Sermon from Advent 2A, 8 Dec 2013
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
I find that there is a certain irony in the fact that the Christian New Year falls in the final month of the Gregorian calendar. Advent, this season of waiting, opens our church calendars every 12 months, yet for most of us it gets swallowed up by the “end-of-year” tasks, celebrations, trips of December. As a result, we have a difficult time connecting the meanings and movements of Advent t our call as Christian people.
I have a student at the high school who can best be described as a Christmas fanatic. She is new to our school this year and apparently did not get the memo that I’m considered the school Grinch, so she innocently wished me a Merry Christmas sometime in mid-October. I chided her about it not even being Halloween yet, and then we did the same dance a few weeks later in the “but it’s not even Thanksgiving yet” conversations. So this Monday she was extremely proud to march into my room, draw a Christmas tree on my board, and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Again, I smiled and shook my head, reminding her that we are in the midst of Advent and Christmas isn’t for a few more weeks.
Her jaw dropped and she simply replied, “But Mr! Advent isn’t real!”
Boom. What’s the response to that? I’m sure the sarcastic me said something about it being a Catholic school and needing extra theology homework, but truthfully it got me thinking, hard, about the significant of the Advent season. Why to we “wait” for Christ when he has already come to earth? What is the purpose of reenacting something that has already come and gone?
Those questions serve as a springboard, I think, to this text from S. Paul’s letter to the Romans. In 15:4, he writes that the Hebrew Scriptures were written for us, for our instruction, “that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” That’s the incredible foundation this text sits upon, that the Scriptures give us hope. Let that undergird these thoughts today.
When we look at the Israelites in the time before Christ, we seem them walking out a life of hope. Primarily their hope was for deliverance, first from Egypt, then from exile, then from Caesar. Waiting and hoping for their God to send the promised Messiah. And now, with Messiah here, this call to hope carries forward in a new, refreshing way and S. Paul walks us through it here in this text.
S. Paul tells us, firstly, that harmony with each other should be the fruit of our Christian faith (v. 5). Harmony, not division. It sounds a little like the imagery from the prophet Isaiah that we read this morning, of the wolf lying down with the lamb, doesn’t it? Although, to be fair, you’d have to do a whole lot of convincing to get me to stick my hand into a vipers den, even if I knew they wouldn’t get me. But this picture Isaiah paints is a beautiful image of the renewal of creation! And that’s the picture that S. Paul is calling us, the church, to model. Right Now. Christ has come. Christ has died and arisen. Live in harmony with one another.
This harmony is utterly important. Why? “That together with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (v.6) Literally, this idea of “one voice” means “one mouth.” Remember when S. Paul talks about us being a body with many parts? Yep, that’s this again. Not one voice like a choir singing in harmony, but literally like a body with one mouth saying one thing at a time. Saying what? Glory and praise to God, that’s what! That’s a powerful mandate. Are we really prepared to be that as the church? Are we comfortable with that? Don’t worry, we’ll get even more uncomfortable in this next verse.
“Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (v. 7) Christ welcomed the sinners, the prostitutes, the tax collectors. He welcomed us sinners into him, despite our brokenness and baggage, for our own good. S. Paul tells us to extend that to others too. In the gospels Christ is shown becoming a servant, God literally on earth serving humanity so that all of us, Jew and Gentile, might respond by worshipping and glorifying God. Our response is to serve, to welcome. That ought to have a profound impact upon every one of us. What do our homes look like if we welcome our neighbors? What do our churches look like if everyone can walk through the doors?
Christ coming as Messiah was not only about the promises God had made to his covenant people. Yes, truly, God was being faithful to his covenant! But Christ is about all people. S. Paul gives this flesh in verses 9-12 of the reading today, as he walks us through the Hebrew Scriptures to reveal how God foreshadows Christ’s role for all men and women.
v 9 – most likely paraphrases 2 Samuel, one of the historical books
v 10 – comes from Deuteronomy, one of the books of the law
v 11 – comes from the Psalms
v 12 – from our reading today from the prophet Isaiah
What’s incredible about this is that these four references cover all four sections of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is literally everywhere!
