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Sunday, November 29, 2015 | First Sunday of Advent | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.

Old Beginnings and New Endings

Matt Helms
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 25:1–10
Jeremiah 33:14–16
Luke 21:25–36


Behold, you come. And your coming is neither past nor future,
but the present, which has only to reach its fulfillment.
Now it is the one single hour of your Advent, at the end of which
we too shall have found out that you have really come.

Karl Rahner


Imagine, if you will, a world that was quietly in need of renewal. It was a time of great optimism, to be fair, as technology and innovation had progressed further than any point in history, and those innovations had led to an unprecedented era of connectivity. It felt as though the world had shrunk, bringing people and cultures into contact with one another in a ways that people had once dreamed about but had not thought possible.

But underneath the excitement and possibility that this new era had brought, there were signs of trouble and unrest, as well. Heavy taxes and extensive bureaucracy had left most people feeling distrustful of the government; politicians served their own needs before those of the people. A shrinking middle class had left them divided into a society of the haves and the have-nots, and 1 percent of the population held almost half of the wealth. Even more visceral were the threats of war and violence that seemed to occur almost daily, even despite the presence of the most dominant army the world had ever seen. A handful of zealots motivated by political and religious ideology struck fear into the heart of the people through terrorist activity, killing citizens at public gatherings and spreading fear through the hearts of the people. It was a world that was desperately in need of renewal, and it was within that world that a young couple named Mary and Joseph began an eighty-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to be registered.

Today marks the beginning of our own journey as well, as we prepare our hearts in Advent over these next twenty-six days for Christ’s coming. The changing weather and the lights, sounds, and color lining Michigan Avenue give us a hunger for familiarity and comfort within our Christmas routines, and so too we come to the biblical story seeking that familiar story. Instead, however, we are met with passages today that seek to address a different kind of hunger—a hunger for newness, renewal, and hope. Our lectionary passages are not from the beginning of Luke’s gospel but are from the end instead—an enigmatic, apocalyptic message that Jesus gives to his followers shortly before he is to be put to death. But while it may seem like a strange place to begin our Advent season, the focus on Christ’s second coming is a traditional starting place in the lectionary. We are being invited into a liminal space, both remembering and reliving Christ’s birth on one hand while prophetically imagining Christ’s coming again in the other.

This apocalyptic tone of Christ coming once more into the world for newness and renewal feels discordant for us with everything else that surrounds this season, but for the early listeners of this Gospel it was meant to be a source of hope. Christ is present amidst all of the chaos of the world, it proclaims, and we have been all too familiar with that feeling of chaos these past several weeks and months. Our world is still sharply divided by inequality, just as it was in Jesus’ time. Senseless violence still plagues our world, from terrorist attacks by ISIS to the story released this week about teenager Laquan McDonald being needlessly shot down by a police officer in our own streets. These events are horrifying, but even more horrifying, perhaps, is that they are stories we have seen again and again despite all of our calls for change. Our city, our country, and our world are craving renewal—and indeed that is what this season of Advent is all about.

The word Advent is from the Latin adventus—literally meaning “coming”—and refers to this idea, from our Luke passage today, of the Son of Man returning. Although the language that is used throughout the passage is neither familiar nor comfortable, the sentiment behind it absolutely is. So too with Jeremiah’s words from our First Lesson: “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, “when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel. I will cause a righteous branch to spring up, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” God’s kingdom, the kingdom that Jesus is coming to bring, continues to break into this world—something that a former professor of mine once described as the kingdom that is “already here, but not yet.” It is the kingdom of the mustard seed: imperceptible and yet growing into a towering tree. It is the kingdom of the yeast: overlooked and yet effecting great change. We look back at the covenant promises that God has made—both in the words of Jeremiah and through the coming of Christ into this world—but those promises speak to our present as much as they do to our future. We may not have seen God’s promises come fully into being yet, but even as things look darker and darker around us as we wait for the risen Christ to come once again into our midst, we continually acknowledge that those promises still hold true. So what word do these passages have for us in the present about how are we to live in this time in between the manger and Jesus’ return? And would we even know if the risen Christ had already come into our midst?

In one of my favorite fables, a short story written by the Jesuit priest Anthony De Mello, a community of faith receives a surprising answer to these very questions. Many, many years ago, he writes, there was a monastery that was renowned for their spiritual wisdom, the type of place that you’ve always imagined a monastery to be. Situated high on a hill in the quiet of the countryside, the monastery was a small and humble building, nothing more than a speck on the horizon outlined by the blue skies around it. But despite its humble appearance, it was something of a global destination. Travelers would come from thousands of miles away to be with the monks—to sit, to pray, and to listen to them as they gathered together in community.

