Mark 13: 24-37
Good morning, friends, and on this holiday weekend we would greet one another not simply with a “Happy Thanksgiving,” but with a “Happy New Year.”
Seems a little out of synch, I know. But we are all familiar with the fact that the calendar of the Church Year in our Christian family turns on a different cycle from the secular calendar, and this Advent Sunday is the springboard, new and renewing in the seasons of our lives, as we are launched once again into the great pattern and narrative of the Holy Story. We look across the Sundays of Advent to Christmas and Epiphany, Lent and Holy Week and Easter, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday out there on the far distant horizon.
With prayers always that as we move through this deeply familiar cycle and pattern and travel this long road together once again there will be this year and each year a deepening in our minds and our hearts of knowledge and spiritual understanding, an opportunity for each one of us to grow in grace and love, in tenderness of heart and holiness of life, a spirit of mercy and forgiveness, knowing Christ and making him known, and in hopeful expectation of what God has for us in this life and in the life to come.
Having said all that, we would just say this morning that “Happy New Year” may not be the most helpful or appropriate greeting for Advent Sunday. Perhaps with the background images of holiday festivities, parties, champagne, and swinging around the dance floor to the wonderful music of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. “Happy.”
I love all those things about New Year’s Eve, and then a New Year’s Day of football games on the television and pork and sauerkraut and all the traditional observances of that holiday. But Advent Sunday is different, as we hear the deep poetry of Archbishop Cranmer’s collect—in my opinion anyway one of the most elegant and graceful and beautiful sentences in all the literature of the English language. For more than 500 years this the theme and guiding motif of the New Year in our Anglican family: give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.
So we’re shopping for presents and enjoying holiday parties and wonderful meals and fun wintertime family activities, which is all fine and good. But the Church here is inviting us to begin the year together in what I would call a deeper place and a more serious place. At a point of decision-making about the fundamental values and loyalties and commitments that shape our identity. Who we are, and whose we are, and how we live that out, in our minds and our hearts, by word and deed. Casting away the works of darkness. Turning to the Father. Receiving from him as a gift, a new garment, the armour of light.
As we have our Advent wreath before us in this season we have begun to hear one version of the meaning of each of the candles and each of the weeks of this season. But just to say that from ancient days the four great themes of this season are death and judgment, heaven and hell. Four Sundays, four candles of the wreath. Which perhaps will catch us by surprise for a moment. Not the kinds of things we are especially likely to think about while we’re standing in line with the kids waiting to visit Santa at the department store. “Happy New Year” indeed! But again this ancient message of the Church to say that these are the four great topics that are essential for us to consider as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the awesome and breathtaking and even terrifying mystery of the Nativity of our Lord, and the miracle of Incarnation.
It isn’t so much about sleigh bells and snowflakes. Not even about a beautiful Church building and a magnificent choir and all the traditional gatherings of family and friends. More about cutting to the chase. About moving past gimmicks and unrealities and illusions, self-deception, superficialities, any spirit of denial. Which we all have and own in abundance. Getting down to brass tacks. Ultimate concerns. Last things. To ask what we’re really here for, anyway. Not just the presenting circumstance. The easier rationale. Of hope, a hope that is founded on something real and substantial, that comes as a gift from the only one who can give this gift, and that comes to rest in a sincere and deep place in our heart.
Death and judgment, heaven and hell. The point isn’t to stir up some kind of anxiety, some fear that a heavily armed policeman is going to swoop down upon us to catch us, to hurt us. The point is instead that death has been overcome, that the judgment is given on our behalf, that the crisis of heaven and hell has become now for us the promise of life. Forgiveness, and healing, mercy and blessing and life eternal.
Not about anxiety, not about fear. But if it could be in this new year to bring up in us instead a sense of longing. To meet the one who comes with healing in his wings, light and life. The Desire of Nations—one of his great titles. To say as we turn to this new year that what aches in us and what weighs us down shall all be lifted up and transformed. That the God who in Christ has begun this new work will bring that work to completion in a way that is beyond our understanding, but not beyond our desiring, not beyond our hope.
About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep away—for you do not know when the master of the house will come . . . .
Happy New Year, then, for us all, this Advent Sunday. What we’re really here for. Not far ahead, the Traveler’s Inn, the Stable, the Baby in the Manger. The Angels singing. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. Once again this year, we’ll get there before we know it. Never quite ready, but excited nonetheless. Standing on tiptoes, looking forward.
Like the Shepherds rushing down from the surrounding hill country, to see this new thing that God has done. This new thing that changes everything.
Happy New Year indeed.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.