Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent December 02, 2018 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Knowledge may be power, but we’ve all endured “conversations” where the other person is just throwing information at us, things we might not want to hear, and it’s not even clear why they’re saying it. We want to ask, “Where is this going,” or “What do you want me to do,” or “What’s the point?” But to the other person, telling us is apparently really important, and in a spirit of Christian love, we listen on. Most of you have experienced this at some point, and it happens to clergy all the time, so not only can I sympathize, obviously I should also… apologize for my occasional rants and deep dives into arcane details. But hey, the line between those things and preaching isn’t always so clear. And I like to think I’m in good company.
The first three sentences Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel sound a bit like one of those “conversations.” You can almost see his eyes widening… and the disciples anxiously looking for a tactful way to leave. And it’s not even clear what they’re supposed to do. OK yes, Jesus does tell them “stand up and raise your heads,” but it doesn’t seem like he means that literally. What are they supposed to do about “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations”? Speaking of signs, it’s kind of like when you’re driving and you see a road sign like “falling rock” or “low flying aircraft” and you think, “How am I supposed to adjust my driving to compensate for that?”
And yet, to St. Luke, our response to “these things” is crucial. I think it’s interesting that since, St. Luke used St. Mark’s Gospel as a source in writing his own, we can look at the differences and get a sense of what was most important to each evangelist. St. Mark’s account goes on to talk about what will happen next after people see Jesus “coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” But for St. Luke, the point is not in what happens next, but in what happens before — namely, how we prepare for Jesus to return to our world. So to paint with a very broad brush, St. Mark’s Gospel is more apocalyptic, while St. Luke’s, which we’ll be hearing most Sundays for the next year, is more humanistic.
In that spirit, I should point out that this season of Advent is not just about preparing to celebrate Jesus’s historical arrival among us, on Christmas, and nor is Advent just about preparing to celebrate Jesus’s future arrival among us, his glorious Second Coming, but also, this is a season of looking with hope for Jesus’s present arrival in our lives, in our hearts and souls. Fortunately, not only does St. Luke go on to relay some helpful advice from Jesus on how to prepare, his advice is relevant to our preparation for all three of these arrivals.
Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” And it’s so very true that not only are these things unpleasant in and of themselves, they also inevitably diminish our awareness of the world around us, turning our attention inward. They render us less alert, thoughtful, and attentive, so that even if we did notice something important happening, our reaction likely would fall short of our best selves.
When it comes to celebrating Christmas, Jesus’s advice is simple enough to apply, for that celebration is familiar. Though earlier generations of clergy expected a certain level of drunkenness and even rowdiness from the congregation at Christmas Eve Midnight Masses, so we’ll see what happens this year. And at the other extreme, despite everything Scripture has to say about it, Jesus’s Second Coming is so far removed from our experience, the ultimate “black swan” event for which there can be no basis for comparison, that our preparation is really just to live the Godliest, most faithful lives we can and hope for the best.
So what about welcoming Jesus in our lives? We should always be watchful for Jesus, and prepared to respond. One critical thing to remember is that just as Jesus’s nativity was an event with global ramifications and his Second Coming “will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth,” so too should we be watchful Jesus not only in our own lives, but in the lives of others, even if they aren’t churchgoers.
The other night I felt cabin fever setting in so I went out after dinner to have a quiet drink. A lovely couple sat down next to me and the one who was closer, upon learning I’m a priest, opened up and started sharing religious experiences and questions. Sometimes when people find out I’m clergy the conversation becomes one of the ones I was complaining about at the beginning of this sermon, but not this time. I felt a great sense of privilege just to be entrusted with such deeply-held feelings and thoughts, and then to be invited to offer advice and encouragement. And of course, part of my response was an invitation to join us in church.
Sometimes that’s what it’s like when Jesus becomes manifest in someone else, and then in yourself. We don’t always recognize him, just as most people didn’t get it the first time he was with us, but a few people did point to him, support him, encourage, celebrate, and welcome him. Preparing for Jesus, and encountering Jesus, should bring out the best in us, and should bring our gifts to meet Jesus in the needs of our neighbors. While all of us have different gifts and therefore can serve Jesus by meeting different needs in different people, we all also have something in common. We all came to church today, all form part of a worshipping community.
Whether we’ve been coming for decades or just a little while, each of us at St. John’s enjoys the gift of being part of a healthy congregation. This is a gift that more and more people lack these days, and when they do, their lives suffer. Lack of true community breeds not only loneliness, which causes other problems, but also a diminished sense of innate self-worth. A lack of clear priorities breeds anxiety and confusion, often an inescapable sense of scarcity.
All of us, by virtue of our participation in the worship and mission of St. John’s, are prepared to offer the precious gift of life in Christ, and while we can and should be alert for opportunities to invite people into this life all the time, our invitations are particularly welcome this time of year. Superficially, it’s no different from recommending a restaurant or some piece of entertainment, but when we invite people into this life, we are reawakening them to the loving, transformational presence of Jesus. You’ll be welcoming them into a lifelong conversation that they’ll be glad to be a part of.