Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2016 || First SUnday of Advent, Year A || Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
This First Sunday of Advent is New Year’s Day in the life of the church. We renew our annual procession through the liturgical seasons of the year from Advent to Christmas, Christmas to Epiphany, Epiphany to Lent, Lent to Easter, Easter to Pentecost (or “Ordinary time”) and then back again to Advent a year from now. The colors of the altar paraments will change with each season, as will the scriptural themes highlighting the many facets of what it means to be a Jesus follower. And this year, in the 3-year cycle we follow of appointed readings for each Sunday called the lectionary, we begin a steady diet of readings from the Gospel of Matthew, rather than from Luke, with whom we’ve spent the last liturgical year.
The beginning of each season reminds us that there is such comfort to be found in the familiar rhythms of our liturgical year, just as there is so much comfort in the familiar words and rhythms of our hymns and our prayers. They ground us and center us, nurture our very souls and give us strength for the journey, as we learn to live ever more faithfully into our call to follow Jesus.
It is not an easy call. It is not for the feint of heart. Because to choose to live as a Jesus follower is to choose to live in a radically different way than most people today choose to live. We are steeped in an ethos that honors independence and self-reliance, while the One we choose to follow models inter-dependence and reliance on God. The economy in which we live rewards ambition, competition, and survival of the fittest, while the One we choose to follow advocates humility, collaboration, and self-sacrifice. And while our social values promote the accumulation of status, power, and riches, the One we choose to follow commends dying to self, service to others, and repeatedly warns against the terrible perils of hoarding one’s wealth.
Sometimes it seems as if everything held in high-esteem by the world beyond these walls is flat-out denounced by Jesus, while so many of the teachings around which we organize our lives as his followers are the object of snarky remarks by an increasingly secular and cynical world: teachings like working for the common good instead of personal gain, about forgiving those who hurt us, about observing Sabbath time to worship God and to give thanks.
To choose to live as a Jesus follower is to choose to live in a radically different way than most people today choose to live. And never is this more painfully clear than during this season of Advent! Just as the word on the street is heralding a countdown to Christmas and preparing for the coming of Santa– encouraging us to spend money on things we don’t even need–the Word in our scripture is heralding a countdown to the end times and preparing for the coming of the Son of Man — warning us to turn away from the same conspicuous consumption that our culture is urging us towards.
“Cast aside the works of darkness,” St. Paul exhorts us, “and put on the armor of light.”
Advent is a time of faithful waiting, a time of not only anticipating and celebrating the coming of, God-with-us, Emmanuel, in the person of the baby Jesus –but a time of faithfully anticipating the unimaginable but promised time when it will happen again, “on a day and hour that no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.”
As Episcopalians, we don’t talk much about what Matthew calls “the end of the age” or about the “coming of the Son of Man.” Many of us may not even think we believe in the Second Coming; it sounds too much like the stuff of bad apocalyptic movies and hyped up novels about the rapture.
But when you really think about it, you realize that if we are faithfully waiting and working for violence to cease, for poverty to be eradicated, for hunger to be eliminated, for disease to be obliterated, for justice to be done and for love to conquer all then we are anticipating the day when Jesus comes again and God’s will is at last done on earth as it is in heaven. Whether we realize it or not, we are counting on the day when God will set all things right by restoring and reconciling all of creation to God’s original intent. Because then, and only then, will all those things we are waiting and working so hard for be fully realized.
In the meantime, as Jesus so urgently reminds us this morning, we are called not only to wait for that day but to prepare for it. And while we may prepare for Christmas by decorating, baking, shopping, and wrapping, we prepare for the day we will meet our Lord face to face by being fully awake to the world within us and to the world around us. We prepare for the day we will meet our Lord face to face by slowing down while the rest of the world speeds up around us, by taking inventory of our lives, our relationships, our hearts, and our souls…by accepting God’s forgiveness and giving thanks for it…and by turning back with new found freedom and joy, passion and commitment, to living as Jesus followers are called to live. In short, by casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armor of Light. Now that is Advent!
Of course, in this crazy culture that makes such an idol of our egos, who wants to take stock of his shortcomings or sins, her failures or flaws? When everyone else is ramping up for parties and eggnog, who wants to imagine themselves standing alone before God, or considering what such an encounter might reveal? But to choose to live as a Jesus follower is to choose to live in a radically different way than most people today choose to live.
To choose to live as a Jesus follower is to sign-on to a faith that asserts that sooner or later we will be held accountable for how we have lived our lives—how we’ve lived in relationship to God, to each other, and to all of God’s creation. To be sure, we will be judged with Divine love and mercy beyond our imagining—but we will be judged. So whether it happens when our entire world is completely transformed by that inconceivable moment when Jesus actually walks this earth again, or in the much more mundane inevitability of our own individual deaths— we will be held accountable. Whether God comes to us, or we go to God, God’s loving judgment will purge us of all that separates us from God’s Divine Love. God’s loving and merciful judgment will reveal –and heal– all of our brokenness.
The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that, “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience…”
Frightening because when we stand face to face with God’s all-powerful Love—our judgment may well be in the painful realization of just how much we have hurt the One who loved us into life itself. Our judgment may well be in suddenly seeing just how much we have disappointed this God of Divine Love, how much we’ve fallen short of God’s dream for us… how miserably we have failed to love God with all of our heart, and all of our mind, and all of our strength, or to have loved our neighbors as ourselves.
It could well be that in the brilliant Light of God’s Divine love we will no longer be able to avoid seeing the truth about ourselves and our lives with absolute clarity: All the things done and left undone, or as the Litany of Penitence in our prayer book says—all of our pride, hypocrisy and impatience; our self-indulgence, dishonesty and envy; our greed, indifference, and idolatry; our abuse of this planet, of our selves and of each other.
But when we do—when we face that judgment—we have the blessed assurance that the One we choose to follow, Jesus himself, will be there to remind us that we are already forgiven. The One we choose to follow will be there to embrace us and restore us. The One we choose to follow will be there to heal us and to love us into new life.
Wouldn’t that be divine? Wouldn’t it be divine to stand before God already healed of all brokenness, purged of all sin, restored to perfect wholeness, free from all that now binds us, bathed in the Light of God’s perfect Love? Wouldn’t that be…well, wouldn’t that be heavenly?
So I wonder what we’re waiting for? This morning’s gospel reminds us that we have the freedom to wake up and to prepare right now for the unimaginable day that none of us can foresee, when we will meet God face to face. We can choose right now to examine our lives, our relationships, our hearts and our souls. We can choose right now to take stock of all our broken places and to seek healing. We can choose this very day to return with newfound freedom and joy and passion and commitment to living our lives as Jesus calls us to live as his followers.
Advent is indeed a time of waiting, but we needn’t wait for the Second Coming to experience God’s forgiveness or to be healed and redeemed by God’s generous love! Now is the moment to wake from sleep, because as our gospel makes painfully clear, “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” and none of us knows when that will be.
So I invite you to cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light by anchoring yourself in the familiar words and rhythms of our hymns and our worship, so you don’t get tossed to and fro by the frantic machinations of the holiday season. Cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light by strengthening yourself with Word and Sacrament to gird against the siren call of conspicuous consumption. And cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light by insisting on Sabbath time in your life to prepare for Jesus, as well as for Santa.
This is Advent. Living into it is our call as Jesus followers. May we be richly blessed as we seek to respond faithfully, and may we share the blessings of our faith with others each step of the way. Amen.