Advent 1: Scripture: Matthew 7: 7-20
Today we consider different ideas about Advent: Second Coming or birth in a stable.
Last week, I said that Jewish people in Jesus’ time had many different thoughts about what the Messiah would be like. They included the following ideas:
Military king like David, who would defeat the Romans or,
Divine judge who would come on clouds of glory to end the age or,
Super-priest who would guide Israel to correct interpretation of Torah or,
Prophet who would offer salvation from oppression and disclose God’s righteous law
My sense is that the earthly Jesus saw himself foremost as a prophet, like those in what we call the Old Testament. Their role was to call out the authorities for what they saw as wrong, and to summon the people to lives of holiness.
Early Christians saw Advent as the Second Coming
When Matthew wrote his Gospel, the early Christian saw Jesus’ work as incomplete. Corruption and social inequality were still present. The Roman occupation was still in place. Even worse, the Romans had destroyed the Temple. That ended the whole religious edifice of Temple worship. Besides, it seemed unthinkable that God could allow the Messiah to be shamefully executed and not take decisive action. Even the Resurrection was not enough to change their sense of incompleteness.
That is why those early Christians looked towards the Second Coming of Jesus and a Last Judgement. They remembered Jesus’ words about the Son of Man coming on clouds of glory. He had said, “He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather the elect …” [Matthew 24: 30-31]. That’s the image of the divine judge coming on clouds of glory. They waited almost breathlessly, as we imagine in the parable to the Wise and Foolish Virgins [Matthew 25: 1-13]. Stay awake, it could happen tonight!
The Greek word for the Second Coming is parousia. Its Latin translation is adventus, which likewise means ‘coming’. The Second Coming did not happen during the lifetimes of those early Christians, as they had expected. Two thousand years on, it’s difficult for most of us to keep waiting so intently. Most of us now imagine that the Second Coming and a Final Judgement will occur in a far distant future.
The result is that most modern Christians turn our thoughts towards a different adventus, namely the Nativity story. Our Advent takes the story of Jesus back to the beginning, with his birth in a stable in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
Advent Scriptures and hymns
We began Advent today with mostly Old Testament readings that I selected tot try to show the Israelites’ hope for a coming Messiah. Advent hymns can seem somewhat schizophrenic because Advent carries the symbols of both Judgement Day and Nativity. Carols like People, look east! The time is near look to new beginnings, and the birth of the Christ-child in Bethlehem. Conversely, Lo, he comes with clouds descending … speaks of old endings, and the Final Judgement.
Today’s Gospel reading comes from the Sermon on the Mount. I see these words of Jesus as a call to holiness. The “Golden Rule” [Matthew 7: 12] – treat others the way you hope they will treat you – is present in many religions and philosophies. Jesus called this “all the Law and the prophets”. He may have been quoting the famous Rabbi Hillel, who had lived a few years before Jesus was born. Someone once asked Hillel to explain Torah. Hillel quoted Leviticus 19:18, a version of the Golden Rule. He said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. Go and learn.”
The Gospel reading emphasizes action
I particularly noted that the Gospel passage emphasizes doing not just believing. It reminded me of the saying in the Letter of James, that “Faith without works in dead.” We know people by their fruits – by their actions, not by their words. Good people do good deeds. They abide by the Golden Rule, among other things. Bad people are the reverse. That saying contains more than a hint of the Final Judgement. Trees that bear bad fruit get cut down and thrown into the fire. In her book, Sanctuary Line, author Jane Urquhart recounts that apple trees are most productive from Year 3 to year 12. They get cut down and burned after 16 years.
Jesus did not say that it is easy to follow him. The path to (eternal) life is hard and the gate-way to it is narrow. Few people will find it, he says. Yet there is positive news. Matthew 7: 7-8: “Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will open. For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. For whoever knocks, the door will open.”
We help other people because they are our neighbours
Today we bless the monthly food for Mission Services. We also see the start of our efforts to provide welcome kits for seniors moving into accommodation at St. Matthew’s House. I’m very happy to see that our parishioners are so generous. But it’s not a reason to be smug. We are simply recognizing that people in need are our neighbours. As followers of Jesus, it’s who we are and what we do. As Jesus told us, that is the whole of the Law and the Prophets.
I see in these words a requirement for humility. It’s hard to find our way in life and live ethically. Jesus said that the gateway is narrow and the path is steep. If we are arrogant or careless, we will probably miss it. There are so many temptations to take the easy path.
Summing up Advent: Second Coming or birth in a stable
Let me finish by circling back to where I started. The early Christians looked for the Second Coming, for God to wave his magic wand and set their world to rights. For my money, they had it all wrong. My belief is that it is our responsibility to bring in God’s Kingdom of peace and justice. Today’s Gospel reading shows Jesus giving us pointers for how to make that happen.
All this is why I don’t expect Jesus to come to judge the world in clouds of glory in late December 2019. My Advent anticipates the coming again of the Messiah in human form, 24 days from now. St. Luke told of a fragile human baby born in a stable in Bethlehem. In my mind I have put this together with the darkest days of the year. How do we, individually and as this parish of St George’s Lowville, become more truly beacons of holiness shining out in what is often a dark world?
Personally, I think the early Christians were wrong about Advent — not the Second Coming, but a humble birth in a stable.the Second Coming. But whichever it is, let me finish with their call. “Maranatha; Let the Lord come!”