Israel’s covenant required them to be a blessing, both to God and to all of the nations. At times they gloriously honored this, but so often they failed. Sound familiar? How often has the church throughout history failed to be a blessing or, worse yet, become a curse? It would only take about 30 seconds to put together a pretty significant list of all of the sins of the church that we can think of, all of those moments where we as Christians fall down over, and over, and over again. And that is why the church calendar, and these moments like Advent, are so important.
Our history as humans is riddled with our repeated rejection of God. Our wanderings in the wilderness, our idols, our sin and pride. And yet God is all about calling us back to him, to our first love, to our baptismal vows. It is said that the church calendar is the practice “of rehearsing and actualizing the gospel story, which is the history of the triune God in the church.”1 . Rehearsing we get. The youth are going to be rehearsing for the Christmas pageant over the next few weeks. But it’s that second idea, the actualizing, that trips us up, because it requires some sort of action.
Advent isn’t just about waiting for the feast of Christ’s birth. The gospel stories tell us that the shepherds were told about Messiah so they went and worshipped. They tell us that these wise men from the East, men not part of the Israelite community, saw a star and went and worshipped. These groups walked out something, they acted on what they saw and heard.
For us, seeing the gospels actualized requires us to go out, tell and live these lives of worship, in harmony and love with each other. And seeing the gospel actualized in Advent means not simply waiting for something, but hoping and living like Christ will return too.
Personally, Advent happens to come at one of the toughest times of my year. I suffer with depression, as some of you know, and it gets worse when the days get shorter and the nights get longer. Mid-December is usually the time when it is dark when I get to work and it is dark when I leave work. Someone once described depression as like a rainy day in side of your head, and put it this way: Advent is usually full of more rainy days inside then it is sunny days. These days, when they come, make it difficult to see hope, and joy, and praise.
And for me, that simply underscores the real difficulties of the Advent season. In the midst of all of the brokenness of the world, of the illness and suffering, we hope and pray that God will relieve us of them. We’re waiting.
Scripture tells us that whole creation groans. It’s not just us! If creation is groaning and yearning for something, then the mandate to yearn and hope, especially here in the Advent season, surely falls to us. That’s what makes the Romans text so powerful too! S. Paul brings his own baggage to the table. Lest we forget, he’s a murderer, he suffers jail, torture, public mockery, the whole gamut. And what does he do? He praises God while imprisoned. That’s hope! “The Scriptures which were written to encourage us, that we might have hope.”
Advent also reminds us that Christ will come again in the future. But there is a big gulf between the now, where we sit today, and that not yet time when Christ returns and sets the world to rights. When that is, Scriptures tells us we cannot know. But we can say for certainty that the world will be plagued with brokenness and sin until then.
Waiting for Messiah was required of the Israelites. God promised to redeem them, but they had to be faithful in waiting through pain, loss and exile. They never knew when Messiah would come, yet they still were called to wait, and even when Messiah did come, it wasn’t in a way that they expected.
The same thing is required of us. We’re called to wait and hope, just like the Israelites did. But waiting isn’t a passive thing, and hope isn’t simply an emotional state. Hoping and waiting for the world to be set to rights. This hope, S. Paul says, glorifies God. That’s it. The end.
No part of Advent promises something extra-awesome at the end. Those of us struggling with some aspect of life will still be struggling with it on 25 December. Millions of Christians throughout history have waited and hoped faithfully, only to see Christmas after Christmas go by filled with sadness, with disappointment, with persecution, with illness.
You know, in my own moments of darkness I turn to Psalm 91, which tells me that
“You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
It never tells me that the terror, the arrow, the pestilence and the destruction won’t happen, only that I won’t fear them. This resonates all through S. Paul’s message to us today too. He’s not telling us that everything will be wonderful if we hope, but he is telling us the profound truth that the Scriptures encourage us, if we open up our hearts to God and let him in.
Advent, ultimately, is a foreshadowing of a time when fear and terror, suffering and brokenness will cease. But it’s not yet. And it’s not promised to us in our life time.
We hope for it. We yearn for it. And we pray with S. Paul:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology, p 165 ↩