December 2, 2012 – Advent 1, What Are You Waiting For?
To listen to a recording of this sermon, please click here: What Are You Waiting For
We have new colors today, and that is because we begin a new season in our life as a church. Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the New Year’s Day of the church, the first day in the cycle of our church year. And the way Christians begin the year is by waiting. The blue of the hangings and the vestments that we use in Advent symbolizes a lot of different things like royalty, and the blue of the heavens, but the main thing that it symbolizes is hope, because Advent is all about hope.
We have a beautiful Advent wreath here – we lit one candle today, for the first Sunday in Advent – and several of us made Advent wreaths during coffee hour last week so that we can light one candle each day of this week, to mark this time of waiting. But what are we waiting for? Well, that would depend on who you asked. Most children, and pretty much anyone in the advertising business would say that we are waiting for Christmas. Advent calendars have been totally embraced by the secular world, so that now if you buy an Advent calendar it probably marks the days of the month of December rather than the weeks of Advent, and each day as you open the window of the calendar (or eat a chocolate) you are more likely to find a bit of the poem “The Night Before Christmas” than you are to find a phrase or Bible reference that follows the story of the Nativity. For the world around us, Advent has just come to be another name for the shopping season that begins with Black Friday.
But clearly that has little or nothing to do with what we meant when we lit the first candle on the wreath this morning. We are looking forward to the celebration of Christmas – that’s why our Christmas Bazaar was so much fun yesterday – and as Christians we look forward to Christmas with even more excitement than other people because we know what the reality of Christmas is that the first Christmas was the most extravagantly gracious and outrageously wonderful thing that has ever happened in the universe, the moment that the eternal God came to live with us, as one of us, sharing our humanity in every way, so that we could share his divinity. And that is a festival worthy of any amount of celebration and merrymaking; it is a story worth any number of tellings and retellings. But the purpose of the season of Advent when it comes around every year is to remind us that we are not just waiting to celebrate a wonderful event that happened two thousand years ago and is over and done. We are waiting because there is something more. We are waiting for the conclusion of the story that began on that night in Bethlehem when a carpenter and his pregnant wife searched for a room to stay in. And Advent reminds us that we are waiting for something that is certainly going to happen, and might even happen today or tomorrow or the next day.
When I teach about the kingdom of God, one of the things I want to say is that the kingdom of God and eternal life are not just things we will find out about when we finish living in this world, basically hoping for the best and trying to be good people until our souls float up to heaven to be with God forever and our bodies rest peacefully in the grave. When Jesus was born – and birth is a decidedly real and physical and messy and painful way to arrive, as many of us know – he was born into this world to bring light and healing. He was born into the world to bring real life, not to tell us about an afterlife. And so I hope that one of the things I have taught is that as Christians we are bringers of the kingdom to this earth everyday, when we live lives of grace and forgiveness and kindness and compassion as Jesus did. We are called the Body of Christ because we are his hands and feet and eyes and ears in this world. Because his Spirit lives in us, through us his kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. We are all very imperfect raw materials, but in the hands of the great Carpenter we are his excellent workmanship, and by his grace our lives do show forth his goodness. And so the kingdom of God has already broken in upon this world.
But unless you are deaf and blind or live on a mountaintop as a hermit your whole life, it is very, very obvious that the kingdom of God has not yet come, not completely, and that is putting it mildly. We live in a world that is so wounded that we can’t watch television or read a newspaper without hearing about some horrific suffering and evil. We live in world that is so wounded we often aren’t even surprised by it all, by war or cruelty or murder. Sometimes it is not until we face evil up close and personal – when we or our children suffer some terrible injury or injustice – that we are forced to recognize it for what it is.
Advent asks us to open our eyes to the world around us where a lot of people still walk in darkness. Advent invites us to open our hearts to long for a world where those things will never happen again. Advent reminds us to keep hoping for those things the world desperately needs – justice, and peace, and cleansing, and restoration – because the promise of the child who came in humility is the promise of the Son of Man who will come on the clouds in power and great glory. It’s kind of a hard thing we are called to observe, when we set out to observe a holy Advent, because it calls us to be uncomfortable, to be unsatisfied, to grieve for all that is still so sick in the world around us, to weep for the people we see who hurt others to escape their own pain or who run after pleasures and lose themselves in the process. But at the same time Advent calls us to remember that Jesus is working among us even here, even now, and that he is working through us, and that he will surely bring real justice to this creation that he loves as his own flesh.
We read in the prophet Jeremiah today: “the days are coming when I will fulfill the promise I made….I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righeousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely.” That promise was fulfilled six hundred years later, on the first Christmas Day, when the Son of God was born of the virgin Mary. But the people of God are still waiting for the consummation of that promise, like a mother waiting for the birth of her child, or like a farmer waiting for the perfect ripening of his fields. The closer we are to Jesus, the more our hearts long for justice and righteousness to be executed in our world. The closer we draw to the Shepherd, the more we weep for the lost sheep all around us, and the brighter our desire burns for his coming, when we shall dwell securely.
Just like the small, bright flames of the candles we light each week, Advent shines the light of hope into our world. We of all people in this world can face the reality of sin and evil and suffering without despair, because we know that the true Light has shined into our darkness and that the darkness could not overcome him. We know that our Lord Jesus emptied himself to be born into the world and to share our human life, and we also know that he gave up his own life for us. We know that death and the grave were not powerful enough to hold him. And we know that he returned in the flesh to the side of the Father so that we, frail children of flesh that we are, might become his adopted brothers and sisters, beloved children of God.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that the whole creation waits with eager longing to be set free from its bondage to corruption and to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. That is the heart of Advent, that waiting with eager longing for the justice and righteousness that this world needs so desperately, holding tightly to the hope that broke into our world on a troubled night in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. And he continues to bring healing and strength and joy to us day by day, in the Eucharist, in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, in the beauty of his creation, and in the quiet of our hearts when we bring our sorrows and fears and hopes to him.