A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, and Luke 21:25-36.
Listen HERE to a more informal version of the sermon offered at the 6 p.m. Eucharist.
Today we begin the season of Advent, this season of waiting and watching. We can see that something has shifted: The symbols are all around us. The purple in some ways symbolizes the kingship of Christ, as purple in the early Church was associated with royalty. But the purple also reminds us ever-so-slightly of repentance. And even though many have argued that this is NOT a season for repentance, given the excesses of our culture and the full-speed-ahead pace all around us, I wonder if we aren’t called at least just a bit, to repent—to turn from all those things that would lead un away from God. The Advent wreath is another symbol of the season, as we watch and wait the gradual increase of light each week, it helps us watch and wait spiritually. Those who keep Advent Calendars open one window or door each day– another practice of focused waiting and watching. And finally, the scripture lessons the Church gives us for this First Sunday of Advent remind us that a part of being a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, is to watch, and wait, and prepare. But the question might well be asked: for WHAT are we waiting? For WHAT are we on the watch?
It is traditional during Advent to talk about the two aspects of waiting and watching for the Lord. It’s a sort of two-track season, and we travel both tracks at the same time. One track has to do with our re-telling the story of the coming of a Messiah, the one who was born in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth. But the second track has to do with the Second and Final coming of Jesus, that final return that polite Episcopalians don’t talk about quite so much, but it’s written about in the prophetic scriptures and especially in the Revelation to John.
But the scriptures also point to a third way in which Jesus asks us to watch and be ready. Not looking at the past, and not focusing so much on the distant future, but being still and aware right where we are. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God as right here, right now. “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” he says. And again, he says, “The kingdom of God is very near you.”
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you!” Jesus invited apostles, disciples, strangers, friends and enemies, to see the kingdom of God that was already around them. And that’s his invitation to us.
Learn from the fig tree, Jesus says. “From the fig tree learn the lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer in near. So also, Jesus says, when you see these things taken place you know that the Son of Man is near.”
That other day will come, when the Son of Man parts the clouds and the angels gather up the elect. But Jesus tells us, “don’t spend your time looking for signs or clues. Instead, look at what’s right before you.” Jesus invites us to watch for the kingdom of God’s presence all around us. Not just in the re-telling of the Bible stories. Not just in the waiting for the final coming of Jesus. But right now, right here, in these in-between times.
The kingdom of God is in the midst of you, Jesus says. It is for us to notice. To watch. To look, to see, to taste, to smell and to feel.
How do we spot the kingdom of God? There are several clues. The kingdom of God is among us when we see acts of mercy. Our world talks a lot about justice, but when we’re on the receiving end, which of us really wants justice? But when we are shown a kindness that we did nothing to deserve, when we are given a gift that we did not earn or expect, when the hungry are filled with good things and the lowly have been looked upon with favor. The kingdom of God is in our midst.
The kingdom of God is among us when we see acts of forgiveness. Forgetting may be impossible, but through the love of Jesus Christ, there is such a possibility as forgiveness. Even when we can’t bring ourselves to forgive, we can pray that Christ might forgive on our behalf and move us toward the day when we, too, can forgive even as we have been forgiven. When we say we’re sorry, and someone else looks at us with a convincing smile and says, “It’s ok,” the kingdom of God is in our midst.
And the kingdom of God is among us when we see acts of love. There are still those people in the world who put others ahead of themselves. Sometimes they are parents. Sometimes they are children. Sometimes they are friends. Love happens when we throw out all of the planning, the percentage-based giving, the calculating, the expecting a return— and we simply love for loves’ sake. When we love like God loves— God’s kingdom is in our midst.
Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of this first coming of Christ and the second coming, but also of the one that happens here, in-between. He wrote:
We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth . . . In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, … The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; . . . Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation. . . .Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.
Today at the Sung Eucharist the choir sings one of my favorite anthems. “E’en so, Lord Jesus,” based on Revelation 22. I remember the first time I heard it: I was in seminary and it was my first semester. I had signed up for too many classes and had gotten involved in too many other things and was completely overwhelmed. Relationships seemed to be falling apart. I had no idea whether I should be aiming for ordination or not. I wanted Jesus to come, alright, and I wanted him to come quickly. I wanted that semester to end. I wanted my depression and confusion to end. I wanted change of some kind and in some ways, I wished the world I was experiencing might end and a new world begin. And about this time of the year, I heard that anthem. A recurring part of the hymn sings, “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more; They need no light nor lamp nor sun, For Christ will be their All!” After hearing that anthem, after praying those words, it was as though something had shifted. There was a new sense that, one day, somehow, Christ would be “my all,” and that would be enough. It was enough now to hope for. It would one day be enough to experience.
That Christ might “be our all” is what Jesus asks, invites and promises. May Jesus quickly come, and may Christ become our All.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.