In the name of God, creating, redeeming and sustaining. Amen.
Today is about new beginnings: as you walked in the West door, perhaps many of you were somewhat startled to see a new arrival above your heads. On closer inspection, no doubt you identified it as a star, pointing east, pointing beyond itself, a herald of things to come. Mike Appleby’s wooden installation marks the start of Advent, the beginning of our church year: it announces the coming of God – God’s advent. Look ahead, something is coming, prepare.
After we had finished pulling the ropes into place yesterday, and we contemplated the star dangling above our heads, I noted to Mike that it doesn’t point straight down the nave, the star is slightly off line, pointing askew. He assured me that that was deliberate, that he didn’t think it should simply point straight down the Cathedral at the High Altar. And the more I thought about that, the more I could see his point. For this is the season when things are out of kilter, askew, not quite how we expect them.
It starts with this beginning, this new church year itself. Why does the church’s year start now, out of sync with our ordinary notions of time – the new year, after all, isn’t for another month. At that new year we will celebrate and mark the passing of time, note another year passing, and welcome the next. But at the start of this new church year, we do something different – Advent does not mark time passing, but time being interrupted. The church’s calendar is not in competition with ordinary time, but marks the interruption into our ordinary time of God’s insistent presence and call. At Advent, God – the alpha and the omega of time – breaks through the clutter of our lives to announce to us that God’s Presence is very near, irrupting into our midst, holy, alive, and real. And the assumption at the beginning of each liturgical year is that we are half asleep, our ears dulled, lulled into viewing time as simply that which passes, of no great significance. We who are inclined to settle for less need are summoned into joy by the One who loves us.
Our Old Testament reading proclaims that promise of God – the promise that justice and righteousness shall characterize our future. Time doesn’t just pass, empty of ultimate meaning, it is underpinned by God’s promise – that all are made in God’s image, part of a creation destined for God’s glory, fully alive and real, called to righteousness. And in 1 Thessalonians, Paul characterizes the Christian community as those who have laid claim to that promise – not as something merely for the future – but as a present reality, seen, as Paul puts it in abounding mutual love; Christ has come among us, the incarnation of God’s promise, and we respond in lives of mutual love.
Our Gospel reading, however, indicates that this new beginning, the interruption of passing time by God’s promise, is no straightforward matter. Like any birth, the arrival of a new thing, it is accompanied by a mixture of fear and courage. We all know something of that fear and courage that attends the start of something new – whether the birth of a child, or a challenging venture into the unknown, a new job, or a different way of doing something that previously has been familiar. Fear always attends such moments and can threaten to engulf us. This is what new birth looks and feels like: courage to overcome the fears. And such courage, in the face of political upheaval, of climate change, of hate-filled speech, such courage rooted in God’s promise of righteousness, such courage feels needed more than ever. The apocalyptic language of our gospel can take on a strange appropriateness in our fear-filled context. But the danger is that apocalyptic can be heard to be all about our fear, and not about our faith and courage. In popular culture the apocalyptic is indeed a short hand for overwhelming disaster; our fears of nuclear annihilation, or disastrous climate change get played out in apocalyptic films and books. The fear is real and vital, but apocalyptic as a biblical genre isn’t simply about our human fears projected large. It’s about encountering God in the midst of those fears – it’s about how, in facing our fears, God is unveiled, revealed. The root of the word Apocalypse is revelation.
And beyond all the apocalyptic language in our gospel reading is the exhortation not to get caught up in the fear and anxieties of this and every time; that in the midst of all that assails us, and threatens to overwhelm us, to stand up, raise our heads, and see our redemption drawing near.
And as we raise our heads, so we will see the star, the herald of promise, pointing us toward Bethlehem. Not toward Jerusalem, the city of power and influence and conflict, but off to one side; to lowly Bethlehem; to a manger full of straw and a crying babe. For this is how God interrupts our passing time, calls us out of fear, and into worship. As the cross that also runs through the star hanging above our heads indicates, we will journey with this babe to Jerusalem – into the heart of our fears and conflicts; but that journey takes us first to Bethlehem, that he and we may walk to Jerusalem on the way of cross and suffering, and so into resurrection joy. Amen.