In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When it comes to the start of anything new -- whether it’s New Year’s Day or the first day of school -- we’re accustomed to think about it like we’ve been given a clean slate. It’s when we get to hit the reset button and start over. And I suppose that’s well and good enough. The relief of a new beginning is that nothing has happened yet, which means that we haven’t messed anything up yet, and so we think of it as this brief moment when we can make our resolutions and set our goals before we smudge the lens or scratch the finish.
In reality, of course, we’re pretty much the same people on the first day of a new year as we were on the last day of the year before. All the weaknesses are still there, all the bad habits and all the quirks, and soon enough, we will predictably make the same mistakes that we always do. We know this deep down. But the start of something new gives us this alluring fantasy of our own innocence, renewed again. The chance to reimagine ourselves as the brand new car just before it leaves the dealership instead of the used minivan with french fries under the seats and that weird grinding noise that’s probably no big deal.
But then there’s the season of Advent. It’s also the start of something new; it’s the beginning of a brand new church year, and so you might expect that it would be all about new beginnings. A season of clean religious slates and new year’s spiritual resolutions. A season of pure potential and glasses half-full and cheerful optimism. You might think that, but you’d also be slightly mistaken. Because the season of Advent begins at the end of the story. And for that matter, so does the entire Christian life. Today, on this First Sunday of Advent, our thoughts are pointed to “the last day, when [Christ] shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead.” Advent is about the Final Judgment, the last day that comes after everything that was going to happen has happened already. But even though this might not be the theme we would have expected, when you think about it, this means that Advent actually meets us where we are. While it kicks off a new church year, Advent comes at the end of the calendar year. And so the very placement of Advent meets us in just the right space to think about the end. As John Henry Newman said, Advent comes when “the year is worn out: spring, summer, autumn, each in turn, have brought their gifts and done their utmost; but they are over, and the end is come .” Advent comes around when you’ve been there, done that. When you look back and trace your steps, grateful for the good things that no doubt happened over the past year, but overall, maybe you’re just pretty tired too.
And you know what, if that’s the case, that’s ok! The Christian life doesn’t start out with all its ducks in a row and Advent doesn’t either. Christianity might be about perfection, but it’s not about perfectionism. There’s a huge difference between the two, isn’t there? Perfection is a goal, a destination, and can therefore accommodate all kinds of mistakes and setbacks and blunders on the way. Perfection asks only for our humility in acknowledging our faults and renewing our devotion to keep growing and keep traveling down the path. Perfectionism, on the other hand, isn’t so much a destination as a really miserable method of trying to get there. Perfectionism wants everything up front and just-so before one ever gets around to doing anything. That’s why perfectionists often spend more time preparing to do something than actually doing it. They’re so scared of failure that they’d rather fantasize about the idea of excellence than just going for it and doing the hard to work of getting there.
But that’s why Advent puts us at the end of the story. To fix our minds on the last day and the judgment that is to come is to put things into ultimate perspective, after all, the eternal hindsight. And from that perspective, all the fantasies of innocence that we imagine at the start of something new suddenly fade away. Advent intends to bring us to the end, to the point of humble acceptance that “life is well enough in its way,” to quote Newman again, “but it does not satisfy” . In a sense, there’s no time left for resolutions in Advent; no time left to imagine a pristine version of yourself that could be totally fulfilling for you during this mortal life. And “thus the soul is cast forward upon the future”  and onward to that day when the clock will run out and the score board will be fixed. And, even though this last day has not yet come, Advent asks that we see ourselves, however dimly, as Christ will see us in his glorious majesty, when every thought, word, and deed of every one of us will be laid bare for all to see. Advent is the annual opportunity to continue living as though the day of judgment were tomorrow. Or, if you aren’t living in that manner, to pray that God would empower you to start doing so now. Okay, I guess that might be the one possible resolution for this new church year: that we ask God to “give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light.”
In any case, what is the point of casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light? And what does that even mean? St. Paul tells us in our Epistle lesson that the point of this whole Christian thing is that God “may establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” The key is when this is all to take place: it’s not necessarily in the immediate here and now, but “at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” St. Paul’s prayer is that by the time our Lord comes again with “all the holy ones with him,” he would find our hearts “unblameable in holiness.”
Now, given the present condition of our hearts, this is probably going to take some time. We’re probably not unblameable yet, at least not in holiness. Speaking for myself, I know that I still have far too many works of darkness within me that need to be cast away. And I’m safe in assuming that you do too. Not only do we all have lingering sins to be confessed, but all kinds of excessive attachments and habits to be renounced as well. The armor of light is made up of the prayer and devotion that often shines with the faintest flicker in our darker days.
But I want to insist as we close that the task of Advent is not just another self-improvement fantasy. For one thing, the salvation that Christ gives to us does not demand perfection in advance of the gift. The Gospel is not that we have to make ourselves unblameable in holiness so that then God grants us salvation. On the contrary, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So the salvation of Christ greets us first where we are, as sinners who have committed innumerable works of darkness that cannot be undone. It may be easy on New Year’s Day to pretend that the past doesn’t count anymore and that this time, things will be different. But God does not pretend. There’s no reset button in this mortal life; what’s done is done, and we’ve been there. The opportunity at hand is not that our past failures can be erased but that they can be forgiven. That we can be made unblameable even with lives full of actions deserving of blame. The season of Advent is therefore a season of repentance, for “your redemption is drawing near.” It draws near in the most ordinary of occasions, just like when the trees predictably come out in leaf, as our Lord himself explained in our Gospel lesson today. But the strange thing about Advent is that what seems like the most ordinary arrival of our redemption brings with it the most extraordinary stakes. It is, after all, our redemption that is drawing near! And what could be more profound than that? Jesus says that the coming of the Son of man will make people “faint with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” But for those who have been established in holiness, the coming of the Son of man will look more like the vision of Zechariah this morning.
On that day there shall be neither cold nor frost. And there shall be continuous day (it is known to the Lord), not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light. On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter. And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.
A blessed Advent to you all, the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end -- take your pick. But look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Amen.