You know me as Mary – of course, that’s my name in English, from the Greek Maria, or Marian. In Spanish I’m Maria; in French, Marie. Among my own people, my name is Miriam. But Mary – that’s fine. You probably also think of me as I am portrayed in so many paintings and in the first chapters of Luke: as a young woman, a teenager, really; as a youthful bride-to-be, as an expectant mother, as a woman lying in a manger with her newborn baby, or holding a squirming toddler, or wringing her hands in fear and frustration when her adolescent son disappears during a visit to the temple.
But today, as I speak, to you, I’m a bit older, and a little more worn. My son was born thirty-three years ago, so I’m nearing fifty myself. I think that his ministry – his very life, in fact – is nearing its end. He’s been saying some strange things. But then, his entire life and, as a consequence, my life as well, has been strange – at least if you compare ours to those of most families in Galilee.
Even before he was born, of course, I knew. The angel Gabriel visited me, and he visited my intended, Joseph, in a dream, and so we knew. We knew that we were being caught up into a history far grander that of our own little families, our parents and our cousins. We were being swept into a history which had been put into words hundreds of years earlier. A history in which, all along, God has been shaking things up.
I had learned the words of the prophet Jeremiah many years earlier. Jeremiah was one of the great prophets of our people, a prophet who lived during a time of chaos and fear – a time not so different from mine, and not so different from yours. As Jeremiah spoke, the armies of Babylon were about to destroy Jerusalem. The temple, the center of our worship and the sign of God’s faithfulness to us, would be turned to rubble, and our people would be scattered and forced into exile. In my own time, six hundred years later, Roman force and oppression threatened our people. It’s not surprising that we would have been raised on a steady diet of the words of the prophet, speaking to us of hope and of the steadfastness of God’s promise. His words might speak to you as well, you as people who live in a turbulent world in which political and military forces pose constant threats. You, too, need to hear of hope, and to be encouraged to rely on a trustworthy God.
Jeremiah’s words are words of hope. Jeremiah told our people that God’s promises would stand. He told them that a branch would spring forth from the House of David – from the very line of kings the Babylonians were intent upon destroying -- that a branch would spring forth from which justice and righteousness would be executed. That just when it seemed that all was over, God would shake things up.
We have a long history of God’s promises being fulfilled in surprising ways. God told our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, who were far too old to become parents, that they would produce a great and numerous nation – and then blessed them with a son, Issac. Every time the succeeding generations were threatened with destruction, God sent someone to bring then back to life. Joseph -- not my Joseph, but a Joseph centuries before – Joseph whose brothers all once wanted to kill him, ended up rescuing his entire family from famine. Moses, born into a time of slaughter, was saved by the daughter of his someday-opponent so that he would lead his people to freedom. And then, in Jeremiah’s time, the whole people about to be crushed and the line of kingship ended, God promised continuation, rebirth, and a future.
Now, in the life of my son, that branch from the House of David: more promise. More promise from the one who is a branch of the family tree of David. God has shaken things up by becoming one of us. Fully human, my son, and fully divine, God’s son.
“The kingdom of God is near,” Jesus says. The kingdom of God is near.
Your scholars call this the “already-but-not-yet” Kingdom of God. “Already” in the sense that with the birth of Jesus, the kingdom arrived: God among us. “Not yet” in the sense that the completeness of its fulfillment remains in the future.
It’s easy to get caught up in the apocalyptic signs of the kingdom of God that Jesus mentions: the sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the waves. “Apocalyptic” refers to writings and visions concerning the end times, which are often portrayed in dramatically physical ways: earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, and other disasters. You will sometimes hear on the news that someone who decided to stay home against official advice and to ride out a hurricane says that he has seen the apocalypse.
We like to focus on that aspect of Christ’s coming: the drama, the glory, the unmistakable big moment of triumph.
But my son, Jesus, he tells us to “be alert at all times.”
