Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal
YouTube recording of the service – Vivian’s sermon starts at 23:40
Happy New Year, my friends.
Perhaps you were downtown yesterday. If you were, you would have seen a lot of people shopping. A handful of us were in this building for a Quiet Day, pondering the O Antiphons that are such a beautiful articulation of all our hopes for Christmas, the coming of the Messiah so long waited for. Each In our own ways, we and the shoppers were looking forward. Father Ralph also invited us to look back at the year past, and perhaps still farther back…the history of our own walk with Jesus … observing times when it worked and times when it didn’t work.
The bottom line… for me… is that the worst of the “didn’t work” times were when I tried the hardest to keep a tight control on things. “Let go and let God” isn’t just a platitude to be printed on mugs and sold in Christian bookstores. “Letting God” is a trust walk of the highest order, and every season in our lives brings new lessons about relaxing our grip on… well, everything. If we didn’t learn this young, we learn it as we age. But control feels natural to us. No wonder that during this season of darkness we turn almost reflexively to filling our hands with gifts, activities, good deeds. Maybe even with spiritual readings and devotional practices. (Who knows… all that might just be the modern believer’s version of dissipation and drunkenness. Although in the long run, devotional practices tend to be self correcting in a way that dissipation and drunkenness aren’t.]
I do think it’s natural and comforting to try to fill our hands, and our heads, and our hearts, with SOMETHING during this season of less and less light. Generosity lifts the heart—and it’s older than the O antiphons.
Our gospel today does not seem to lift the heart at all.
Why, as we anticipate the light of God breaking in upon us, during days which in our hemisphere grow shorter and shorter—do our readings keep our focus on the darkness?.
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” [Luke 21:25-26]
I think we can relate! But why do we prepare for the coming of Word of God enfleshed in human form, with this paroxysm of doom and gloom?
We use the word apocalyptic is as a synonym for “horrible” or “dreadful” but that’s not what the word means. The sense of the Greek is “uncovering” or “unveiling.” It’s the same word that begins the Book named in English “Revelation.”
The time that Jesus is talking about is this “unveiling’—the revelation, revealing, apocalypse. To have truth revealed—isn’t that what we need and want?
One of the revelations is how very inadequate—even flimsy, our linear view of time is, particularly when we find ourselves in the living presence of the creator of time itself! After all, that linearity is really a product of industrialization. There are other broader views of time, both before, and since. Another revelation is our incapacity to grasp, much less control, everything that is happening around us—as individuals and as a collectivity (a community) even with what we think might be our good intentions.
And these revealings and unveilings are fearful! If we dare say that they put us in our place, that place is a low one in the scheme of things, isn’t it?
I almost started this sermon, “Happy New year, beloved friends and fellow vipers” as a preview of coming attractions—a glimpse forward to Luke’s account of the preaching of John the Baptist. Because for all that progressive Christians tend to avoid the fire-and-brimstone, camp-meeting style of preaching that gloried in putting the listeners in their places (miserable sinners all) you don’t need me to do this to you.
The unveiling is accomplishing it—the times themselves witness against the glorious purported progress of humankind. We industrialized and progressed to the point where instead of talking about “warming” we now speak of “extinction.” Even as I speak, it’s raining more in British Columbia. We vaccinated ourselves against covid, and the virus mutated among people who had not been vaccinated. And when I say we, I hear a little voice saying “check your privilege.”
It was Bonhoeffer who said, if I recall correctly, that we deceive ourselves if we think God will find it easier to forgive our sins than to forgive what we consider to have been our good deeds.
And yet. We cannot stop here, convicted of sin and brought low in our own eyes. It was in Babylon, at the lowest possible point in the Israelites’ exile, that the spiritual descendent of Jeremiah reiterated, centuries later, Jeremiah’s earlier prophesy ….
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made….
And what a promise! We’ll enjoy it amplified this afternoon—so do come back or tune in to really kick off the year in style. In that special service for the first Sunday of Advent you will hear musical references to the glorious liturgy of the ancient church—seven petitions, each hinging on the words O Come, which is why they are called the Advent O’s, addressing God in a theological garland of both yearning and praise…. O Wisdom, Come… O Lord, Come … O Root of Jesse, Come …O Key of David, Come … O Dayspring, Come … O King of the Nations, Come… O Emmanuel, Come.
The truth that is coming unveils what has gone before, these events I described, but it does more.
That’s why we cannot stop in fear of the darkness, paralysed. The unveiling is not just about the world. The unveiling is also about the community of believers. When Luke quotes Jesus as saying “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place” he is not talking about the individuals who are listening to him. Luke uses this phrase “this generation” as a consistent reference to purported believers who have closed their eyes and ears to the truth that is breaking in upon them. Yes, even these will receive the truth.
The revelation is the truth about who we are. The unveiling that God is doing, exactly now, reveals to us that we are not simply witnesses to our own mess, we are strong enough to bear the truth of it. We are not only seemingly helpless in the face of it, we are equally and precisely people of the promise.
The Psalmist prays for us all in today’s verse, “Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame.” Jesus tells his followers, tells us, “when you see these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The promise is that God is with us, that God’s word does not fail, God’s love and strength will become our love and our strength. The revelation is that we are being drawn more and more intimately into communion with the source of all life and truth and love.
Thanks be to God.
The illustration shows the Sundial of the rectory of the Assumption church of Samoëns, France. “The Son of Man will come at an hour you do not expect.”