel comes from St. Luke as will be our custom throughout the coming year. Notice, the Church begins its new year when the days are still getting darker. Advent is not a season for the faint of heart. In place of swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs — each year we begin the story of God looking fiercely and honestly at the world as it really is, here and now. Gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart.
“People with faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26). In prophetic language that sounds distressingly contemporary, Jesus describes a world reeling in pain. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, don’t turn away. Don’t hide. Why? Because it’s only when we embrace reality — when we acknowledge and welcome the “here” of human suffering — that we experience the nearness of God.
In Advent, endings and beginnings run together. Ancient truths and dreams of the future teach a single startling truth: our creator and redeemer are one and the same. Our living God, the Ancient of Days, is our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end. Today, and in this season, the past and future join hands to guide us in navigating the difficulties of this present moment and lead us into the loving embrace and the ongoing work of God that is already, always, and at all times everywhere.
This present moment is all we ever actually own in life. Yet it can be really hard to focus solely on the here and now. American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” That’s precisely what Jesus does in his prophetic wake-up call in our gospel today. He shouts, he draws startling figures, and he uses every rhetorical device at his disposal to snap his listeners to attention. “Be on guard,” he warns his disciples. “Be alert.” “Stand up and raise your heads.” Look.
It is hard for people today, reading this gospel today, not to think the end-times Jesus is talking about is only about the future—possibly even the distant future—when Christ returns to the world again in glory from on high. We forget the most important part of this message: the apocalypse is also now. Lutheran theologians are fond of saying the kingdom of God is already and not yet. Christ our king is already here. The victory is won but the struggle with the power of fear and death continues. Somehow we focus on the ‘not-yet,’ and neglect the ‘already.’ The hopeful message of Advent is watch, wait, look, be part of the already!
Lauren Wright Pittman is an artist and Presbyterian pastor who created the beautiful image we have in our worship folders today entitled, “Raise Your Head.” She writes, “Jesus says to respond to these apocalyptic signs with staggering hope and confidence. When it feels like the very foundations of the heavens are crumbling, we are to stand up. When the roaring sea and the waves confuse us, when the sun, moon, and stars come tumbling out of the sky, we are to raise our heads. When the news cycle feels like an endless fire hose, people pour into the streets in protest, families are separated, and fires blaze through neighborhoods, we are to stand up and confidently usher in and claim the redemption that God promises.”
Be the already. Focus on what’s not yet makes us into passive spectators, leads us down blind alleys and into fruitless speculation. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). Instead, the meaning of the cross and of the resurrection is that you can be part of God’s already.
Advent calls for brutal honesty, even when honesty leads us straight to lamentation. In Advent, we are invited to describe life “on earth as it is,” and not as we mistakenly assume our religion requires us to render it. We are invited to shout forth our pain and bewilderment. To name the seeming absence of God. Advent is an invitation to yearn. That is, to name the “here” of our desires without shame or reservation. Advent is the season when longing makes sense. Advent is an invitation to imagine. In Advent, we are called to hope creatively. To hope against the grain. Or as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, we’re called to trust that “darkness does not come from a different place than light; it is not presided over by a different God.”
“Advent is an antidote to illusion. It cuts to the chase. It insists on the truth. It lays us bare. Advent invites us to dwell richly in the here, precisely because here is where God dwells when the oceans heave, the ground shakes, and our hearts are gripped by fear. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, hope fiercely and live truthfully. Deep in the gathering dark, something tender continues to grow. Yearn for it, wait for it, notice it, imagine it. Something beautiful — something for the world’s saving — waits to be born.” (Debie Thomas, “When You See These Things,” Journey with Jesus, 11/25/18)
Former President George H. Bush died Friday. He was 94. A reporter for the New York Times, Peter Baker gave this accounting of his final hours. “George Bush had been fading in the last few days. He had not gotten out of bed, he had stopped eating and he was mostly sleeping. For a man who had defied death multiple times over the years, it seemed that the moment might finally be arriving.
His longtime friend and former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, arrived at his Houston home on Friday morning to check on him.
Mr. Bush suddenly grew alert, his eyes wide open.
“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked.
“We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered.
“That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.
Barely 13 hours later, Mr. Bush was dead. The former president died in his home in a gated community in Houston, surrounded by several friends, members of his family, doctors and a minister. As the end neared on Friday night, his son George W. Bush, the former president, who was at his home in Dallas, was put on the speaker phone to say goodbye. He told him that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you, too,” Mr. Bush told his son. Those were his last words.” (Peter Baker, “George Bush’s Final Days,” NYT, 12/01/18)
I never voted for him, but from the perspective Advent provides, his kinder, gentler style of leadership looks like something essential we must reclaim for ourselves going forward. For mortals, our beginning and ending inevitably come together. See! They lead us to the same place. “The bridegroom comes! Awake. Rise, prepare the feast to share; go meet the bridegroom who draws near.” (ELW #436) Together, let us be the Already.