Advent 1 (Year C) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 28 November 2021

Jeremiah 33:14-16 | Psalm 25:1-9 | 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 | Luke 21:25-36

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who comes near to us in love.

Good morning, friends! Happy Advent! In the church, we start our new year today with Advent, the season when we prepare for Christmas and for Jesus’ arrival.

It’s that festive time of year: Gingerbread, presents, and if we look at our Gospel today, also signs of impending apocalypse. Hot chocolate, carols, and “signs in the sun and moon, foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” You might notice some tension between our readings today and the celebratory spirit of getting ready for Christmas.

And that’s because in this season of Advent, we’re preparing for Jesus’ arrival on two different levels at once. We’re preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. And at the same time, we’re preparing for the Second Coming, for a time someday in the future when Christ will return and the world as we know it will be transformed.

So we have a melody line and a harmony line—the melody is the part where we’re getting ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, and the harmony underneath that is how we’re getting ready for Jesus to return again. And we’ll hear both of those parts weaving in and out with our readings and our music and our practices through the four weeks of Advent.

We see them both in our collect for today. That’s the prayer we say near the beginning or the service, and you can see it on page 2 of your bulletin. If you’re curious, you can also find all the collects for the whole year in the Book of Common Prayer. This one is on page 159 / 211. Let’s read it again:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.  

We are now getting ready to celebrate “the time of this mortal life in which Jesus came to visit us in great humility”—that’s Christmas, when we tell the story of how Jesus was born as one of us, born poor and weak in a stable. That’s the first coming.

And at the same time, we also prepare for the day “when he shall come again in glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead.” That’s someday in the future. That’s the Second Coming. We’ve got these two different levels going on at the same time: preparing for Christmas and preparing for Christ’s return and the Last Judgment.

In the melody line, we’re getting ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas. It’s time to get out those nativity scenes. We’ll even make a nativity scene here at the church next week. It’s time to tell stories and bake cookies and light candles and pray prayers.

Maybe you have an Advent calendar at home, or an Advent wreath. Maybe amid the busyness of getting ready for Christmas we can make time for a practice of prayer as we prepare our hearts to meet Jesus at the manger—Holly or I can help if you want ideas for how to pray. Maybe when we get gifts for our friends and family, we can also think to be generous with folks in need. Maybe we make special treats. Maybe we take joy in decorating for Christmas.

It’s a season of listening and getting ready. We listen for good news of great joy for all people. We get ready to meet Jesus when he comes in great humility to be born. We watch. We wait. We pray. We lean forward in the dark to see the light coming over the horizon.

All of these things can be part of the way we prepare our hearts for the mystery of God becoming human that we’ll celebrate at Christmas.

It’s a momentous, world-changing mystery to prepare for—God the creator of the universe is born of a woman and becomes one of us, a vulnerable little baby in a manger. In this season, we do whatever we need to do so that we’re ready to receive that mystery, ready to meet God at the manger.

In Advent, we practice joy generosity and wonder in small ways to get ready for the great joy and the great gift and the great mystery that is God becoming human.

And meanwhile, in the harmony line of Advent, we’re also preparing for another great mystery: how Christ will come again in glory to judge and save the world. Now this part is a little harder to deal with, for me at least.

It’s harder because this promised return is someday in the future, and there’s a lot we don’t know about it. Scripture uses a lot of different images and metaphors to talk about the mystery of Christ’s return, and sometimes that’s confusing. It’s hard because with this one, we’re not as sure what exactly it is we’re waiting for.

It’s also hard because there’s this language of judgment around Christ’s return, and a lot of us carry deep hurt around the idea of God’s judgment—sometimes the idea of God’s judgment has been used for hateful and controlling purposes.

Sometimes the idea of God’s judgment has been used to prop up very limited and limiting human judgments about what we should be doing and who we’re allowed to be. And sometimes the ideas of the end times and Christ’s return and the Last Judgement have been used to crank up the fear rather than inspire us to love.

And sometimes that’s meant that here in churches like this where we’re trying really hard to be about love and not about fear, we just don’t like to talk about divine judgment at all, or about the Last Judgment when Christ comes again. And I understand that. There’s so much hurt around these topics that sometimes it’s helpful to just give them some space and focus our energy elsewhere.

But this Advent, I’d like to invite us to try working with the idea of coming judgment and see what we can do with it. It’s going to be here with us this season in our prayers and our readings.

So I wonder if we can find an understanding of the Last Judgment that’s in line with our hope in God’s love for us, and not about fear and control.

I think we can start to do that by remembering who it is we’re waiting for. Even if we don’t know what exactly will happen at the end of the world we know, we believe that it’s Jesus who will return, and we know that Jesus loves us. We know that Jesus comes to help us and save us and love us.

We might also look to our scriptures, where it often seems like people are longing for and looking forward to a time when God will judge the earth. In Jeremiah, the people look forward to a time when the Lord will “execute righteousness and judgment on the earth.”

