The readings for the First Sunday of Advent are:
Old Testament Isaiah 2:1–5
Psalm Psalm 122
New Testament Romans 13:11–14
Gospel Matthew 24:36–44
In his 1843 book, Fear and Trembling, the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, criticized those who seemed to be equating faith with ascent to the fashionable “system” of truths, and with living comfortably in the present “age.” The “system” that had captured the imagination of so many Europeans was the philosophy of G. F. W. Hegel, and the notion that European Christian civilization was what God was aiming at all along; and therefore, the “present age,” was the one every Christian was to intellectually grasp and settle into. The Enlightenment had taught humanity that with a rational, scientific approach to life, it could reach the heights that Eternity had laid out for it.
Kierkegaard, on the other hand, warned that thinking about the entirety of human society had caused us to forget the supreme importance of the individual. He warned that too much optimism with “the age” of enlightenment caused people to think they could advance beyond faith itself. He warned that faith wasn’t knowing the truth, but living it by constantly being dissatisfied with self and systems, and submitting to God. Faith was passionate struggle with, and suffering through the constant trials of life that happen because our ideas of truth continually come up short of Truth.
Advent is the season of the year when we are all called upon to be dissatisfied with “the age” we are living in, and the “system” of truth that guides it. And this first Sunday is all about the true nature of the time we are living in. This time is not so much an “age” as a day—a sharp moment in time. An age is a time to be satisfied. A day is a time to be striving with passionate energy and the passion that is suffering itself.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of “days to come.” At his time of history the prophets didn’t yet envision an end of history, but they were inspired to simply assert that the Lord had things under control, and sometime in future things would be different. And I think the heart of Isaiah’s message was that the all too human rhythm, determined by fighting violence with more violence, was doomed to failure and extinction. Instead, in days to come, the Lord would arbitrate. The Temple and Jerusalem, where Isaiah and the people of Judah experienced this most righteous of judges, would call the Judeans, and other exhausted people of the world to “reason together” or talk things out (Isaiah 1.18) with God, until they would renounce their own doomed “reason” and see the wisdom of beating their swords into plowshares.
Isaiah tell us never to get comfortable with the spirit of your age. Never surrender to “the way things are,” but live towards the coming Day.
By the time Paul wrote his letter to the Jews and former pagans who made up the Church of Rome, he knew that speculation about timetables was a soporific to true faith. “Keep awake” he says. Don’t get caught up in thinking faith is having the answers to the questions, “When will the Day come? When will the Lord return? How do we decode current events?” Wake up to the way God has freed you from the “age” of conflict and for the New Age of cooperation. God, in Christ, has forgiven your sins so that you can think of others and put on the compassionate clothing of Christ.
Jesus, in Matthew 24, stresses also this Advent truth that the Day or the Moment, or the “right time,” we live in is neither short nor long. Its culmination will come as a surprise, but as a surprise that is absolutely critical to our individual existence. And faith is that ordeal that we go through that makes us ready for any surprise.
And I like Psalm 122 for the season of Advent, and for understanding what faith is all about. The Bible calls this “A Song of Ascents,” no doubt because it was chanted as the pilgrims went up in elevation from their homes to the great ridge on which sat Jerusalem and the Temple mount. They prayed in anticipation that going up would give them peace personally; and that it would bless their relatives and friends with the same peace.
History has shown that we must not read this psalm too literally. The Temple has been destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. Much blood has been spilled there by Romans and Jews, Crusaders and Muslims, the British, and terrorists of many, many persuasions. It is being spilled yet today. And, just so, any vision that the United States of America is the new Jerusalem, is a tragically tainted vision.
But it is the singing and the ascent of Psalm 122 that I hear the Lord calling us all to. Faith is being, worshipfully, on the ascent. Faith is Holy Dissatisfaction with this age. Faith is hunger and thirst for God’s rule. Faith is living in an extended moment between the old and the new. Faith is fortifying ourselves by God’s constant grace in this moment, so that we will not fall exhausted by the greed and vengeance of this age, but gladly let God be our Judge now. Faith is being ready to help those around us lay down their burdens of false faith in this age. Faith is expecting ordeal, struggle and suffering, because until that Day is finally here, the values of this age must not become our values. Faith is not getting comfortable with this age, but reaching out with joy for the Next.
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