Unveiling

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Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

Luke 21:25-36

You’re probably listening
and looking around today
and realizing that
things have changed.

The music is different.
The colors are different.
Even the prayers we pray today are different.

I promise,
we have not done this to trick you!

It’s all because we liturgical Christians—
especially we Episcopalians—
follow a different kind of calendar
than most of the rest of the world.
We have a different pattern
by which we allow God
to shape our hearts and order our lives.

And on that calendar,
today marks the beginning of the Christian year
and the first day of Advent.

*   *   *

If you had been a Christian in the middle ages,
or even the 1700’s, 1800’s, or early 1900’s,
Advent would not have been a surprise to you.

You would have known all about it, and
it would have been part of your Christian life and piety.

For you, the season of Christmas
would not have even started in October
when Lifetime starts airing Christmas movies.
No, the Christmas season would have started on December 25.
That’s the way it was for everybody
for hundreds and hundreds of years.

But today I would say that
of all the cycles and seasons of the Christian year
the one that has become
the most underutilized,
the most misunderstood . . .
is Advent.

Think about it.

You know it’s underutilized;
just think about our brother/sister Christians
right here in our town.
Of the 150 Christian churches
worshipping in Tifton today—
odds are that almost all of them
are already breaking out the Christmas carols
and preaching about Baby Jesus.

To be clear, that is fine. So be it.
But it is a rather large departure
from hundreds of years
of Christian tradition.

I also say Advent misunderstood because
even Christians who do observe Advent these days
still seem to miss the real point.

Maybe you’re hearing all of this,
and you’re sitting there thinking,
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Fr. Lonnie.
We know Advent is a thing.”

But be honest:
in the midst of all our running around this time of year—
all our preparations for Christmas,
all our parties,
all our presents,
all our fa la la la la—
Advent for most of us
is a mere afterthought,
a kind of sloppy countdown
to our consumerist Christmas.

And when that’s true,
we miss the gift
of what Advent really wants to say.

So let me just say right here and now:
blesséd are you.

Blesséd are you
who woke up on this rainy, tornadic morning
and—for whatever reason—
pulled yourself out of bed,
rose up out of the rat race,
and have allowed yourself
to be here in a place with God
where for at least one hour
it is not about
all the stuff you need to purchase,
all the things you need to plan,
all the people you need to please
for the next 23 days.

I don’t know why you came to church this morning,
but I believe God has brought you here
on the first Sunday of Advent . . . for a reason.

*   *   *

So, if Advent is important,
and if it’s not actually about
getting ready for Christmas,
then what is Advent for?

The answer may surprise you.

Just one look at
our prayers,
our hymns,
and especially our scriptures today,
and you quickly realize that Advent
is about (gasp!) . . .
the end of the world.

“There will be signs in the sun,
the moon, and the stars,” says Jesus,
“and on the earth distress among nations
confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will faint from fear and foreboding
of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’
with power and great glory.”

Big doin’s!

Now I say that Advent is about “the end of the world,”
but it’s more accurate to say
that Advent is about the Second Coming
and the Apocalypse.

Now how do you feel
when you hear the word
“Apocalypse?”

Does it fill you with dread?
Do you dismiss it offhand?
Is it something you never really think about?

Well, if you look up the word “apocalypse” in a dictionary today,
chances are it will be defined
solely in terms of damnation and destruction.
Believe it or not, though,
this is not what the word “apocalypse” actually means.

“Apocalypse” is Greek.
It literally means “unveiling.”

It’s an uncovering.
A revealing.
A bringing forth
of all that is holy, and right, and good,
which necessarily also means
the falling away
of all this is not holy, right, or good.

When our hymns talk about
the stars falling from the heavens
or the sky being rolled back like a scroll,
it’s because God is pulling it all back,
unveiling himself once and for all.

So when you hear the word “apocalypse,”
I don’t want you to think primarily
of death, destruction, and despair.

I want you to think instead
of what happens in a wedding
when the bride makes her way down the aisle
and joins her bridegroom before the altar.

What happens in that moment?

