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Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent
December 03, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Life is always complicated, but this time of year is almost obscene with contradiction. We hear that it’s a time to be grateful for what we have, and we’re urged to spend and buy and hoard like our lives depend on it. We’re prompted to savor quiet moments, and invited to attend myriad events. We’re encouraged to appreciate home life and to travel on busy highways. This time of year feels like a time to do less, and more. Needless to say, even just on the individual level, we can’t do it all.
That’s all hard enough, but then we have to contend with the unsettling truth that the contradictions we endure in our own lives are a symptom of the disorder, the dysfunction, the brokenness of the world. We may scowl when we see stores put out Christmas decorations in October, but so-called “Christmas Creep” is merely a tiny symptom of the greed that is endemic in our society, greed that causes real suffering for millions of people, and damages all of our souls.
Much the same thing was happening in Jesus’s day. Roman greed led to violent conquest, but also to the corruption of those formerly independent lands. The people felt overwhelmed, and powerless. Some figured, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. But many more stayed faithful and looked with desperate hope to the God who had liberated them from political and spiritual oppression in ages past. Jesus spoke to that faithful majority, drawing on the imagery from the ancient prophetic tradition that made sense of suffering, and the newer tradition of apocalyptic literature that promised God’s intervention to end the suffering. The images that sound weird and scary to us come from those traditions, and they would have sounded familiar and encouraging to Jesus’s original audience.
Merely resisting the corrupting and distracting influences of the world is tiring. Making progress against them seems overwhelming. So why does Jesus tell us to keep awake, constantly, and indefinitely? Doesn’t he know what a toll sleep deprivation takes on the body? Wouldn’t he rather find us cheerful and well-rested, than cranky and groggy? Seriously, though, why would he tell us to do something impossible? If he loves us so much, why is he setting us up to fail?
Saint Paul offers the key insight that while our challenges are vast, so are God’s gifts and blessings. In every way, we have been enriched by Jesus. We are not lacking in any spiritual gift. So much so that we can accomplish great things. We can do the impossible. But only if we do it together.
God’s gifts are abundant, but they are scattered. It is like someone with a large household who all do different jobs to make the house ready, and a doorkeeper to keep watch. Everyone has talents, though no individual has them all, or even enough of them to go it alone. There’s no point in preparing the house if no one will open the door, and there’s no point in opening the door if the house isn’t prepared. And so if we are to accomplish anything, if we are even to live, in any meaningful sense of the word, we have to work together. We have to get over our disputes and divisions. This, of course, is easier said than done.
But it’s important to God that we come together. People sometimes get mad at me when I insist that they should make coming to church every Sunday a priority, but the truth is there’s no substitute for being here, and the fact that we all bring something different means that it’s important for each one of us to be present.
Being together with God isn’t just good for us as individuals, though research shows a wealth of benefits. And it’s not just about accomplishing good works, as important as they are. Jesus is talking about a complete re-ordering of the world, a revolutionary reconciliation between God and humanity, an assertion of grace that will usher in heaven on earth.
While this transformation is spectacularly supernatural, the way Jesus says it will play out is elegantly familiar. Using the same Greek word that describes a mother hen gently gathering her brood under her wings, Jesus promises that God will gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. The re-creation of the universe starts when we come together.
That’s why the Church keeps Advent. This weird little season full of contradictions reflects our lives as they are, pulled in different directions, often confused, never having enough time or attention. While being emotionally honest about that reality, the Church points beyond it, to the supernatural solution of Christ’s return to Earth in glory, and to our immediate response.
Advent is the only season of the Church year so focused on how we use our time that we use a piece of liturgical hardware, the Advent wreath, to mark its passage. Those candles are not mere decoration, but a steady, quiet reminder to think hard about how we spend our time. Just like with our money, the way we use our time reveals far more about who we are than anything we might say.
The world will always try to confuse, distract, and control us. Sometimes with an agenda, sometimes as mere chaos. So I urge you to think for yourselves about what matters to you and then spend your time accordingly. If your schedule does not match your values or your identity, then it’s time to change how you use time. Push back against the world by structuring your life according to God’s enduring values of love, compassion, and grace, and you will find you are already gathered and ready for God’s joyful return.
This is how we do the impossible: we do it together. Each of us as individuals will wake and sleep, but the Church’s watch is indeed constant. At every moment of every day, somewhere, Christians are awake, watching, praying, serving. The simple, quiet, yet radical choice to accept Jesus’s invitation, to focus our minds, to gather our selves, changes the world, lightens the darkness, makes the whole creation new.