Sermon for Sunday December 2nd

This may be difficult for some of you to believe, but the 2019 movie award season, which culminates with the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 24 next year at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, has already kicked off. In fact, it started just this past Monday with the Gotham Awards in New York City.

Reading about the Gotham Awards this week (which, honestly, I’d never heard of before), along with the early predictions already coming out about the leading contenders for the Academy Awards statuettes, got me thinking of past Oscar winners for best picture, and I began to realize that a number of them had something in common.

I’m going to give you the names of five “best picture” award winners, and see if you can imagine what these five films have in common:

In 1982, the “best picture” award went to Gandhi.

Two years later, in 1984, Amadeus took home the big prize.

A decade later, Forrest Gump was named the best picture of 1994.

Three years after that, in 1997, came the blockbuster, Titanic.

And then finally, in 2008, Slumdog Millionaire was named the best picture.

Five very different films… all tied together by one important element. Each of those movies followed a similar format, where the opening scene of the movie really told the end of the story. And then, after letting us know how the story turns out, the film takes us back in time, to retrace the steps which led up to that final conclusion.

This method of telling us the end of the story, and then going back to fill us in on all of the details which led up to that end, is not limited to the movies.  The technique is a common one – whether in film, or literature, or storytelling, or even in the way in which the story of our Christian tradition is set before us through the course of the Church year. 

This morning we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a new year, with our lovely blue vestments and altar hangings, and our Advent wreath to remind us of the change of the season.  And yet, the readings which we heard this morning – the readings which have been a part of the tradition of Advent for 1600 years now (almost as long as the Church has been celebrating a season of Advent) – tell us not the beginning of the story, but its end.  Not unlike the lessons which we heard read during the last two Sundays, as our church calendar moved us toward the end of a liturgical year with the Feast Day of Christ the King last week, today’s scripture passages speak to us of the end of the age, when God in Christ will come to earth (in Luke’s words, “… the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”), to re-claim all of creation.  And now, with the end of the story firmly in place, we will spend the next 51 Sundays hearing how we get to that point in the story – how our history and God’s history will time and time again intersect.  And then, on December 1st, 2019, with the beginning of another church year, we’ll get to do it all over once again.

Time – our time and God’s time – “chronos” and “kairos”, to use the Greek terms – continue to blur one into the other, and then to separate again.  This wristwatch I wear every Sunday is a lovely Seiko timepiece.  This watch reminds me of Seiko’s advertising catchphrase some years ago (maybe you remember it), when the off-camera narrator in the television commercial declared rather boldly, “Man invented time.  Seiko perfected it.”  It was a rather audacious assertion, it seems to me, to say that something as eternal as time was invented by humans.  And yet again, perhaps it is not entirely untrue.  For we know that God is not limited either to time or space… that time is an instrument which we use to maintain some kind of control and order in our lives – whether it is setting our alarm clock to wake us up in the morning, or moving those same clocks back and forth between daylight savings time and standard time).  And so, using Seiko’s advertising language, we know that the effort of humanity to invent time is also an attempt to control time – and to control time is an attempt to control eternity – and to control eternity is an attempt to control God… and that, my friends, is something we cannot do.  And so, we are faced with yet another one of the great tensions in our struggle to understand God and to understand life.

This time of year, I am reminded that our time and God’s time are somehow inextricably intertwined with one another.  For Christians, the power of the incarnation is not so much that God now lives in our time or history, but that we now live even more tangibly in God’s time.  It’s not so important, I believe, for us to try to figure out how Jesus’ life – his birth, his death, his resurrection – fit into our lives, as it is for us to come to some kind of understanding of how our lives enter into, and become a part of the life of Jesus… and through him, of God’s ongoing encounter with all of creation.

Fortunately, we are not the first people to struggle with time, and especially with the end of time.  As I said a moment ago, Christians (for almost as long as there have been Christians) have begun the church year hearing the end of the story, and then trying to make sense of how to get from the beginning to the end.  But even before that, in the earliest years of the church, this same struggle raged.  That first generation of Christians – those who were of the same era as Jesus himself – expected that following Jesus’ resurrection, his second coming would be imminent.  If Jesus had gone into heaven to prepare a place for them, they surmised, then he would be right back to take them home.  The earliest writings of the New Testament reflect this particular mindset.  The first Gospel written, according to most scholars, was that of Mark… written perhaps as early as 40 A.D., within 10 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, while many of those first-hand witnesses were still alive.  And throughout Mark’s gospel, we get the sense that those people who told and heard Mark’s version of the Gospel expected that the end would come during their lifetime.

But then something happened.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that nothing happened.  Luke’s version of the Gospel message – part of which we heard today, and much of which we will hear during this coming year, was written considerably later than Mark’s gospel – perhaps 30 or 40 years later, as late as 75 or 80 A.D.  Those intervening years between the writing of Mark’s gospel and that of Luke are significant, because the people came to the difficult realization that the end wasn’t coming as they had thought… that the first generation of Christians had died without seeing the end of the age… that the timetable which they had figured out was not without its flaws… that perhaps they were in for a longer wait than they had first anticipated.  And so, one of the first great theological crises of the church was upon them.  “When exactly was the end to come?  What should they do about time now?”

The question still haunts us.  As Christians we are caught in a kind of time warp.  We live partially in two different and distinct time-frames, and yet fully in neither.  We are caught up in the middle of “kairos”, of God’s time, somewhere between Christ’s first coming as a babe in Bethlehem’s stable, and his second coming riding on those clouds of glory.  At the same time, we are caught up, as well, in the middle of “chronos”, in the time of history, marching ever onward from time immemorial to time unimaginable.

This season of Advent allows us to celebrate this incongruity, this dissonance.  All of our preparations this time of year – in our homes, and in our hearts, and in our church – are for the celebration of Christ’s first coming, with the angels and the shepherds and the Wise men.  And yet, we also know that the event which looms forever over our heads is the celebration of Christ’s second coming at the end of time.  Our expectations are always insufficient, for we don’t really know what to expect.  We expect a mighty king… and we get a helpless infant born in a dirty barn.  We expect a messiah to deliver us from the hand of our oppressors… and we get a man who died the death of a criminal on a lonely cross.  We expect one who will provide the answers to all of our questions… and we get one who only questions all of our assumptions.

The growing light of the Advent wreath as we light one additional candle each week symbolizes several things.  For one, it provides for us an example of how the light of Christ comes gradually – almost imperceptibly – into the world.  But in addition to that, it also gives us a picture of how our understanding of God… and of God’s time… is also a gradually emerging idea… an enlightening experience. We all find ourselves somewhere between the first candle, when there is, at yet, not enough light by which to see clearly… or as St. Paul says, “For now we see as through a glass darkly”… and the fourth candle, when all shall be revealed and we see God face-to-face. 

The light is coming into the world… the light of Christ the infant, and the light of Christ the king.  As we pass through this Advent season of our lives, let us continually look for that light as it reveals itself, and let us continually look for the unexpected one as that light gradually reveals for us the path of life.