When I first read these lessons over earlier in the week, my first reaction was: what on earth can I of make of these, they seem all too . . . real, somehow: splitting apart of mountains, refugees, confusion and a sense of timelessness, distress among nations. It’s as if Zechariah and Luke had been reading the Boston Globe this past week (or indeed any week!) and commenting on what they read there.
So what are we to make of these readings? And perhaps just as important a question, what are we to make of the Boston Globe?
Today we begin again the great liturgical cycle that will move us through the year, from Advent, this season of expectancy, to last Sunday of the Church’s year, Christ the King when we look to that end time of fulfillment when Christ will come to reign over all things. Today is a beginning. Even a new beginning, as we gather to wait and watch for the coming of the Lord in the person of the Babe of Bethlehem. Advent is a time when we wait for the coming of God, just as parents wait for the birth of their child. Like them we wait with eager longing, mixed, I sure with fear and dread, as to what this child will mean for them and their lives.
But Advent is not simply a time of waiting for the birth of the child. It is not simply a time for waiting for the beginning of a life. It is also a time when we wait, indeed when we long for the end of human life and the fulfillment of all things. So we wait today, as we do every day, not just for the beginning, but also for the end, not just for the coming of God as saviour, but also as judge and redeemer of all at the end of time.
So Advent is a time of waiting and like any parent waiting for the birth of a child, we do so with eager longing, and a sense of dread, because this child, like every child, will change our lives and demand from us things that we cannot even begin to imagine. We wait too; perhaps with a sense of fear, because we know that this birth, like every birth, will be hard and painful and may even, literally, tear us apart.
Childbirth, at least at one time, was both a life giving, and life threatening event and the birth for which we wait is no different. It will both give us life and threaten the life that we have come to know, for by it we experience both our beginning and our end. We see in it both manger and cross. We know from it both salvation and judgment. We find in it both the beginning of all things in the birth of the child of Bethlehem and the end of all things in Christ the judge of all.
So Advent is about hope and dread, longing and fear, salvation and judgment, our beginning and our end. It is about the one who “for us and for our salvation . . . came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit … became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man” and the one who “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and [whose] kingdom will have no end.”
So what then are we to make of these lessons? Are Zechariah and Jesus (or at least Luke) making some sort of prediction about the future? Are they in one sense, prophets telling us what is going to happen? Or, are they prophets in another sense, helping us make meaning out of what is happening?
Many of us are familiar with that school of biblical prophecy that makes predications about the future, telling us what will happen. Some will remember being swept up in the 1970’s (and here I confess I was) by Hal Lindsay and his best selling book The Late Great Planet Earth in which he predicted, not the collapse of the Soviet Union but its world domination and role in the rise of the anti-Christ.
But something else is happening here this morning. The lessons are telling us not so much what will happen as they are trying to make meaning out of what is happening.
“On that day” Zechariah tells us, and we must ask “what day?” What “day” is Zechariah talking about? Zechariah is pointing us to no other day than the “day of the Lord” when God’s kingdom will be established here on earth, when God’s kingdom will come “on earth as in heaven”, when all creation will groan with birth pangs at the birth of the kingdom of God just as a mother groans in the midst of her labour.
And that is my image of Advent. It is a time of labour when all creation groans with Mary as she gives birth to the Christ child and creation gives birth to the reign of God. And it is labour pangs, not chaos or destruction that we read about in today’s lessons. It is labour pangs that cause people to “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming”. It is labour pangs that shake the powers of heaven. It is labour pangs that cause signs in the sun, the moon and the stars. It is labour pangs that confuse the nations by the roaring of the sea and waves.
Jesus and Zechariah speak not so much about natural destruction as they do natural phenomenon. Childbirth is a painful process, but it is a natural. Can the birthing of something so great as the kingdom of God be any less painful or natural? The labour pangs which accompany childbirth are no less sudden, sharp, and evident, as those which accompany the birth of the kingdom. Just as a mother watches and waits with longing and expectation, and perhaps some fear, for her time to draw near, so too do we who watch and wait for the birth of the kingdom. We do so with equal longing, expectation and even fear.
For a woman, the signs of childbirth can be read in her body. For us, the signs of the birthing of the kingdom of God are read in scripture, and even the Boston Globe.
You only have to read the Boston Globe to know that we live in a painful time, just as did Zechariah and Jesus and Luke before us. But this time, like their time and indeed all time, is not lost time. It is God’s time. It is kairos time. It is God’s time. It is the appointed time.
Look at the fig tree, Jesus tells us, and we will know the appointed time when summer has come. Look at a woman and we will know the appointed time when her child’s birth has come. Look at the world and see that God’s time is being fulfilled and the kingdom of God is breaking in upon us.
Just as in the early days of spring when we strain our eyes to see trees breaking into bud, and a woman longs for the signs of childbirth, so to do we stand up and raise our heads and stretch out our hands eagerly straining forward into the kingdom that is being born around us.
Now is the time, Jesus tells us. The kingdom of God is not only coming one day or someday, it is breaking in on us now, here, today. And the news of the birth of that kingdom is filling our newspapers and saturating the airwaves. Look, says Jesus, the kingdom of God has come.
Like any birth, this time, this kairos time, this appointed time, this day of the Lord, is a painful time, and so the world, like Mary is groaning in labour pangs as she and we give birth to our saviour, redeemer and judge.
Childbirth is a messy, painful, even a scary and dangerous process. It is this process we begin once again as we enter Advent, as we look forward both to the birth of Jesus as the babe of Bethlehem at Christmas and also to the birthing of the kingdom of God as it breaks in around, and upon and in us. Like Mary we know the time for this birth is approaching because all creation is groaning in labour pangs. We just need to read the Bible and the Boston Globe to know that now is the time.
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