Today we’re entering a kind of a magical -- and kinda frantic -- time of year. We’re here at the weekend between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. There are only 26 shopping days left until Christmas! It’s a time to spread sweetness and light among your loved ones by making all the right purchases. Deck the halls. Contemplate sweet Rudolph. Bake lots of cookies. Bake Nestle nutty chocolate chews. Plan Christmas dinner. Be overwhelmed by the magic and joy of the season. At any cost.
But -- I’m afraid I have some disappointing news. This year’s Christmas party is going to be exactly like the one last year; at the big family dinner, political differences will simmer tensely below the surface. The kids will be obsessed with their new toys, at least for a day or two, and then those toys will probably join the other somewhat worn out or actually broken toys in the toybox. The new bracelet, so admired when it was unwrapped, ends up in the jewelry box with the others. The new golf clubs are going to work a lot like the old ones did. And December will turn into January. The promises, the resolutions, that encourage us at this time of year usually end up fizzling out and disappointing us.
That being said, is it a profound marketing mistake on the part of the church not to play into the magical hype? That frantic hype? Couldn’t we get out of church early the Sunday before Christmas so that we can go buy last minute gifts? Why doesn’t Jingle Bells appear in our hymnal? Couldn’t we get an inflatable Santa for the church lawn? It could replace our Halloween spider. Christmas is really a church thing, so why shouldn’t we draw in the holiday crowds by selling a little commercial Christmas magic?
Well, it’s not that the Church is so puritanical that it can’t sully its hands with the extra eggnog or Cyber Monday deals; it’s not because the Church doesn’t have a sense of joy that we don’t kick up our heels during Advent. Instead, we as a Church keep the season of Advent because we are not interested in buying fake joy at 40% off – we only care about the real thing.
So we miss the holiday boat yet again this year as we begin Advent with this decidedly unfestive passage from Romans.
But wait a minute. Isn’t this the season for reveling? For an extra cocktail? For bragging about our gifts? For entertaining? For indulging our cravings? For starting Christmas celebrating right after Thanksgiving? No. Instead we have bah-humbug St. Paul, saying “Let us live . . . not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in jealousy.” What a grinch.
The world’s idea of pleasure means getting to the point at which our cravings leave us alone. We can satisfy our craving at a holiday dinner by wolfing down three helpings of ham and a couple of extra pieces of pie, but this rarely imparts actual joy. Instead it imparts actual indigestion. And that longed for gift –
I remember a winter coat in the window of a dress shop (the only dress shop) downtown when I was a high school sophomore. I admired it. I knew what a practical gift it would be for me. We were a family with not a lot of extra money, but I needed a coat. I seemed to have stopped growing, so I wouldn’t need a new one again.
And Mother bought it for me. I was thrilled. But after a while the thrill wore off, and the coat was just a coat. By my senior year I was tired of it. But it kept me warm as long as I kept the buttons sewn on.
St. Paul doesn’t say, “This is NOT the season to be jolly, folks.” He doesn’t say, “This is not the season to desire lots of stuff.” Instead he tells us, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
For St. Paul, the desires of the flesh are not only sensual desires, but they’re all of the impulsive desires that rule us; the desire for revenge, the desire for wealth, the desire to prove others wrong, the desire to be seen as important by others – make no provision to gratify any of these, says St. Paul, but instead, put on the armor of light, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the desires of the flesh, joy is only a glimpse, a passing moment, if it’s experienced at all. The flavor of the Nutty Chocolate Chews, which we had at coffee hour last week, is a delight, I think. (Which is why I made them, and why I was glad there were a few left over to take home.) But once you’ve eaten one, the flavor is gone. The joy of it lasts only until you swallow. Saint Paul says the only lasting joy is found in the source of all goodness, the source of all peace, the source of all love. Lasting joy is found in God, not in Nutty Chocolate Chews. Advent is the season in which we look past sweets and Christmas and await the day in which we will meet God face to face.
In today’s Gospel we read about the Second Coming of Jesus; the great, awe-inspiring day when the Son of Man returns.
There is a modern “left behind” theology that paints the Second Coming of Christ as the worst thing ever to happen in human history, but for the Apostles and all of the Mothers and Fathers of the Early Church, the second coming of Christ was seen as the best thing ever to happen to the world.
Instead of praying to be raptured away and not have to face Christ’s return, the early Church prayed daily “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” One of the oldest Christian prayers that has come down to us is so ancient that it wasn’t written in Greek, but in Aramaic, the native language of the Apostles: this prayer is Maranatha – “Come, O Lord!” Just that. Simply “Come, O Lord.” It’s a prayer literally begging Christ to return to us right now.
The end of time is not the terrible destruction of the world, but its restoration, its healing, its perfection. In this life, we catch only fleeting glimpses of the nature of God: in an embrace, in a wondrous conversation with a child, in a beautiful object, in a delicious meal, in an amazing sight of a ring around the moon – in these we have intimations of what pure goodness is, what pure love is, what pure beauty is.
But at the end of time, God, who is the actual source of all joy, all peace, all light, all love, will permeate every fiber of creation. St. John tells us that on that day there will be no light from the sun nor from the moon, because they will be as nothing compared to the light radiating from the face of Christ, from the throne of the Father, from the presence of the Holy Spirit. The fire of the glory of God will radiate from all things and fill the New Creation.
[OK, there’s a big shift coming. We’re going from the fire of the glory of God to Homer Simpson. So hang on.]
There an episode of The Simpsons, in which Homer is sitting on the couch, tossing peanuts into his mouth. On his last throw, he misses, and the peanut rolls under the couch. He gets down on his hands and knees to reach blindly under the sofa, and his hand touches something. He grasps it, he pulls out, and he opens his fist to reveal a hundred-dollar bill. His response? “A hundred dollars?! But I wanted a peanut!”
Jesus tells us to be ready, to keep watch, so that on the last day, at the return of our Lord, we don’t respond, “A new creation full of pure joy? But I wanted a Rolex! I wanted pumpkin pie! I wanted a shiny red marble! I wanted revenge! I wanted a peanut!” Jesus wants us to be ready so that we don’t turn our backs on the greatest gift ever given: the gift of absolute joy, absolute peace, absolute love, the gift of perfect unity with God.
So how do we go about waking up this Advent? How do we prepare for the end of time? First of all, by loving God: by making our relationship with God our top priority, by putting God above wealth, health, status, safety and everything else; remembering that worshiping God in church, praying, and reading Scripture every day are the most profoundly important things that we can do. And then loving our neighbor, loving every living icon of God, as ourself. Overcoming selfishness by giving freely to those in need, overcoming pride through acts of kindness and humility, overcoming sin with love.
Not because God will reward us with presents for being good little boys and girls like Santa does, but so that we can detach ourselves from these impulses, so that we can forget the peanut and accept the fullness of God instead. And then, on the final day of the resurrection of the dead, when we awake from death and stand before the great judgment seat of Christ, we won’t be filled with dismay, disappointment and dread – we won’t be filled with a visceral longing for a peanut – but instead we’ll be filled with awe as we see Him in the fullness of eternal joy.