However, as time passed on, there began to be fewer and fewer travelers to the monastery. This slow change went unmentioned at first, but as the steady stream of travelers began to slow to a trickle, the serene environment began to grow fractured. Everyone had theories as to why this monastery was losing so many visitors: changing attitudes in the wider culture, a lack of time for spiritual things, and a general indifference. The monks even began to point fingers at one another for why there were so few visitors. Brother Lawrence had woken up many a guest with his snoring—a sharp sound that reverberated down the halls. Perhaps the guests were tired of having restless nights? Brother John’s prayers and meditations had been particularly uninspiring for the last few months. Perhaps they needed to find a leader with more passionate speaking ability? Brother Henry’s cooking was too bland, making the same potato-and-carrot soup every night. Perhaps the routine nature of their shared meals was getting in the way? The monks continued to point fingers at each other as time went by, each believing that if only the others would follow their own ideas, they could return to their former glory. And meanwhile, the stream of visitors continued to slow until one week when they did not receive any visitors at all.

A few weeks later, the monks were surprised to receive a letter from the head of their order after they held their morning prayer time: he had heard about how few visitors the monastery was receiving and wanted to come and see what was going on first hand. The monks were distraught and began blaming each other even more. “Look at what you’ve done,” they shouted at one another. “He will see how much we’ve fallen and we will be shut down!” But as preparations to receive the head of the order fell into place, each monk became secretly pleased that the head would see what was going on and could set the others straight.

When the head of the order arrived a few weeks later, the monks began on their best behavior. They were courteous and made sure he was comfortable. It all seemed to be going smoothly on that first day, but, alas, this peace could not last. The next morning, after a bland meal and an even blander prayer, one of the monks couldn’t help but exclaim, “Do you see why we are struggling? Please correct my brothers so that we might return to our former glory.” And the rest of the room erupted, each monk making excuses and distributing blame on the others. The head of their order calmly looked around the room and observed the anger and frustration on each face. And after a few minutes, he stood up and left without a word, leaving the monks and the monastery to head home.

After this, the monks were resigned to the downfall of their beloved monastery. Faces were glum, the vibrancy completely gone. When they received a letter from the order the following week, no one wanted to open it, certain that it would contain nothing but bad news. To their surprise, though, the letter contained nothing of the sort. “Thank you, brothers, for your hospitality,” the head had written. “I had heard tales that your monastery had grown sour and uninviting and came expecting it to be so. Can you imagine my surprise to discover that within your very walls, I came to find out that one of you was the risen Christ, quietly returned to earth but hidden from plain sight.” The monks put down the letter with a stunned silence—one of them, the returned Christ? No one seemed to fit the criteria, but they knew too that Christ often went in the stranger’s guise. Humbled and embarrassed, they each quietly swore to themselves that they would change their ways so as not to accidentally offend Christ.

That night, as Brother Lawrence’s snores echoed down the hallway, none of the other monks could bring themselves to wake him up; after all, what if Brother Lawrence was Christ in disguise? During prayers, they listened carefully to the dull words of Brother John, for what if he was the Christ? Rather than grumbling over their potato-and-carrot soup, the monks thanked Brother Henry for his work, for what if Brother Henry was Christ?

The months passed by like this, and without anyone even realizing it, the halls of the monastery slowly began to fill once again with visitors. Each person who entered was given strict instructions to treat the other guests with love and respect, for even after trying for several months they still had not figured out who among them was the Christ. And by the end of the year, the monastery’s reputation had been restored, and once again people came from miles away to pray and to listen.

• • •

Is it too simplistic or idealistic to believe that merely treating our neighbor as Christ is enough to solve deep, systemic issues in our world? Probably, yes. But there is much to this story, though, that is convicting nonetheless. When terrible things happen in our world, whether they be bombings by a terrorist group or a teenager being shot down in the street, we are quick to assign blame or to scapegoat others for allowing these things to happen. It’s a natural human reaction, particularly when facing issues like terrorism and racism that are far too big for any one person to solve. They feel out of our control, and so we desire that the problem belong to someone else. But in this season of Advent we are asked look inward at our own culpability as well: At the times we have blamed to deflect from the role we play. At the times we have stayed silent when we should have spoken up. At the times we have remained neutral when we should have acted as Christ’s hands, trying to repair the world in whatever small way that we can.

The world that we find ourselves in is similar in so many ways to the one that Jesus entered into in the manger. We have heard the beginning of this story again and again, anxiously awaiting the ending and for all to be made well. But the full promise of the child in the manger, of Emmanuel, “God with us,” is that the story of God’s kingdom is indeed continuing to unfold through each one of us—and it continues to unfold through us as a community, as well. We can’t eradicate the big problems of this world—only Christ can do that—but we can work together in our imperfect present while still maintaining hope that he will indeed come again.

So how and where are we to continue God’s work? In this season of discernment for us as a church, and at the start of this new church year, we will wrestle with that very question, knowing that each of us has a part to play in the story of God’s kingdom. So, friends: what might your part be?