Sermon; Advent 2A
Last week Fr. Brandt talked about both the linear and cyclical natures of time. We live in a linear nature. We are here and we are going there. Countdowns to Christmas and the New Year are well underway, underscoring the feeling (maybe) that the race has begun – a sprint from now to the 25th (or maybe the 1st if you're lucky) in which we are pressed to accomplish as much as we can. Setting up decorations, buying gifts, baking goodies, visiting friends and family – these are all part of that linear race we call the holiday season.
But this time of year, while traditionally called “the most wonderful time of year,” is also one of the most difficult times of the year. First, as I mentioned, there's the linear sprint to Christmas day trying to ensure that our lives live up to Hallmark expectations. This is hard enough to do in normal circumstances. Personally I find it much harder to do now that that kid has grown and we really have no reason to run that race. The pressure we put on ourselves to live up to holiday expectations can sometimes be too much.
Another reason this most wonderful time of year is also the most difficult time of year is because this is the time of year when we focus particularly on our families. For some of you, this will be your first Christmas without a beloved family member. For many of you, this will have been your second, third, fourth, whatever, but the emptiness still remains. For you, I offer my prayers and condolences, and I hope you find comfort among those family and friends who are still with you.
This linear nature of time, the movement from here to there, is where we most often live. It is, I think, where the world tends to live. But Advent reminds us of that other nature of time. Advent draws us back into the cyclical. In the cyclical, we are once again at the beginning of the Church year. Once again we reset the calendar to the beginning where we focus on preparing for the incarnation of our Lord, his arrival, manifestation, and, eventually, his crucifixion and resurrection. This is the cycle of the Church year: prepare, live, prepare, die, prepare, live.
Here we are, once again, at the beginning of the cycle. Once again hangings are changed from green to purple or blue, just like we have done for hundreds of years before now, and just like it will be done hundreds of years from now. Prepare. Live. Prepare. Die. Prepare. Live. This is the cycle of the Church year. And notice that this cycle always includes a time of preparation before a major event.
You may not see this in today's gospel, but if you look carefully, it's there.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Everyone was coming out to see him, including Pharisees and Sadducees. They came because he was the next big thing. They came because they were thinking linearly: “This is where we are – he's next in line.”
But this particular ministry of John wasn't linear, it was cyclical. Notice that Matthew says, “This was he of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare.”
John preached a message of repentance. Prepare.
When we make confession and repentance an intentional act, we spend (or we should spend) time preparing. For what are you repenting? Whom have you harmed? How have you strayed from God? We must prepare ourselves to answer these questions.
We must also be prepared to live a new life. Are you prepared to make amends? Are you prepared to make restitution? Are you prepared to change your behavior? John probably knew that the Pharisees and Sadducees were not prepared to do so.
That preparation leads us to new life. But life, being what it is, will find a way to distract us. It will find a way to turn us from God. It will find a way to cover us with stuff which we need to get rid of. This is the purpose of confession and repentance – to prepare again and again to put the old self to death and to prepare again and again to live a life worthy of God.
So that “gathering the wheat but burning the chaff with unquenchable fire” thing Mark records John saying to the crowds? Know this: that isn't a linear event where we can look forward to one of two outcomes. Chaff is the outer shell, or husk. The inner wheat is what is gathered in to God. As we move through life we collect stuff, we create outer shells to protect our inner selves. Every once in awhile we need to have that chaff separated from us and burned away. This is a cyclical event. Prepare. Live. Prepare. Die. Prepare. Live.
Once again we are at the beginning of the Church year. Once again we are at the beginning of the cycle. We have stepped into Advent, the time of year when we once again prepare for the coming of our Lord.
Advent reminds us that we are living in the both/and, the already and not yet, the linear and the cyclical. We are preparing for the coming of our Lord who has already arrived but not yet come. We are living in a linear world that is intent on rushing us from here to there, while we also remain tied to a cyclical cycle in which we prepare, live, prepare, die, prepare, and live.
This Advent, may you remember that the burning of the chaff isn't a condemnation but a cleansing. And maybe more importantly, may you remember that if the pressures of this linear world become too much, you can come and be wrapped in the cyclical nature of the Church, where what we do year in and year out, over and over again, provides a sense of stability, comfort, and love.
May you have a blessed Advent where you prepare once again to hear the message of the Angels and experience the Incarnation of God in this world.