And so the season, the year, begins in the middle – in the middle of the story, in the middle of a field where two men are working, and there then was one; in the mill, where two women are grinding, and all of a sudden, one of them – let’s call her Susan – finds that she is working the handle alone, unbalanced and over-burdened. She wonders where her partner could have gone. She is frightened, and a little bit angry, but mostly rather worried. Outside, she can hear her husband calling to his own work partner, and then she is suddenly sad, instead. In an instant it comes to her that Bethany – that was her partner’s name – that Bethany is not coming back. Neither is Bethany’s fiancé. And Susan is sorry that she never got to tell them what a cute couple they made. She is sorry that she made that snide comment about Bethany’s wedding plans. Susan realizes, too late, that she was jealous of Bethany’s innocent excitement; after seven years of marriage and no baby yet to appease her mother-in-law, Susan is perpetually anxious, and other people’s happiness makes her twitchy. She wishes she could explain it all. If she’d known it would be today, she would have taken better care to end it on good terms. Susan sighs, lets go the handle – the mill is too heavy for one – and heads out to meet her husband, whose voice is getting ever more frantic. She soothes him like a baby – he’s beside himself – and thinks about her mother-in-law. If she’s there when they get home, they need to talk, before it’s too late for them, too.
In the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day the flood came and swept them away, all unknowing. So many arguments unfinished, love letters unwritten, apologies unmade, friends unbegotten.
We talk a lot about Advent as a time of preparation, as though it were simply the season of getting everything ready for Christmas – the shopping, the baking, the cards, the decorating – and that is all well and good. It’s very well, and very good, in fact; it brings us joy and it brings us together. And that is good.
Because the readings that we have today seem to suggest that a lot of our spiritual preparation for the unexpected coming of Christ the King, who arrives like a thief in the night and steals our hearts; a lot of that preparation has to do with sorting out our relationships.
This can be uncomfortable stuff, I know. Relationships are hard, families are way more complicated than calculus – trust me, I know, I have plenty of family.
But the uncomfortable stuff is right there in front of us. The people living near Noah who paid no attention to their crazy neighbour and missed the boat. They might have done better to listen to the old man once in a while, even with his crazy stories. It costs nothing, my mother always said, to pass the time of day, and you never know when you might meet someone fascinating that way.
Paul wrote to the Romans, live honourably, not in debauchery or licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Lay aside the works of darkness, those shadows of envy and regret and resentment that cloud our relationships; put on the armour of light.
He isn’t asking us to venture undefended into the murky waters of relationship: put on the armour of light, of honesty and good faith, grace and humility, forgiveness and the strength to love your neighbour and yourself. Repairing relationships makes us vulnerable, but we do not have to be defenceless, and if a relationship is beyond repair, if it is abusive or harmful to us, we are allowed to withdraw, bearing the armour of light, our own integrity and the grace of God to forgive even our enemies, and pray for them. But if the fault is ours, because of our jealousy, our picking quarrels, our drinking or bad habits; well, then, perhaps it is time we began to tidy up before the coming day of the Lord.
Isaiah expands the concept to all people, all nations, all the world. When we learn to walk in the pathways that God intends for us to walk in, he says, then our swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and we will work the fields together, walking side by side in the light.
We talk a lot about families around the holidays. We hide a lot of the pain that we carry, over broken or torn relationships. I say this not to make anyone feel worse about situations that are seemingly beyond repair; I know that sometimes there is too much pain, or too much scar tissue to overcome. I certainly don’t mean for anyone to put themself in danger of abuse, let me be very clear about that. But I do invite each of us to consider whether there is a call we need to make, a card we need to write, that we would regret if we didn’t, and then we couldn’t. I invite you to wonder if it is possible, after all, to have the difficult conversation that would pave the way to a more honest relationship with someone in your life.
And what about the relationships we should be repairing as a community? To whom should we as the parish of Epiphany be reaching out this Advent, inviting and encouraging to find here their own church family, imperfect, maybe, but willing to try again and again to be the people God calls us to be.
Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus advises his disciples, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24). I am borrowing Jesus’ admonition to say to us, if you are on the way to the manger at Bethlehem to offer your gift, and you remember that someone is upset with you, lay it down, run home, or to your phone, or facebook message: make it right with your conscience and your friend, then invite them to come with you to the Christmas manger.
I encourage you to pray about the hard places, the uncomfortable encounters that you meet in your lives; pray for the armour of light to surround each of us and give us courage to persevere, maybe even to reach a breakthrough. Christmas, after all, is a time for miracles.