First Week of Advent
Written by Rev. Heather Ghormley - Tree of Life Anglican Church
In November of 2013 a massive Typhoon hit the island nation of the Philippines. Roofs came off, buildings filled with water and then were swept away and many people ended up hanging on to debris as they floated through the flood. It was a good day to be an able-bodied young man…but of course not everyone in the typhoon had that luxury.
In the chaos of the storm, most people ended up fighting for their own lives, but not Dolores Baculanta and Oscar Macaray. These two workers at a government-run orphanage for about 100 orphans in Palos, one of the hardest hit cities, chose to rescue others. Dolores says she was getting ready to bathe all the preschool-aged children when all of the sudden she heard screams coming from the toddler room of the orphanage. Like most buildings in Palo, the roof was starting to fly off the building and the children were being swept up in an inflow of water. It would have made sense for Dolores and Oscar the security guard to simply grab what children they could see and run for the safest part of the building, but they didn’t. They risked their own lives, forcing their way into the toddler room, scooped up every screaming child and put them into two cribs, which as the waters rose became makeshift rafts. They managed to wheel the cribs out of that room just as the walls caved in and the swell rose. As the water seeped into the hallway they pushed the toddlers from room to room and helped other children crawl on top of tables and any other structure they could find until the waters subsided. Everyone prayed. The cement wall of the orphanage held. And when the waters subsided, not a single child had drowned.
It would have been easy, and even understandable for these orphanage workers to simply seek their own refuge in the face of that horrible storm. Who would miss a few dozen orphans in the midst of what seemed like the end of the world? These orphans have no mother or fathers to mourn them, no one threatening to sue the orphanage if they get hurt. What could a couple of aging day-care workers do against the power of a wind that could lift the roof right off a building? But in the moment, of crisis, Dolores and Oscar didn’t think like that; they had only one thought: save every child we can or die trying. They were heroes.
Of course Typhoon Haiyan isn’t the first time a giant surge of water has given people the chance to be heroes, and won’t be the last. In the Gospel reading for the first week of Advent, Jesus reminds his listeners of the terrible story of Noah’s flood.
Often in movie versions of the flood story, we see Noah and his family trying to save others. We see them begging other people to get in the ark with them…but actually, the Bible doesn’t say anything about that- Noah only saved the people and creatures God told him to save. When you actually read what the text says, you get the sense that the flood was more like how Jesus described it; no one else even saw it coming: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until flood came and swept them all away.”
No heroes putting toddlers in cribs here. The only people who saw this thing coming were working for PETA; everyone else drowns. This may be the most troubling story in whole of Scripture. It’s not like other troubling stories that tell of horrendous acts done by humans. In this story God destroys the earth. God kills unsuspecting men, women and children not to mention puppies and baby elephants. But according to Scripture, this isn’t just a simple act of violence. It’s an act of judgment, and it’s an act of mercy. The earth had gotten too evil. God couldn’t let it go on like that. Just as in the original sin of Adam and Eve, God instituted human death as both a judgment and a mercy, so now God intervenes in a sick, demonized society, to put an end to the cycles of human torture-it can’t go on forever. It’s got end. So God leaves no mourners, save eight brave survivors on an exotic floating zoo.
But after many days the waters receded and God told Noah and his family it was safe to leave the ark. Then God made a covenant with Noah, “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God puts a rainbow in the sky as a symbol of hanging up his bow and arrow. God won’t be at war with humans anymore.
The rest of the biblical story from Genesis 9 on is about God living out that promise. God did not stop being a God of both judgment and mercy- God is good, which means God can’t just turn a blind eye to evil and injustice. Nevertheless, although every human heart has a taste for sin, God promises that never again will God destroy the whole earth, with only an ark full of righteous survivors to keep things going. Instead, God takes another approach, a costly approach, an approach that requires not just people who can escape judgment but who will be heroes in the midst of an evil age. God selects a people and tasks them not just with staying alive, but with becoming a blessing to every nation on the earth. Instead of an ark, God builds a church- a church not separated out of the wayward world, but engaged in it, inviting all people to be saved. And yet, God won’t let the age of human evil and sorrow continue forever. Another day of judgment will come.
Jesus says that as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be the coming of the Son of Man, by which he means, so will be the day that he, Jesus, returns again to judge the human race. Like we talked about a couple weeks ago, no one will be able to predict exactly when this day will come. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt 24:36) And yet, just like Noah sitting in the ark waiting for the flood, we know that day will come…only unlike Noah we won’t be in the ark. Jesus says, “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left” (40-41). Those of us who trust in Jesus are not going to be on a ready-made zoo on the Day of the Lord. According to Jesus, we’re going to be out with our friends, alongside our co-workers or at home with our family members. And there in the midst of our ordinary, everyday lives, when we least expect it the day of reckoning will come…
In the season of Advent, Christians observe Advent by preparing themselves to greet Jesus. Some people choose to make more space for Jesus by fasting from things like streaming Netflix or Christmas sweets and remembering their need for a savior. Some pick up extra practices of prayer or good works. Thought these practices we try to prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of our savior.
But preparing for the coming of Jesus isn’t just about getting ourselves ready. It’s about calling the whole world to get ready also! Advent isn’t just a reminder that we personally must be ready to face the Day of the Lord. It’s a reminder that we are called to be heroes clothed in armor of light in the midst of a dark world. We are called to be the ark so that on the Day of the Lord, so that more of the people around us might be saved! That’s why we’re here.
Advent reminds us that once we’ve found Jesus our time on this earth has essentially two main tasks. The first is to prepare our own souls for the day we will meet Jesus face-to-face. We do this by rooting out all the seeds of darkness within us and submitting ourselves again and again to the Lordship of Christ. And the second, task is to be heroes- people who help the rest of the world meet Jesus now, so they will be ready on the Day of the Lord.
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