It’s . . . an apocalypse.
He unveils her.
He uncovers her face.
He reveals her true beauty
for him and for all the world to see,
just as our Lord—our bridegroom—intends to do for us
at the wedding of the Lamb on the last great Day.

“When these things begin to take place,” says Jesus,
“stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near.”

Those are not the words of a threat.
Those are the words of a promise.

*   *   *

While Jesus is clear that even he
does not know the day or the hour of the Apocalypse,
he’s also clear that we ought to be able
to read the signs of the times.

“It’s like a fig tree,” he says.
“When you see the leaves sprout on the tree,
you know that summer is on the way.
Same thing with this.
You know God.
You know me.
It shouldn’t surprise you
when the Apocalypse draws near.”

Truth is, though,
we’ve been missing it all along.

Back when I was on sabbatical a few years ago,
I spent the first month living in silence at Ignatius House,
a Jesuit retreat center up in Atlanta.

It was right as springtime,
and the grounds were GORGEOUS.
During all those silent lunches,
the other two retreatants and I
would sit and face the big glass window.
We couldn’t talk to each other,
so we just watch what was going on
out in that big, beautiful garden.

Did you know that if you justwatch
if you just slow down and take the time—
you can actually see a magnolia unfurl its petals
and bloom before your very eyes?
It’s true.

We watched deer come up from the ravine.
We watched frogs bouncing in the fountain.
We watched bees buzzing in the air.
We watched God at work . . .
and we didn’t miss a thing.

But then one day
a new retreatant joined us for just a week,
and unlike the rest of us
he would get his plate,
sit with his back to the window,
face the inside of the dining room,
and shovel his food into his mouth.

He probably thought we were crazy
for the way we configured ourselves
and how we kept giggling quietly
at our favorite lizard
who always did acrobatics on the fountain
around 12 o’clock every day.

By about the third day, though,
one of the more curmudgeonly priests on staff walked through the room,
saw the guy shoveling his food with his back to the window,
and loudly declared, “You’re missing it! You’re missing it!”

The priest never stopped.
He didn’t elaborate.
He just kept on walking.
“You’re missing it! You’re missing it!”

Somehow, I doubt that guy ever figured out
what that priest was yelling about.

*   *   *

People who care about the Apocalypse
are always trying to figure out
exactly how it’s all going to go down,
but in actuality, the Apocalypse began
2,000-and-something years ago.
And more often than not,
we’ve been exactly like that guy shoveling food in his face
with his back to the window.
We’re missing it; we’re missing it.

It all started with that baby in a manger.
Sure, people were half-heartedly looking for a king,
but what they got instead was a poor, no-count baby
whose parents couldn’t even find a room for a night.
And we missed it; we missed it.

More was unveiled at the crucifixion.
Sure, people were half-heartedly looking for a king,
but what they got instead was the Son of God on a cross,
dying the death of a common criminal,
pouring out his love for all the world to see.
And we missed it; we missed it.

And still more was unveiled at the resurrection.
Sure, people were half-heartedly looking for a king,
but what they got instead sounded too good to be true,
like a myth, or a fairy tale, or idle stories
told by women outside an empty tomb.
And we missed it; we missed it.

God has been uncovering the truth,
pulling back the veil,
revealing who he is and who we are meant to be
for years and years and years.
Too often, though, we’ve been
“weighed down
with dissipation
and drunkenness
and the worries of this life”
to ever take notice.

And that’s why it probably will surprise most of us—
like a thief in the night, like a trap underfoot—
when the final revelation comes.

*   *   *

So, for that reason, I say
blesséd are you.

Blesséd are you
who have come here today
to put your face to the window
and watch for the workings of God.

Blesséd are you
who have set all earthly cares aside—
even if just for one hour—
to be reminded that the Lord your God is near,
and that his love for you is sure.

Blesséd are you
who are wholeheartedly looking for your King.
Truth is, he has been showing himself all along the way,
and despite how good we are at “missing it,”
he has not brought you this far
just to leave you standing at the altar alone.

Open your eyes.
Lift up your heads.
The King is coming.

And blesséd are you.

Amen.

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