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Who’s Coming to Town?

Reading the gospel for the first Sunday of Advent (Mark 13.24-37) with its emphasis on “Beware, keep alert, stay awake!” brought to mind a secular song on that theme:

You better watch out, You better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He’s making a list, He’s checking it twice,
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
And he knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
You better watch out, You better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
I mean the big fat man with the long white beard is coming to town!

The big fat man with a long white beard we often associate with the benign creature who lives at the North Pole, drives through the sky on a sleigh pulled by 8 (or is it 9?) reindeer, who climbs down chimneys and leaves presents for children, and whose belly shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughs. He also hangs out in department stores and shopping malls, where children sit on his lap, tell him their secret wishes for Christmas presents, and believe he will fulfill all their desires (dare we call them secular prayers?)

For other children though, and for many adults, Santa Claus may remind them too much of a God who threatens and judges and who does not answer their prayers for presents or even for food, housing and clothing.

And actually this song is not about a benign Santa who loves children – it’s about a judge who threatens kids (or adults) to get them to behave. “You better not pout, you better not cry, you better watch out” because Santa is coming. He’s making a list, checking it twice. He’s going to find out who has behaved and who hasn’t. And in some cultural traditions if you’ve been judged to be naughty or bad you get a piece of coal in your stocking instead of the presents you told Santa you wanted.

Unfortunately this is also the image many have of God — the judge who keeps a list of our sins and maybe of our good deeds too, and depending on which list is longer, we could end up with our names written in the book of life – or not. I do not think, however, that that is the message of Jesus.

When Jesus says in Mark’s gospel,“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” he is not talking about how many good or bad deeds we’ve done, about whether we’ve cried or pouted. He is not trying to frighten us into good behaviour like scary old Santa Claus. He’s talking about being aware, conscious, waiting for God’s work to unfold, the consummation of history. The Judaeo-Christian understanding of history is that it has an end, a goal – a time when both earth and heaven will pass away — suggesting a completely new reality that transcends all our spiritual geographies.

Advent is a time in the liturgical year when we wait with expectation and hope for that eventual consummation, even as we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the first coming of Jesus into the world. As Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” We believe that history has a purpose, and it is not a meaningless cycle of repetition.

This longing for God to come among us in a totally new way is expressed powerfully in the passage from Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” We long for justice, for an end to the arrogance and hunger for power and threats that surround us internationally. We long for God to come and put it right. We know we have been made for communion with God: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry O lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”

So our longing and waiting for God in Advent is a desire for justice on the macro scale and divine intimacy on the personal and communal level. We desire a new relationship with God and a restoration of God’s creation – a new heaven and a new earth.Psalm80

That is a theme from the Isaiah that is echoed in Psalm 80 – “now consider, we are all your people” the psalmist cries. “Hear, O Shepherd of Israel . . . Restore us, O God of hosts.” Restore us to a loving and intimate relationship with you. Restore our disordered relationships with each other. Restore our damaged earth. We remember that God created us, God is the potter; God guides us as a shepherd; God saves us by “the light of your countenance” – just by looking at us in love.

That is why we long for spiritual intimacy, why we long for love – because we are created for love. We long to be forgiven, reconciled, accepted. And then we hear Jesus say in Mark’s gospel “Beware, keep alert  . . . “you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all. Keep awake.” But that doesn’t have to be scary. In fact the image of the fig tree that Jesus uses is a symbol of new life. We see the signs around us, just as the tender leaves on the fig tree herald the coming of summer, so the natural and political disturbances around us herald the coming of God.

But what if the coming of God is something we already experience? Perhaps staying awake and being alert also means paying attention to the appearances of God all around us – the really good and positive things in our lives – God comes in many guises.

So we long for the coming of God – the second coming of Jesus – but it’s a lot more fruitful than the coming of Santa Claus. Because we are all on God’s list – both naughty and nice. “Restore us, O God” – that’s us, not me. That’s all God’s creation, not just those in the in group who have the right interpretation of the Bible and the right theology. We are all invited into a relationship of repentance and intimacy with the God who made us and shepherds us and longs for us – not only as individuals but as nations – to come back home.

And the wonderful gift that makes that possible is God’s grace – that is a gift more beautiful than any gift from Santa. In the song, we are either on Santa’s list or not – we have either been good or bad. But in God’s song which we call the Bible, we are all invited into a loving relationship with God. “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthian church – “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

So instead of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” we are invited to sing “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel has come to you O Israel.” That is the song of Advent.

 Rev. Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert, Companions Coordinator