The Sermon: Advent 1, Nov 27, 2022
I watched a bit of The Exorcist of all things a couple of weeks ago. Are you familiar with that movie? It came out in 1973 and starred Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Jason Miller. For some reason, I read the book, too, many years ago. I’m one of those who tend to find horror movies funny, not because of an emotional release when things get tense, but because I find them silly. I don’t particularly enjoy sci fi, horror or fantasy movies.
Would it surprise you to know that there is a lot of research about horror movies and the relationship between them and what is happening in the world at any given time? The more difficult and challenging things become, the more horror movies or TV shows there are. It becomes an outlet for people’s emotions when they don’t know how, or can’t deal with, their own feelings about the state of the world. Psychologists have written about horror movies; theologians have commented as well as social scientists. During the height of the Cold War between the Soviet state and the West from the 50’s to 80’s, many horror movies were created.
I’m not an expert on the theology or psychology of horror movies—I’m not that interested to be honest; I just know that I, personally, find them kind of silly. I don’t tend to go to horror movies in the theatre, but I do remember seeing the Jack Nicholson film The Shining. I went with a friend probably because he wanted to go and couldn’t get anyone else to go; that movie, too, I believe, was released in the 70’s. I was the one in the theatre who would laugh out loud at some tense moment, or I would comment about the unlikeliness of some scene in a rather loud voice. A few people close to me had to shush me. I embarrassed my friend.
All of which is to say that the little text Janet read from Matthew is a bit like the horror movie genre. Matthew tells us about Jesus’ prediction for those left behind and those taken. It is technically called apocalyptic literature and is found throughout the Bible in small snippets. It is full of symbolism; it usually involves a dramatic battle between good and evil. There are supernatural characters and beings. And it’s written at a time when the nation is facing a dire threat. Parts of the Book of Daniel and other Hebrew Scripture writings belong in this category and all the book of Revelation. Apocalyptic literature appears in the gospels in a small amount. It’s found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but not in John.
Apocalypse (think of the movie Apocalypse Now) means “hidden things.” It is an allegorical story meant to convey hope to those who were experiencing tyranny and uncertainty; people were trying to make sense of the world and were trying to stay healthy, hopeful and faithful. The literature is meant to convey the idea that God will prevail. Good will win out. Life will find a way.
This little piece that we read from Matthew’s Apocalypse conveys the idea that we are to be watchful and prepared for whatever might occur; in other words, we are to live with faith and hope. It is not to be understood literally. The end times will not occur this way. But the idea is that God will prevail, and God’s KinDom will come.
Every year on the 1st Sunday of Advent, we read from the apocalypse in Matthew, Mark or Luke. I think it is meant to be a reminder that we live between the times. We live between the times of God’s creation of the earth and historical events and the coming redemption of the earth and a new creation of heaven and earth. It is meant to invite us into a new mindset for the season of Advent, to invite us to think of time differently, to think of the big questions and to think more deeply about life.
One of the things of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the idea that our foundational stories from the Bible begin with God’s action in creating linear time, creating life as we know it—however all that happened; the Bible ends with Revelation, but with a specific teaching that God will recreate a new heaven and a new earth. It was quite likely envisioned as a new, historical creation. Many religions think of life, and death and then a new life in a cycle leading to perfection. The Judeo-Christian track thinks very specifically about God acting through humans in history and in time and space.
What is also interesting about the Judeo-Christian tradition is that while there is an emphasis regarding history and God’s action in history, there are these teachings that take us beyond history and beyond time—Kairos moments, mystical moments, transformative moments that transcend time and history.
Advent is our invitation, as groundwork for the promise of God-with-us, Emmanuel, to be open to those Kairos moments, to not take for granted the horrors of this world, and to focus on the things that bring perspective, hope, joy, healing, justice and transformation to living.
For example, one of the things that can lift me out of a funk is to look at the pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope. I look up at the night sky when it is clear—and now that I can see the stars more sharply—I marvel at what the universe is. I marvel at what God has created. Scientists tell us that the pictures from the Webb telescope give us a glimpse back into time closer to the Big Bang. Because the images that we are seeing come from millions of light years away, they depict things that occurred millions and billions of years ago. Get your head around that! On the next clear night, look up at the night sky. Mars is in the ascendency in the eastern sky early at night, and Jupiter is in the descendance in the southern and western sky.
I know that many people light candles during Advent; so, light a candle and read a poem that lifts you up. Use an Advent calendar that invites you to engage in an act of love and hope every day. And the point is not to gloss over all of the horrible things in our lives and the life of the world, but to hold those things in a big container that also holds Kairos moments and moments of hope, like the surgeons in Kyiv who, because of the Russian army targeting the electrical grid in Ukraine, found a way to complete an open-heart surgery procedure on a 14-year-old boy using headlamps and phone flashlight apps.
We light a candle and keep praying as if the KinDom of God is here already. But because we are people between the times, we await the fulfillment of God’s full promise of Emmanuel. We pray as an act of world-wide defiance of all that would tear down. We pray as an act of political will that turns the tables on those who wield injustice and despair. We pray to kindle and rekindle hope every day, hope in the God who is with us.
A blessed Advent. Amen.