The First Sunday of Advent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 24:36-44

With the commercial sentimentality of Christmas already in the streets and the shop windows, it’s all the more jarring that Christians should prepare for this feast with a season of readings in a rather somber tone. Today’s gospel is characteristic.

The Lord’s final coming is likened to that of a thief in the night. The mood is not one of joyful anticipation, but of anxiety in the face of imminent danger. The time before the Day of the Lord is described in terms of the days preceding the Flood, with the terrifying picture of the blissfully unaware being swept away in the middle of their “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.”

But at the center of the text is the most frightening image, that of prey being “taken” by an invisible hunter. “Then, two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” Human beings are more used to being hunters than the hunted. Or are we?

Many of you, I’m sure, have read the classic book Watership Down. If you haven’t, then let me recommend it to you as a Christmas gift for yourself or, if you live in a household, for any member of your family, adult or child.

It’s the story of a community of rabbits in the English countryside who manage to survive the destruction of their warren and then venture forth to establish a new home in a far away place. The author, Richard Adams, takes the reader completely into the rabbits’ world. As we read, we learn not only of their habits but their religious beliefs and even their language. We are also introduced to their common mental and emotional states, including a condition the rabbits refer to as “tharn.”

“Tharn” is a reaction induced by shock, fear, or exposure to overwhelming danger as when a rabbit is caught in the open by a predator it knows it can’t escape. Rather than run, the rabbit will simply shut down; its eyes glaze over, its ears droop; it becomes motionless as though in a coma, awaiting its end. The rabbits would say, “He has gone tharn.”

Humans too are familiar with this state. It’s often the condition of a child, for example, who is confronted suddenly by an adult accuser. Moments before, she was happily exercising her imagination by coloring a wall in the living room (one she had always thought needed a little brightening up); and, suddenly, a huge shadow looms over her; an adult silence fills the room and her little heart goes cold, like a rabbit in the shadow of a hawk.

The evidence is there; the color is on the wall, the crayon is in her hand. She listens to the accusations. What did she think she was doing? How could she be so thoughtless? The adult goes away, comes back with a pan and a rag and administers soap to the wall and more law to the child: Thou shalt not color thy parents’ wall;Thou shalt not bring thy mother to her knees; Thou shalt not put thy mother in the position of making her little girl go tharn. But she has gone tharn. And She just stands there – not crying, not even letting go of the crayon.

It seems comical, but in seriousness, a lot of people never get over this kind of an event. They revisit it again and again as they grow older. Indeed, the experience lurks inside all of us in one form or another. And while the moral difference between admitting guilt and submitting to a predator may be vast, the physiological and emotional effects are similar.

Human evolution has made us into animals who, having experienced going tharn in our infancy, will do anything to avoid it in our maturity. In the face of danger, we become aggressive, resourceful, adept at combat and escape—the “fight or flee” response, as psychologists call it. In the face of judgment, we will accuse our accuser, sue the court, shift the blame, deny the charges, cop a plea, or maybe just leave the country. To admit wrong is to “go tharn,” and to “go tharn” is to die.

Imagine then, the irrefutable Accuser, the inescapable Predator that scripture describes as the harbinger of the Lord’s coming. That is what the Law becomes: The Prosecutor before whom we are without defense. That is why scripture likens the Last Judgment not only to the courtroom but also to the hunt, with some of us as the quarry who might be suddenly culled from the warren while the others are left.

During Advent this theme will hit us again and again, and we may well ask, “What is going on? Having made us ‘but little lower than the angels,’ has God destined us for nothing more than the rabbits? Is our end, after all our striving, to lie huddled in the shadow of the throne of God – gone tharn, our lives suspended in God’s hand?”

Saint Paul says, before the Law, this has already happened to us. We have met the One from whom there is no escape. All our strategies of evasion and escape, of bargaining and litigation, have already proven fruitless. We are condemned. We have gone tharn before the Law. –Accused. Tried. Convicted.

But if we are in Christ, then our experience of God becomes an experience of the Lord of Love, who offers himself on our behalf. By the gift of himself on the cross, and through his own death, Jesus satisfies the Law and all our accusers, whatever present or past voices within us they adopt.

Paul, and many others since, have observed that getting hold of this notion is like dying ourselves. That’s what it feels like; and thereafter, the Predator can’t touch you, because the Law has no hold on the dead. Paul says, “Through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live in God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20).

It is a new kind of life. A life lived never again having to justify ourselves, -and never again having to go “tharn.” It is the life of joy that comes through the mercy and grace of God in Christ.

A life that goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was a rabbit, who was caught in an open field by a tiger. The tiger knew what to expect and waited for the little creature to go belly up with fear, as had so many of its predecessors.

But when the very wise rabbit noticed the tiger, he did something quite unexpected. He began to chuckle. Then he began to laugh. Then he fell back in great guffaws, holding his tummy and kicking the air with his big furry feet.

The tiger became confused, then angry and demanded an explanation. The rabbit, his ears still trembling, finally managed to pull himself together, and with difficulty, between chuckles, said, “I’m sorry . . . you’re right . . . I ought to be terrified . . . You caught me fair and square . . . But, you see, you can’t kill me . . . because . . . I’m already dead!” And with that, the rabbit collapsed again into helpless giggles. And the still quite confused tiger turned on his heels in disgust and stalked off in search of less foolish, and more dignified prey.

That, of course, is just a fairy tale, but the truth it helps teach us is this:

Although Advent is a serious time of reflection and anticipation, of watching and waiting, a time to expect and prepare for Jesus’ coming, it is, most of all, a time of celebration and joy—a time, perhaps, even to laugh out loud. The Law and death cannot touch us anymore. Because those of us who have already died with Christ in our baptism are wonderfully alive with him in his resurrection. By God’s amazing grace we know that death is no more; and we can hold fast to our affirmation that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

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