Swords into Plowshares
As we begin the season of Advent, we take a look at what that season means, both culturally and spiritually.
And, of course, we ask the question...what does it mean to "prepare"?
Swords Into Plowshares
December 1, 2013
Rev. Leanne Masters
Southern Heights Presbyterian Church
Happy New Year!
No, really, Happy New Year...well, Happy New Church Year, that is.
Within the life of the church, the first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the year in a couple of different ways. First, it is the day when we start a new lectionary cycle. This year, we move out of Year C (which centered around readings from the Gospel of Luke) and into Year A (which centers around readings from the Gospel of Matthew).
But more importantly, the first Sunday of Advent marks the time when we begin “the story” all over again, starting with the journey towards the nativity story.
As with New Year’s Day, the start of the church year begins with great hope, joy, and anticipation of all that the coming year promises.
Considering that, it perhaps seems a bit...odd...that the very first reading from the gospel in the new church year uses a metaphor of the coming of the kingdom of God like a thief that comes in the night to break into a home, and the need of the homeowner to stay awake all night as a result, and talks about what will happen in that coming, as two are grinding meal, for example, and both are unaware that one is about to be taken and the other is about to be left.
The question, of course is why this passage is used at the beginning of Advent, and what it means for us as we journey through Advent to the celebration of Christmas.
To answer this question, I think that we first need to take a look at what Advent is, and what it means to us as Christians.
Simply put, advent is the season of preparation.
In our modern times, particularly in our Western and American context, this means preparation for Christmas, where we simply mark the days to Christmas and ready our homes for Christmas. In this understanding, we really begin Advent on Thanksgiving, as many families take the days off that the parents have around the holidays to put up our Christmas trees and other decorations. And so, we have strung our homes with garlands and wreaths, and our neighborhoods are lit up every night. We have begun to buy and wrap presents, and some of them are already under our trees, waiting, not so patiently, for Christmas morning.
In the church, we mark the days and weeks in different ways, with Advent beginning four Sundays before Christmas, and we use tools like Advent calendars which often come with little gifts for each day, often small pieces of candy, to count down the days. And, of course, there is the Advent wreath, where we light a candle each week, giving the impending coming of Christmas a very visual form...with every candle that is lit, we are reminded that Christmas is nearer than the week before, and when the wreath is full of light, then Christmas is upon us.
Advent is a wonderful season, as we “get in the mood”, so to speak, for the holiday that lay before us.
Now, Christmas is something that is steadily reliable. There is nothing surprising or unexpected about it. We can count on it coming every December 25th...whether we are ready for it or not...and so we take the season of Advent to deliberately approach the season of Christmas, preparing our hearts and our lives for it, both spiritually and otherwise.
But, If we simply leave it at that, we kinda miss the point. And our passage from Matthew this morning reminds us of why. If we read the Gospel passage through the lens of the birth narrative of Jesus, we are reminded that the coming of Jesus was totally and completely unexpected, something that no one was prepared for.
In the time of Jesus, the people of Israel were looking for the coming of the Messiah. But what they were looking for was, quite frankly, not what they got. They were looking for the Messiah to come as a great political leader, who would rally the people of Israel together and bring back a devotion to the law of Moses. They were looking for a military leader, who would ride in on a horse of war and win great battles against the enemies of Israel, expelling the Romans, for example. Ultimately, they were looking for a man who would come in and clean house, and take and restore power and authority.
They were not looking for what we got...a baby, born in meager and unorthodox circumstances, a baby who grew into a man who was more teacher than warrior, more a challenger than an instrument of power, more
We are reminded that the Messiah, that Jesus, came unexpectedly in a way and in a form that we were completely unprepared for, and that he did and taught things that we were unprepared for.
And so, every year, we take time to prepare ourselves for the celebration of how he came and who he truly was, so that we can prepare our hearts and our lives for what that taught and continues to teach us.
More than that, as we remind ourselves about the unexpected nature of the coming and the life of Jesus, we are also reminded that the future coming of Jesus will be unexpected.
That we will not know the day or time of his coming...in the middle of the night when we are sleeping, or in the day while we are working.
That we will not know the form of his coming...as a small defenceless infant, or as a noted prophet.
That we will not know the manner of his coming...quiet and stealthy, or with loud trumpet sounds.
We do not know, when, where, or how...but we know that he will come again.
And so our Gospel passage again reminds us.
Advent gives us that opportunity to remind ourselves of the need to do so, to be prepared for the coming of Jesus, not in Christmas, but as he comes again with the coming of the Kingdom of God.
It gives us the opportunity to remind ourselves of the need to prepare for the days that are to come.
And our reading from the book of Isaiah gives us a wonderful vision of what those days are to look like.
Again, Christ will come in unexpected ways, for the coming of the Kingdom of God that we are preparing for will not look like what we so often think of when we think of the end of all of this...with wars and destruction and all of that...but instead will look like the exact opposite of that.
Christ will come in unexpected ways, and the house of the Lord will be established, and men and women, young and old, will stream from all places and nations to it.
Christ will come in unexpected ways, gathering us all together to learn from his teachings and follow in his ways, teachings and ways that we are given hints of throughout his life as recorded in the Gospel stories.
Christ will come in unexpected ways, guiding us to not set aside our tools and weapons of hatred and violence, but to transform them into tools of community and of life...turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Christ will come in unexpected ways, and help to re-create the world, and all of us in it, into who and how he would have us be...in ways that we can’t even begin to imagine.
This season of Advent, as we prepare our homes and our lives for the celebration of the coming of Jesus into the world in the most unexpected form of a baby on Christmas morning, let us not forget the call of Christ in our lives to prepare for his coming again and the Kingdom that God is creating, so that we may be ready to embrace all that Christ will come to do and lead us to be.