Generally speaking, I love Advent. I love getting the house decorated for Christmas, I love thinking about the presents I'm going to get for my family, I love planning for when I'm going to bake Christmas cookies. I like playing Advent and Christmas music, and putting up Christmas lights - although not a on a weekend like this - and taking the kids out to special events that only happen this time of year. I love Advent because I know that it's leading to Christmas Eve. Which I also love. The candles on Christmas Eve, getting together with family for a Christmas meal, watching the children open their presents from Santa - there is no time quite as special as Christmas. And so I love Advent. I love to just immerse myself in the waiting and the preparation and the anticipation, knowing that Christmas is coming at the end.
But Advent is not that easy. Advent - at least as it’s developed in the church over the past two thousand years - is not as simple as waiting for Christmas. Advent is also about waiting for Christ to come again - by which we mean the last day, the Day of Judgement, the day of the Lord, 'the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory,' the end of everything as we know it. During the season of Advent, we Christians live with two timeframes. We have the immediate timeframe of the calendar year that starts in January and ends in Christmas. But we also live with God's timeframe, that starts in Creation and ends in ... what? Well, we don't quite know what God's Creation ends with, and that’s what makes the Godly timeframe of Advent so hard. It's difficult for us to imagine Creation ending, partly because it's something so large we can't grasp it in our heads, and partly because we can't really imagine what might possibly exist if there is no more existence as we know it.
And the texts today are not particularly helpful. The readings, like Advent itself, are ambivalent. I love that word - ambivalent. I used to think that it meant not caring - like, I'm ambivalent about which side of the bed I sleep on - I don't really care. But then I found out that ambivalent means two (ambi) powers (valent), and that it really means feeling powerfully attracted to and repelled by something at the same time. Being ambivalent about which side of the bed I sleep on doesn't mean I don't care, it means I have very powerful reactions towards both sides. (Which probably wouldn't be good for my husband.) And our Advent readings for today are ambivalent. They elicit two very different and very powerful reactions when we think of "the end." They make Advent, and all periods of waiting, very complicated.
This weekend I was at a conference in San Diego for the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. This conference happens every year, where 11,000 scholars who study religion and the Bible meet and present their current research. So it's a conference where 11,000 people get together who view the world through a religious lens - mostly Christians, but also Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and the list goes on. And, as you might expect amongst all of these people who study religion, pretty much all of them are concerned with ethics. We are concerned with the ways we live in the world, and with issues of justice, and with how humans can make (or fail to make) the world a better place for everyone.
And at this conference, there were two issues that came up that seem to me to be directly related to Advent - to this ambivalent time of waiting for God. And these are both quite fresh in my mind, and I haven't had time yet to really work out what these two things mean for the church, so I hope you’ll forgive me if what I say doesn't quite come out clearly. I want to talk about the first issue today, and hopefully get to the second one next week.
The first issue that presented itself came through the President of the American Academy of Religion, Laurie Zoloft. Dr. Zoloft talked about climate change. Specifically, she talked about how climate change is a non-negotiable, and how it is happening right now, and how regardless of what we do right now, the future of this planet has been irreversibly changed by human consumption. There is no longer any hope that we can reverse or eliminate climate change. There is only hope that we can minimize some of its worst consequences. Dr. Zoloft quoted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's words, "Time is not on our side," and talked about the devastating effects of climate change that are already taking place, particularly in poorer countries and amongst more vulnerable populations. And Dr. Zoloft warned us that living the way we are currently doing will not only increase changes in the literal world as we know it, but is an unethical and immoral way of living. Living the way we are right now increases the suffering of people living today and increases the suffering of the generations to come - of our children and their children and their children. The world my grandchildren will live in - the world your great-great grandchildren will live in - will look nothing like the world we remember. When it comes to climate change, the end is coming. The end is very near, actually, if it is not already upon us.
So on the one hand, we have God’s promise to be with us always, we have the promise that the kingdom of heaven will come down to earth, and that God will redeem us and all of creation through Jesus Christ. And on the other hand, we have the scientific evidence that the climate is already changing, that global food production is threatened and will likely collapse entirely, that homes are being wiped out, and that our energy consumption is going to kill us. This makes us somewhat ambivalent about the end. (And we can’t preach that God will work a miracle and magically change the climate and everything will go back to the way it was - God has never worked that way.) So we look towards a future of life and a future of death simultaneously. We wait in ambivalence.
But what do we do? You see, the question is not so much which future we believe in, but rather what we ought to do in this time of waiting. The challenge of being a Christian, facing the irrefutable science of climate change, while living during this time of Advent - Christ has come, Christ will come again - is that of waiting. In light of this particular issue, and in light of all times of waiting where we know life will end, and where we yet are not ready to immediately lay down and die, how do we live in this ambivalent period of waiting? Well, Dr. Zoloft suggested that, first of all, we don't give up. That is, we don't ignore the warnings and continue to live as if everything is okay, or, on the flip side, as if nothing we do matters. What we do matters. Even if we can't change the outcome for the planet, what we do matters. Because how we live in this moment prepares us, and prepares those around us, to meet the end. How we live in the moment says something about us and about how we understand our relationship with the world and our relationship with God. And so Dr. Zoloft recommended that we act *as if* we make a difference. That we change our habits, that we look at our own practices, and that we start thinking outwardly. And what I understand Dr. Zoloft to be saying is that although we can't change the future - although we’ve missed the opportunity to stop climate change - we can change the present. We can change how we live now, and how we interact with our environment right now. We can, by changing our habits and looking towards our community and future generations, make a difference not only in the degree of climate change, but equally importantly, in our level of concern for one another and for those to come.
Because it does matter. How you live right now matters. How you show that God loves the world, and that God loves those in the world, matters. How you live now shouldn't change depending on whether the end is tomorrow, or next year, or not for another five generations. God is not waiting to love the world in the future, God is not waiting to love us only at the end. God sent Jesus Christ to us because God loves the world now. In the present. And so it’s only today that confronts us. It's today where God comes to meet us, and it's today where we embody God's love for one another. We care for one another, and for whoever is to come, by curbing our consumption, reducing our waste, and caring for God’s creation, in whatever small or large ways we can. Today.
Because we are a people living in Advent. Which means that we are looking to the future of both death and life, and that such a forward focus shapes how we act today. It shapes how we wait. And we wait securely in the promise that Jesus Christ was born as the embodiment of God on earth, and that we therefore live as if God’s presence in the world means something today, and that we are the new embodiments of God’s presence. We live as if what we do matters, not because we will change the timing of the master returning, but because we trust that God’s love is at work in the world, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.