We begin the Advent Season this coming Sunday and a new liturgical year and it is hard for me to have holiday cheer. The Macy's Christmas Tree has been lit, egg nog are beginning to fill up in grocery stores, the sounds bells whistles of Christmas are upon us in light of the deadliest attack from ISIS in Paris, France since World War II that killed 129 people. This act of terrorism has made us question the warm and fuzzy feeling we should have during this prelude to Christmas. In examining Advent, this feeling that counters the Yuletide cheer is not far-fetched or unusual because it really speaks to what Advent is all about.
Advent should scare the breath out of us!
Can you think of a time that Advent terrorized you?
If not, you might remember when Advent terrorized your children -- like when you made them sit on Santa's lap at the mall, and they cried and screamed bloody murder.
You may have been terrorized by price tags.
You may feel terrorized by anti-Christian sentiment that often surfaces in the media at this time of the year.
You may feel terrorized by the sheer number of things to do before Christmas Eve arrives in just 18 days.
You may feel terrorized with the lines that wrap around our local malls on Black Friday.
You may feel terrorized with mounting credit card debt but want to provide the specific wishes on your child's Christmas list.
But this is not the terror the prophet Malachi is talking about. He's talking about heart-clutching fear, "I'm-going-to-die" horror, "This-can't-be-happening-to-me" terror.
Let's remind ourselves that, on the church calendar, Advent is, in fact, not just a prelude to the celebration of Jesus' birth in a Bethlehem manger. Rather, it's a time to think more broadly about God's coming ("advent" means "coming") not only in the past, when Jesus was born, but also in the future, when he comes again.
The writer of Malachai uses the "word suddenly" to show the quickness of the coming of Advent in the midst of tremendous adversity and calamity. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, 243, explains that "suddenly" is associated with ominous conditions or imminent calamities.) In Malachi 3:2 the prophet asks the question"Who will endure ...?" But how was this question to be answered? Could any endure?
Who better than the German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer knows about endurance? during Advent 1928, Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in Barcelona in which he spoke about the emotion for this season: "We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God's coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God's coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us ..." (emphasis added).
Our response to the terror and calamities of this world in light of threats, dangers, toils and snares is Behold, the day cometh! begs two advent questions: Do thou believe in the coming of the Lord in humiliation? and do thou hope for his coming in glory? The world may believe or not, the Lord cometh: the world may prepare itself, or not, the Lord judges. This first Advent teaches us the former, and his Second Advent the latter.
Feel the fear!
We can apply this word from Malachi to ourselves. And whether we will be among those who perish or those who will be redeemed, there's reason for terror. But perhaps we should use Advent to let ourselves feel that.
Remember the famous painting that shows Jesus standing at a doorway in a garden, patiently knocking on the door? It's usually understood as picturing Christ's asking admission into our hearts. But for many of us, our surrender to Christ came not because he gently asked permission to come into our lives. It was more like he kicked the door in and entered like an intruder, commandeering space and making it clear that he was taking over, at least for a while. Eventually we made a choice about whether or not to let him remain, but, initially, our defenses were overwhelmed.
That kind of roughness Jesus as a United States Marshal illustrates the terror, contemplation and even fear that is the process of about redemption. We witness this fear in the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary and the bluntness of John the Baptist in "repent and be baptized".
But that was the first Advent. It's the Second Advent that's ahead for us. Jesus is coming again, and Malachi's messenger may precede him.
So, during this season, feel the fear! Let your pride be pierced. The fear that comes from the purifying and the metanoia (change of heart) disposition that John the Baptist speaks of that brings about peace in the midst of terror... As the eternal flame burns continuously at a Buddhist temple in Japan for the last 1,200 years and other venues around the world as a symbol of renewed expectation until all nuclear weapons are destroyed. God's terror before God's Second Advent which we are waiting for is to consume the sin in all humanity with the fire of righteousness that shall burn into the hearts of all humanity until we can truly proclaim the good tidings and cheer "peace on earth and good will toward all humanity".