Below is my sermon from Sunday, November 27th, the First Sunday of Advent. It talks about two readings from the day, from the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew. While it is grounded in these texts, it focuses on what Advent possibly has to offer in a world already celebrating Christmas.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I never feel more out-of-joint in church than in these early weeks of Advent. The entire world around us is ready for Christmas—the songs started on B101 before Thanksgiving this year, the red cups are out at Starbucks, the shopping and sales have begun, and Tim and I even put up our tree yesterday. Christmastime is upon us.
And yet, here at church, we have no Christmas songs, no decorations except for a wreath, and instead of feel-good heartwarming movies and stories, we have foretelling of the end of times. Talk about being out of touch with the culture. So why don’t we, as a church, get on board with the times? Throw out Advent and just have a month long celebration of Christmas with the rest of the world?
Because this is one of those times where the church tradition might just know be able to teach us something. Don’t get me wrong, the joy and peace of Christmas are important things, and we will get to them in a few weeks. But Advent has a message that we, and our world, need to hear. Patience. Expectancy. Watchfulness. Hope.
Advent is probably my favorite season of the church year, because it offers not only honesty about the fact that the world is not the way it is meant to be, but also the promise that God’s plan, in the end, will come to fruition.
We get them both on this first Sunday: the exhortations to watchfulness, to be ready and awake, call us to awareness. There’s this odd passage from Matthew, where Jesus talks about the Son of Man coming again, and two people will be together and one will be taken and one will be left.
It’s the kind of passage that we tend to skip over, or at least try not to think about too much. This particular one gave rise to the whole “Left Behind” series of books and movies that sought to play on peoples’ fears of not being good enough for God.
But that’s not what it’s about. The author of Matthew is writing this gospel about 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and people are beginning to give up hope that Jesus will come again. They are starting to act like people did in the days of Noah: eating and drinking, marrying and giving away in marriage.
What’s always struck me about this list—it’s not a list of bad things. It’s not a list of sinful actions that people were consumed with. No, they were only consumed with getting on with their lives, but not paying attention to what God was doing around them.
It’s spiritual complacency that Matthew’s warning against. Because, he says, when Christ comes it will be unexpected. You won’t know when it’s going to happen or who it’s going to involve.
Like I said, we tend to gloss over these passages. 2,000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, it seems less urgent than ever. But while the idea of being unexpectedly raptured doesn’t resonate with us, the idea of the profound uncertainty of life certainly does.
Two colleagues were working; one was diagnosed with cancer, the other was not. Two candidates applied for a coveted job; one was chosen, the other was not. Two kids are making their way through high school; one becomes addicted to drugs, the other does not. Two couples are joined in marriage; one stays married, the other does not.
Our lives are filled with unexpected, often unexplainable events. Jesus says, in the midst of the unexpected, in the midst of uncertainty, be on the watch for God. Keep awake, because you do not know how or where God is going to show up in this situation.
Uncertainty is a scary, anxiety producing concept. But it’s one that we live with each and every day, no matter how well we try to control everything. Uncertainty and the unexpected, whether it is good or bad, will ultimately find a way in to remind us that we don’t have control over everything.
In an article for the Washington Post on Thanksgiving, pastor Diana Butler Bass wrote about the season of Advent: Advent recognizes a profound spiritual truth — that we need not fear the dark. Instead, wait there. Under that blue cope of heaven, alert for the signs of dawn. Watch. For you cannot rush the night.
Advent is not a time for getting a little piece of chocolate every day, although there’s never a reason not to have chocolate. Advent isn’t even a time of waiting for Christmas morning and the haul of presents under the tree.
Instead, in Advent, we wait together for the fulfillment of that promise of the first Christmas: We are waiting for light, for God to renew and heal the world, a promise that we understand to have been mysteriously embodied in a baby born in a manger.
In Advent, we acknowledge the brokenness of this world—our sin, individual, collective, and institutional, that keeps things from being the way they ought to be. Wars and violence, people who are starving in a country that has more than enough food, the way we look not to our neighbor, but to ourselves to judge if everything is ok.
These lists are always a little bit too easy for me to come up with—we don’t have to look very hard to know that things aren’t the way God intends. But it’s not just those things that we have some minor semblance of control over—it’s those uncertain things as well, that we can’t control: illness, accidents, addiction.
Advent is a time that lets us be honest about the pain and hurt that we both experience and cause. But it is also a time that invites us to share in the promise that God is, and will, make all things new. The promise we hear in the prophet Isaiah: Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
It’s easy to hear that promise and think it’s more naïve and schmaltzy than anything the Hallmark Channel could come up with this time of year. But Isaiah is no idealist. He knows how things are—this promise is preceded by his description of what has been happening in Israel: Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate.
It is in that moment, in the midst of desolation and heartache, that Isaiah offers his vision of God’s promise. We live in such a time where we have seen the first fruits of God’s promise in Christ, but we know—sometimes quite painfully—that we have not yet seen its fulfillment.
And in this confusing time, there is nothing for us to do but to follow the advice of Isaiah: Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Let us light candles and sing songs of longing and hope together. Let us be watchful and aware of how God is at work in this world. Let us, as Paul says, put on Jesus Christ, and see the face of God in our neighbor and in ourselves.
Because as uncertain and unexpected as life is—we hold that one thing is completely certain: God is at work in the world, and God will make all things new. Amen.