Grace to you and peace from him who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.
You may recognize that greeting from the first chapter of Revelation, which was read last Sunday, as part of the Christ the King lections. “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account, all the tribes of the earth will wail. “I am the Alpha and the Omega”, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty”.
I shared this with you because, like the readings we just heard, this is Advent scripture. Real Advent scripture, the kind that makes the hair on your neck stand on end, and not in a comforting way. This passage helps me to understand the theology at the Advent and how the next four weeks are not some kind of jingle bell sleigh ride, bringing us to the Christmas feast. Jesus affirms he is the Alpha. This points to the first coming of Christ, God coming to earth in the infant Jesus whom we await at Christmas. The Incarnate Christ born of the Virgin Mary.
Jesus also claims that he is the Omega. This points to the second coming of Christ. Coming in glory to be our judge on the last day. With this second Advent, it is not a matter of if, but of when, Christ’s return will consummate the kingdom of God. This is the message of Advent. It reorients us to a promised future. Listen again. “I am the Alpha and the Omega says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty”.
As you know, we Christians live our lives between the Alpha and the Omega. The Episcopal priest and author, Fleming Rutledge, calls this “the time between” because the people of God live in the time between the first coming of Christ, incognito in the stable in Bethlehem, and his second coming, in glory to judge the living and the dead.
She writes, “Advent contains within itself the crucial balance of the now and the not yet that our faith requires. The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world, is held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory that is yet to come.”
And this, my friends, is why the biblical texts for the first Sunday of Advent, do not give us the feelies, like a cup of tea, warm and cozy. No. The stories of Advent are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle. Advent is an unpredictable time, not free of death and destruction. It is a time of cognitive dissonance, of divided consciousness, when we anxiously wait the birth of a child who has already been born, who is still being born in us. This Emmanuel who came, who was coming, and who is among us now. Head spinning, isn’t it?
Given the nature of Advent, it is no surprise that the prophet Jeremiah is its herald. Before the Babylonians conquered the Hebrew nation, laid waste to Jerusalem, and exiled its citizens into a pagan land, the promises of God seemed secure. The land of milk and honey was theirs. But God’s people squandered it all. They became indifferent to the poor. They perverted their own justice system. They turned to foreign gods. God’s judgment descended upon them in the form of Babylonian hoards, who plundered, slaughtered and imprisoned them. An impenetrable fog of despair descended upon them.
The Advent season, properly understood, is designed to help us navigate and break free from the soul crushing fog of our own despair. It strengthens us for a life in the real world, where there are malignant forces actively working against human wellbeing in the divine purposes of God. We know our justice system is anything but even handed. And often perverse. We know that Americans are in a cold civil war, over petty grievances. That we are trapped in a psychic economy whose currency is spite. Thanks to social media and cable news, we live in a self-amplifying echo chamber of mutual contempt. We know that loving one’s enemy and showering grace on the undeserving, is for the weak. We know that our culture is deeply unwell.
But here, in these three verses of our Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah prophecies the promises of God in the midst of human impossibility. “In those days, and at that time, I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David. And he shall execute justice and righteous in the land.” When human hope and human potential fail, the prophet Jeremiah tells his kin that their future will come not by giving up on God’s promises and making the best of a bad situation, but by trusting God to shake the powers of the heavens, to usher in a cosmic cataclysm of justice and righteousness. The Lord, who is our righteousness, implores us to do the good thing and the God thing. Because only God’s perfect justice will transcend and transform any notion of human justice.
Our own canon theologian, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, explains it this way, “There is no human justice that could adequately make up for the injustice, that was the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Hence black faith has had to place its trust in the justice of God alone. This is how we reconcile the legacy and trauma of slavery. Only God’s perfect justice or righteousness can address such an injustice. Because of a belief in God’s righteousness, black faith people have been able to forgive. That is, releasing themselves from the sin of injustice. By trusting that only a righteous God will attend to it”.
My friends as a white, straight woman, I haven’t had to rely on a hope or a justice that may not come in my earthly life. I may not perceive God’s righteousness as always fair, but because of the blessings afforded at my birth, I have always been able to make a way when there is no way. Jesus says apocalyptic words as recorded in Luke are especially pertinent now.
It is time we make a way for others who haven’t been able to make their own way. Jesus speaks of the distress of nations and fainting from fear and foreboding. Remember, the widow had just put her mite in the collection box, and Jesus was irked by all the ways in which she had been manipulated into giving all, while those with plenty gave so little. He admonishes his audience by threatening an apocalypse, a word which comes from the theater, the pulling back of the curtain, and what he sees is not pretty.
Advent is the rehab program we all need. Enough of thinking that there isn’t enough to go around. Enough of the gas lighting and enough of the alternate realities that serve only one’s own purposes. God is the saving agent in Advent, and God is coming in Jesus Christ. That shines the hard truths on our own efforts of self-justification and self-righteousness. Promise me, promise yourselves that you will not drift anesthetized through another December, weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness. Wake up! We’re to be on our guard, watchful and alert, prayerful and humble. Jesus gives us fair warning that the signs of the times just might become inevitabilities.
Despite some frightening images, this Advent text offers not fear and damnation, but hope and expectation. God in Christ is coming because God loves us, because God wants to redeem us. Let us trust in God and await redemption from the world’s systems that only God can and will bring. In the midst of all of this, we are invited to stand up and raise our heads because our own redemption and that of our neighbor is drawing near.
So now allow me to end with this Advent blessing written by Jan Richardson. It begins, “Blessed are you who bear the light in unbearable times, who testify to its endurance among the unendurable, who bear witness to its persistence when everything seems in shadow and grief. Blessed are you in whom the light lives, in whom the brightness blazes – your heart, a chapel, an altar where in the deepest night can be seen the fire that shines forth in you in unaccountable faith, in stubborn hope, in love that illumines every broken thing it finds.”
This is the Advent message. In a world of profound darkness and distress, pervasive sin, and evil, we look to the one true light, Jesus Christ, son of God, Incarnate Hope, the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come. Amen.