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First Sunday of Advent, 2022
I enjoy dystopian stories. For those who don’t know, a dystopia is a story that basically explores the question, “what if things kept on the way they are but in the worst possible direction?” It is the opposite of a utopia, a perfect world; a dystopia is a hell on earth story, a story of a dark world where the worst has happened. There is of course the classic 1984, which shows us a world of totalitarian governments governing the world, watching everyone and what they do and controlling their every action through threat of violence. In contrast, Aldous Huxley explored a world where the government retained control of society not by straightforward oppression, but by distraction, by providing everyone with an established place and job, but also all the entertainment, drugs, and shall we say adult experiences they could ever want. Both are bleak, showing worlds that dehumanizes and smothers true human worth and freedom. And I enjoy them. Maybe it is the cynic in me, but I enjoy them because they remind me that this too can happen to us, that we too can make decisions that destroy human life within, even as it may continue without. I enjoy them because as much as I love Star Trek, I don’t believe we can attain a utopia on our own, and the attempt to will inevitably end in a dystopia.
And it is that last point that is most important today: on our own. We ought to try and better society, help the people around us, form rich and fulfilling lives in God and through community together. But to achieve a society without need and without struggle that is not led by God in Jesus Christ is a fool’s errand. We are here to bring the kingdom to whatever corner of the world God has us in, but to do so knowing the powers of sin and darkness are ever-present and against us, pushing back, and it is only in Christ’s return that the world will ever be truly and fully healed.
This is the promise of Advent, the hope of Christmas, the desire in our hearts for the world to be right again. We desire what Isaiah prophesies: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” What is this house, where will the nations stream? John 12:32 says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’” Jesus is he about whom we will say, “‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’” It is in the New Creation, the world re-formed by Christ, that we will see that “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
But a perfect world needs a perfect ruler, a perfect Savior who doesn’t make mistakes and who actually establishes perfect freedom, rather than destroying it. And that is only done when we are purified, cleansed of that which enslaves, and thus able to live in true freedom, which is not the ability to do whatever we want, but to live free of sin and death, and all that would make us act towards our own harm rather than good.
In other words, what Isaiah longed for was Jesus. One who is both God and thus able to live without sin and be the very source of purity we need, and also human, one able to walk the life we live, understand it, and then accomplish what we never could in our sin, which is to be truly human. As Irenaeus puts it, “God is most glorified in man most fully alive,” and humans are most fully alive when we are united to, and thus live in constant communion with, Jesus Christ.
We want a world that reflects what Paul says in Romans 13: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” and “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” I do see it, in pockets, in our dark and sometimes horrifying world. I see teachers who love their students, like my kids (address to kids), and do what they can not just to push information into their heads, but to care for their wellbeing. I see people who create beauty, in belief and sometimes despite the lack of it, to better the lives of those around them. I see those who care for their fellow humans, empathizing with suffering, reaching hands out in love, doing what they can. I see people like nurses, putting themselves in danger, working to the detriment of their bodies, and striving despite sometimes impossible odds to give patients the dignity they deserve, despite their own behavior.
And yet, these pockets are not enough. I don’t want to just see pockets of light, pockets of love; I want to see all being love, and sadly, that is something we must all wait for, yearn for, pray for. Because it is only Jesus Christ, only Son of God, who can bring that world into being. And to do so, evil must be judged.
The gospel reading of Matthew in some ways elaborates on Isaiah’s summary, that “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples.” Jesus is here, I believe, mostly speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem, but which also points to his second coming, which will be a surprise, instant, and without clear warning. This is therefore a call to be vigilant in faith, to press on in hope because the time of his return could be anytime, so we must “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Live in the present, in faith and hope, as if Jesus could come anytime, for he could. We of all people do not want to be caught unawares, but to be ready to welcome our Messiah when he returns.
What we find in Christ, however, is that no matter where we are, what happens to us, what assaults us in the name of progress, or national loyalty, or social conformity, none of it can tear us from the love of God in Jesus Christ made present within us by the Holy Spirit. Whether persecution in explicitly physical terms, or the attacks of depression, anxiety, or loss, we are capable of going forward, not just because we possess a strength of will, but because we know our hope lies beyond the suffering we experience now and resides in the faithful arms of our God, who has promised a better world for us, a perfect and unending life. And yes, despite the criticisms of Christianity’s cultured critics, this hope for the future does help us live now, but despite their objections also moves us to help now, to bless our neighbors, to work for the good of all, not because we believe we can achieve utopia on our own (which ends in dystopia), but because we know that God can and will use our efforts to make pockets of heaven on earth, that will eventually do as Jesus proclaimed and “draw all people to myself.”
And so we persist in faith, hope, and love, knowing our time is limited, but that it also is given to us for the blessing of the world. And we persist, picking up our neighbor as they stumble, that we may with kindness and gentleness in our eyes hold their hands as we enter the kingdom of God, together, and forever. Amen.
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