Why would that be necessary? you might wonder. Why is this Advent time of waiting, of preparation, so important? What does it mean that the kingdom of God “is drawing” near, that we are all being pulled into the vortex of an “already-but-not-yet” kingdom?
I’ve been watching, watching for thirty-three years, and I haven’t seen signs of the apocalypse. I have, however, seen where Jesus is. I have seen where the kingdom of God is springing up, here and there, right now. Jesus tells us that he will appear in glory, framed by clouds and light -- but for now, he is near in other ways.
In a similar apocalyptic proclamation in the Gospel of Matthew, he says:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. . . . Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
It seems that the way in which we prepare, the way in which we wait, to the way in which we stand guard and develop strength for the final glorious coming is to become alert, attentive, to the Kingdom of God as it seeps into our lives right here and now. God shakes things up in the daily, in the ordinary. You don’t have to watch the weather channel or the NASA website, looking for the extra-ordinary, to see the advance of the Kingdom of God.
“I was hungry and you gave me food.” We’ve begun to talk about offering one of our monthly Pancake Breakfasts to the community – a meal and time of hospitality free to all takers. The Kingdom of God is near.
“When I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Do you remember the story CF told us earlier this past year about running into a former ACCESS client? I believe that she was serving tables at Bob Evans; through ACCESS she had been given a chance to find employment and to establish a home of her own. Homelessness? It’s a not-yet time. But the Kingdom of God draws near.
“I was sick and you took care of me.” Have you ever made regular visits to a friend or a relative at Hospice, or at Crystal Care, or at Kingswood, and realized that the person in the next bed, or across the hall, never seems to have any visitors at all? And then you’ve realized that she could have visitors, because you could visit, and so you do? The Kingdom of God is close at hand.
Maybe these things don’t sound so exciting? Maybe you would rather see thunder and lightning and a pillar of fire as Jesus appears to usher in an entirely new creation? That might make for a better movie – or at least a louder movie, with better special effects, than the sort of quiet shaking of the universe that calls us to wake up and pay attention: A meal. A job. An apartment. A hospital visit.
The shaking of the universe to which Advent calls our attention came in the form of a baby, not in the form of a flood or a hurricane. The shaking of the universe to which Advent calls our attention came in the quiet of the night, comes even now in our recognition of the abundance of God’s overflowing love for us, in our startled realization that it is in these small and yet profound needs of our lives that God reaches out to us through Jesus.
Nearly seventy years back from your own lives, a priest spent the final days of his life trapped in a Nazi prison in Berlin during the waning months of WWII. In Advent of 1944, he wrote that, “[b]eing shaken awake is entirely appropriate to thoughts and experiences of Advent. . . ”. (Alfred Delp, S.J. Written in Tegel Prison, Berlin. December 1944).
When the prophet Jeremiah spoke to us, the people of Israel, hundreds of years ago, at a time in which the world seemed as likely to fall victim to chaos as it did in WWII, he assured us that God would send someone who would spread justice and righteousness throughout the world. He assured us that God would shake us awake in a big way.
When my son Jesus spoke of his return, of what you call “the Second Coming,” he, too, assured us that God will shake us awake in a big way.
But he also tells us that when that time comes, we will be called to stand up and raise our heads – not to cower in fear, or to run away. He tells us that when God awakens a troubled world, when Jesus returns to complete the establishment of the new creation, to complete the new heaven and earth that will constitute his Kingdom – that it will be a time in which the abundance, the majesty, the hope and justice of God’s great love will prevail. It will be a time of redemption, of healing, of reconciliation – a time that begins for you with the preparation and alertness to which you are called at Advent.
So prepare. Be alert. Prepare and be alert for the great and vulnerable love of God, coming to you in the form of a helpless infant. Coming to you in the form of a branch which will spring forth into a tree of life. Coming to you to inaugurate a Kingdom in which the “not-yetness” of today’s broken world will become the “already” glory of our redemption.
Image here from "The O Antiphons" by Linda Witte Henke.