The Psalmist hopes that God will step in to uphold the ones who trust in God and to stop treacherous people from getting to finish their schemes. Other Psalms also speak with deep longing and hope that God will come near in order to judge evildoers, vindicate faithful people, and make things right.

You can listen for this longing to see God’s justice and help come to the earth in our readings from the prophets and the Psalms through Advent, and in some of the songs we sing this season.

In the Gospel, when Jesus speaks of the apocalyptic times to come, he tells his followers they should stand up and raise their heads, because their redemption is drawing near when they see the end times are coming. When Paul writes to the Thessalonians about Christ’s coming again, he prays that God would make their love abound to prepare.   

When we read these scriptures and others, it often seems like God’s coming judgment on the earth was something these people really wanted to happen. It seems like a lot of our ancestors in the faith didn’t dread the coming judgment—they longed for it.

And I think that’s because they knew who God was, and they trusted that God’s judgment would make things better. It seems like they saw a lot of things wrong with the world, and they believed that God’s judgment would be about setting things right.

The people who longed for God’s coming judgment knew that they weren’t perfect, and that was okay, because God’s coming for them wasn’t about God looking for faults to criticize. God’s judgment wasn’t about tallying up blame, but about setting right what’s deeply broken in the world.

God’s judgment is about healing what’s injured. If you go to a really skilled and compassionate doctor after an accident and the doctor says that your arm is broken, that diagnosis is a judgment about what’s wrong. But that judgment isn’t about blaming you for getting hurt. Instead, being able to say clearly what’s wrong would mean that the doctor knows what to do next to set the broken bone and help you recover.  We might think of the last judgment as Christ returning to examine the patient and then set the broken bones of the universe.

And we do what we can now to work for hope and healing, but we know we fail sometimes. Sometimes we’re not able to set all the bones that break. Sometimes the treacherous succeed in their schemes and we’re not able to stop them or hold them accountable.

Sometimes we fail to protect the innocent, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes the systems we hoped would bring justice end up doing the opposite of that.

And we try with all our might to make these things better—and we should, because they matter to real people, and it’s part of how we love each other in the time we have. And at the same time, we trust that Christ will come again to make the world right, to bring healing where we couldn’t. And that is good news.

And if we see Christ’s return as that kind of good news, then maybe we can see how getting ready for it fits in with getting ready for Jesus’ birth. Both times, Jesus is coming to the earth with love and transformation. Both times, Jesus is coming to heal and save.   

And so we can see how we might prepare for both Christmas and Jesus’ return at the same time. The one who will come again in glory to set the broken bones of the universe is the same Jesus who was born in a manger and let himself be broken for us. Both times, Jesus comes to us in love, and we await him with hope. Both times, Jesus’ coming is good news of great joy for all people.

And so as we prepare for both Christmas and Christ’s return this Advent, let’s get clear about the one we’re waiting for. Friends, we are not here waiting for the creepy version of Santa in that song who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake and keeps a list of your good and bad deeds so he can see if you get presents of a lump of coal.

We are waiting for Jesus who already loves us. And Jesus is not making a list and checking it twice to see if we’re good enough. Jesus loves us so much that even on our worst day Jesus sees more goodness and beauty and glory and wonder in each one of us than we can see in ourselves even on our best day. We are waiting for Jesus who comes near us with boundless compassion.

So a time of getting ready for Jesus’ return doesn’t mean a time of working hard to be good enough. It’s not a time to get out our checklist and make sure we did everything right this year. It’s a time to make room in our hearts to love others and to be deeply loved. It’s a time to pray (with St. Paul) that our love for each other and for all may abound, as Jesus’ love for us and for all does.

This time of preparation is not a time for perfectionism, but a time for vulnerability and honesty. It’s a time to uncover our wounds—both personal ones and in our communities, and look for healing. This is not a time to do it on our own, but a time to realize that we need God and we need each other. It’s a time when it’s safe to acknowledge our need because more clearly than ever, we can see our deliverance coming, right around the corner, just over the horizon, so close.

This season of Advent is a time to prepare our hearts and homes and lives anew to meet the God who loves us and who chooses to come close to us. We prepare in the melody line for Christmas and in the harmony line for Jesus’ coming again.  

We follow the signs we can see. We stay watchful for the Spirit’s movements among us. We lean forward in the dark; we look over the horizon and see glimpses of the light that’s coming near. We tell the stories we know about this good news of great joy for all people. We wait. We pray. We hope.

And may we increase and abound in love for each other and for all, as the God who loves us draws close to us this season.


Natalya Rusetska (Ukrainian, 1984–), “First Day of Creation,” 2017. Egg tempera on gessoed wood board, 11 13/16 × 11 13/16 in. (30 × 30 cm). Tags: hovering over the waters

“First Day of Creation” by Natalya Rusetska — thanks to the blog Art and Theology ( for introducing me to this painting and making the connection with Advent!