Monday, November 30, 2009

A Sermon for Advent

Delivered at St. George’s Chapel, Indian River Hundred, Delaware
November 29, 2009

Advent has always been one of my favorite seasons. The readings contain some of the more majestic passages of the scriptures, the music, the poetry and the theology are impressive. But as I thought about it, I was struck by the many contrasts of Advent.

Contrasts of Advent

There is the contrast that in the world around us, Christmas is already under way while the church keeps a season of penitence and preparation for the joy of Christmas (which begins in about three and a half weeks!) The readings for Advent, too, abound in contrasts. The theme of the fulfilling of a long-held hope is heard in the prophecies of the coming Messiah. But there is also a note of the Judgment to come – a kind of Second Advent, directing our attention to the way we live our lives day by day, because judgment is seen more as a process than a future apocalyptic happening.

Established yet Uncertain

But perhaps the biggest contrast of all, and the one I want us to reflect on for a while this morning, is between settled traditions of the past and the uncertainties of the future. Advent is part of an established round of liturgical worship; it represents a settled, familiar round of worship. Advent looks in two directions. It gathers up all the longings of the People of Israel for the coming of their Messiah, and in that, it is a preparation for our celebration of the coming of the Messiah child in Bethlehem. It also looks to the future, to the completing of God’s rule, and in this way, the message of Advent points up the temporary nature of social conventions and institutions that look as though they are set for ever in stone.

Without doubt, the Gospel & Epistle for today (Luke 21.25ff; I Thess. 3.9ff) direct out attention to the future aspect of Advent, and Jeremiah speaks to sixth century Hebrews of a future hope. The Old Testament sees history as a finite process, a flow of events and people, which has a beginning in the creative act of God, and moves to an End., "I am the Alpha and Omega, says the Lord God, who was and who is to come, the sovereign Lord of all." is how the book of Revelation puts it. (Apoc. 1.8)
Many pictures of the end suggest great trials, but they also assure the Christian community that if it is faithful all will, in the end be well. Paul, writing to the Christians in Thessalonika expects the end very soon, but he writes in a tone of confidence and counsels the community to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all”. The same contrast of trial and trust is clear in the gospel passage from Luke. “People will faint from fear and foreboding”, but to the faithful community he says, “stand up, and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.

What we really think about the Eschaton?

Yet another contrast is between our theological positions which take for granted this future aspect of Advent, and our real feelings on the matter. It is one thing to long for the end and the establishment of God’s rule, it is quite another to live one’s life with the conviction that all our cherished institutions are transitory and passing away. After all, if we have a carefully worked out scheme of things, an organized religion, a clear code of law which tells you what to do and what not to do, do we really want a new heaven and a new earth putting in place a totally God-centered rule? Perhaps it is better to have a God at a very safe distance. Later Judaism would not allow Yahweh, the name of God to be spoken, replacing it with surrogates like, “The Holy One” or “the Heavens”. In the Christian tradition we are not afraid to say “Yahweh”, but it may be that our theological structures have made God into a safe abstraction, carefully enclosed in the Nicene Creed.

So, perhaps it is safer to stay with the order one knows; perhaps we are content to enjoy the poetry and music, and to treat this season of Advent as the preparation for the certainty of the Christmas message with its overtones of general good will and family reunions.

Christ in us & we in Him

This would be fine except for the fact that it really isn't like that. As we are reminded again and again, much more than half the world cannot look forward to the joys of family reunions, warm fires and piles of presents. It is precisely the function of the Advent message keep us focused on the here and now while directing us to meditate on the completion of God’s plan. That is what Paul does when he urges the Thessalonians to continue and increase in love as they wait for the end. The paradox is that the One who is to come, already stands in our midst; stands, but also lies bleeding from snipers bullets in too many places in the world, lies emaciated with starvation in many parts of Africa, and is rejected by many in our own culture.
Jesus tells us that we are to see him in each of his children. That, if you recall, is the central idea of the parable of the sheep and the goats. The parable tells of the time “when the Son of Man comes in his glory”, sits in judgement and separates the sheep and the goats. Jesus says to them "Anything you did (or did not do)for one of my brothers or sisters here, however humble, you did (or did not do) for me." (Mt. 25). This is to say, that Jesus meets us in a myriad of unexpected ways. It is to say that we cannot have the kind of solid, unchangeable certainties that a fixed religious system may give us so that all our inter-personal transactions can totted up on a calculator, and we can make sure that we keep our heavenly account in balance, or even with a bit of credit. Rather, we have to deal with each new situation in the light of the love shown by Jesus.

Radical Demands

The Jesus who stands among us is greater than the Law and the Prophets,and makes more radical demands than the law, calling us to move out of the certainties of our comfortable traditions. The two-sided nature of Advent calls us to re-evaluate our attitudes as Christians to the kind of consumer excess that floods over us at this time of year. It challenges us to take note, and to take action on behalf of the vast number of people among us who are in real want. It challenges us, as the Intercession says, “to work for justice, freedom and peace”; and that not in an abstract way, but in examining our personal attitudes to issues of social justice, to the status of Minorities, and the scandal of the startling inequalities in our national life We need to consider that this One who stands among us and is to come in judgement had some hard things to say. We must resist the temptation to sentimentalize his message. He makes immense demands; he says that he will bring division to households; he suggests that our every-day actions are to be judged by the way we treat others. This is the message of Advent. It bids us question our comfortable assumptions, and it reminds us that the Judgement of God is not some far off event that is not of immediate concern; it is rather ever-present process that was initiated by the birth of that child in Bethlehem.

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