Equal measures of anticipation and trepidation

Advent 1, 2013

 Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:9-14, Matthew 24:36-44 

Marian Free

 In the name of God who both comforts and disturbs, who has come among us and who will come again. Amen.

During the week I conducted a limited survey to see what sort of event or activity made different people both excited and terrified at the same time. Sally thought it would be getting ready for a parachute jump, Jon said that it was his impending ordination. Michael said that for him it would be preparing for a band performance. A Facebook friend expressed both joy and fear at the prospect of moving house.

I’m sure that it is the same for all of us. When we do something new or adventurous, we are filled both with excitement and trepidation. We have a sense of anticipation that the adventure or experience will expand our horizons or bring a sense of achievement, or that the new skill, new home will enrich our lives in some way. That said, no matter how many precautions we have taken, no matter how prepared we are for the event, there is always a sense of stepping into the unknown. We cannot know the outcome until we step out in faith and because we cannot know the end result, there is always the fear that whatever it is may not work out as we had hoped, that we are not up to the task, or that something unexpected will crop up and undermine all our expectations.

There are a number of occasions that make us both nervous and excited, and which have us filled with equal amounts of anticipation and dread. I would contend that Advent is (or should be) such a time.

If we are honest, most of us at this time of year are busy getting ready for Christmas. That means that we are buying presents, thinking about menus, organizing the family get together and hanging decorations. We know that it is Advent because the church is using the colour purple, we have an Advent Wreath and the Pew Bulletin tells us what Season it is.  Sometimes, that is the extent of our Advent preparation. We are filled with anticipation because Christmas is coming, we will see our families, exchange gifts and enjoy the Christmas services. It is a wonderful time of year, filled with expectation for the future and memories of the past. Advent fades into the background, not least because in the world around us, preparation for Christmas began months ago.

Of course, we know that Christmas is really about Jesus, about God’s coming among us over two thousands years ago. At best, we are filled with a sense of wonder that God could choose to be so fully part of human experience that despite all our shortcomings God would send Jesus to save us.

However, as our readings remind (or even warn) us, Advent is much more than a warm, fuzzy expectation about Christmas. The Season of Advent has the dual purpose of preparing us to welcome once more the child of God among us and also of reminding us of our need to be ready for Jesus’ coming again. It is the former that fills us with anticipation and joy and the latter which fills us with a certain amount of trepidation and even dread. While we should be as excited to greet the returning Jesus as we are to celebrate the infant Jesus, we tend to be at least a little anxious about the thought of Jesus’ coming again, an anxiety fueled not a little by the New Testament descriptions of such an event.

In today’s readings the emotions of hope and fear are equally balanced. The Old Testament reading and the Psalm look forward in anticipation to that time when God shall come, but the New Testament readings sound a note of warning and suggest that Jesus’ return will not be so benign. Isaiah chapter 2 and Psalm 122 envisage a wonderful time when all people shall turn to God and there will be peace among the nations. However, Paul’s words from the letter of Romans teach us to temper our expectation with caution. He writes: “You know what time it is” and urges his readers to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light”. “Salvation is nearer than when we first believed.”  It is because our salvation is near that it is essential that Jesus not find us in reveling and drunkenness, quarreling and jealousy. NOW (not next week) is the time to put our lives in order, to be confident that, should Jesus come tomorrow, we would be ready and happy to greet him.

It is the words of today’s Gospel however, that are the most ominous. We are reminded that we do not know when Jesus will come. There will be no warning. Jesus’ coming will be unexpected and many will be caught unprepared. We are told that will be getting on with our everyday lives when suddenly, without notice, Jesus will be here among us. Just as the thief catches a householder unprepared, so too Jesus will come upon us when we least expect him.

The message is this: “keep awake!” – expect Jesus’ return at any moment. Ensure that there is nothing in our lives that we would want to hide from his view. Be aware that at any moment Jesus could come upon us unawares. If there was a cause to be anxious about Jesus’ return, this would be it – that Jesus would come and we would not be ready – that there would be some aspect of our lives that would not stand up to closer inspection.

The Season of Advent provides us with a time to examine our lives; to open ourselves to God’s scrutiny, to ask ourselves whether – if Jesus were to come upon us now – there be anything we would wish that we had put right beforehand.

“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” There is no reason for fear – the coming of Christ among us is a cause for rejoicing – the earth will be renewed, God’s reign will be firmly established. Jesus’ coming again will herald the dawn of a new day when pain and suffering will cease and there will be harmony between the nations. Jesus will come again as he did before – to save and not condemn. Our task is to lead lives worthy of Jesus’ love for and trust in us.  Confident in that love we will welcome his return with the same joy and enthusiasm with which we rejoice in his birth.

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