This sermon draws on the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the first Sunday in Advent Year B, particularly on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37
Preaching without a text is always an adventure. Sometimes what gets said “live and in person” doesn’t exactly match the text that the sermon was supposed to convey. This is especially true when the preacher doesn’t bring their “A Game” to the crossing of the center aisle. I think that I did a much better job of conveying these thoughts at the 10:30 service yesterday than I did at the 8:00. So for those of you who got up early… I beg your indulgence, and for a second chance to say what was on my heart.
Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent: Year B
November 27, 2011
The Very Rev. Andrew B. Jones
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church
It begins today! This is the first Sunday of Advent the beginning of a new church year. Today we change the Eucharistic Prayer that we use on Sunday mornings. We will shift to Year B in the Eucharistic Lectionary and begin to read primarily from the Gospel of Mark. Today we begin again the familiar yearly pattern of liturgy, the “work of the people” that reflects and shapes who we are as people of God.
Today is also the day that we begin our preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation. That might seem a strange thing to say this late in the calendar year. I think that Home Depot had Christmas Trees on display before Halloween this year. And the ads that we are seeing on television would have us believe that time to prepare for Christmas is running short. The world will tell us that we are almost too late! But the first Sunday of Advent is the day that the church begins to look forward to the coming of the Christ Child and we will spend the next four weeks preparing, and waiting.
Waiting for four weeks. When I was a kid, and the only thing I had to do to prepare for Christmas was to use magic marker (a Flair™ for those of you old enough to remember them), in the color that I had been assigned, to mark the things in the JC Penney Christmas Catalog that I wanted most… when that was all I needed to do to prepare – those four weeks seemed interminably long. Now that I am older those four weeks of waiting don’t seem like nearly enough time! I have so much to do. This being the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the weekend of the first Sunday of Advent we of course rearranged all of the furniture on the first floor of our house. So not only do I have to bring the Christmas Tree up from hibernation in the basement, I have to figure out a whole new place to put it. We need to find the Advent Wreath and our historic collection of Advent Calendars. We need find our mailing list, write cards, bake cookies, buy gifts, respond to invitations, and create the spread sheet that will tell us where we need to be, which family home we are to visit and when, during the week after December 25th! There is so much to do in only four weeks! There are too many expectations. There is too much pressure. There are too many “sacred” family traditions to honor… four weeks is not enough time.
Far too often we arrive at Christmas day grinding our teeth, exhausted, wishing that it were all over, and we realize that this season of preparation, of waiting, has done us in and we have missed the very thing that we were preparing for. We spend the last week of the season of Advent groaning under the pressure, longing for a moment of rest, some sense of peace, for a real connection with the people that we love and with the God who loves us enough to walk among us as one of us. And then when the day has come and gone we feel cheated, unchanged, disappointed. We just want a moment; a moment when we feel that sense of peace that passes all understanding, that sense of connection and communion with God, when we can experience the untainted hope that comes with the birth of a child, new life, new beginnings. Is that too much to ask? That’s not asking too much is it?
No it isn’t. We need and should have that sense of comfort, of well being, of being loved and loving unconditionally and without reserve. One of my prayers for this season is that we are all able to steward our resources, to guard our time and our energy, that we find some time to be quiet and to wait so that when we sit in front of the fire on Christmas Day, or when we raise our candles in the darkness and sing Silent Night on Christmas Eve, we all have the experience of Christ coming into our lives and filling us with hope and wonder. I don’t think that is too much to ask at all. In fact… if we take a look at the scriptures assigned for the First Sunday of Advent it becomes startlingly clear that we might not be asking for enough!
We are preparing, looking forward to the Feast of the Incarnation, for God made manifest, breaking into the world. When the people of Israel envisioned that day they saw something so radical and transformative that the heavens would be torn open, the mountains would quake and the nations would tremble. God’s adversaries would be defeated and justice, mercy and grace would triumph. The world would be restored and reconciled to God. In Mark’s Gospel we hear Jesus saying that when God breaks into the world the sun and the moon will go out, the stars will fall from the sky and the heavens will tremble. Jesus is using apocalyptic language, language that would have been familiar to his contemporaries, to describe the world being changed, turned upside down in a way that is beyond our ability to image. He uses metaphor to tell us that when God breaks into the world the things that we thought we knew will come to an end and a new reality will come to fruition.
Imagine a world where we all, every one of us, recognize that we are bound together as one. Imagine a world where those who have plenty, plenty of food, water, wealth, health care, power, or status and rank, share with those who do not have enough. Imagine a world where no one is marginalized, where no one is thought to be “disposable” and where everyone is nurtured and loved so that we all can become the people God created us to be. What if, as we wait, as we prepare for the Feast of the Incarnation, we allowed ourselves to ask, even to expect that God’s breaking into the world will have those kinds of results?
Here on the First Sunday of Advent we do an interesting thing with our sense of time. We sit in this interesting intersection of the past, present and future. We are looking back to the Christ who has come, some two thousand years ago as a defenseless child in a manger. We are proclaiming that Christ is coming to us now, here, in the present, every day of our lives. And we are looking forward to the day that Christ will come again and that the kingdom will come to fruition, fully, in great power and glory. We sit in this interesting intersection of time and proclaim “already but not yet.”
It is much easier to focus our attention on the already. It is much easier to look back at the manger and to focus our attention on the event that changed the world forever. It raises difficult questions for us when we look forward and see that the world has not finished changing, that there is more to do, and that Christ’s redemptive work is not complete. What is taking so long? Why wasn’t His coming once enough to reconcile all things to God? And if He is going to come again and finish that work… what will it look like? Will we be called to change? Change is a hard thing. And the kinds of changes that are described in the prophecies recorded in the book of Isaiah and in the Gospel of Mark are not easy to imagine or to contemplate. Those metaphors suggest more questions than they do answers. Change is hard and waiting for change, trying to prepare for change; change that we can’t predict or even imagine… It’s no wonder that we prefer to focus on the past, to gaze on the manger and want to linger there.
I don’t know what it will look like when God breaks into the world and the kingdom comes to full fruition. Will the sun and the moon stop shining? Will the stars drop from the sky as the mountains and the heavens treble and quake? I doubt it somehow. Those images and those metaphors don’t make a lot of sense to me. That isn’t how God works in my, in our experience. And here is where we come full circle this morning…
Our experience tells us that God effects change, God changes the world though people: by changing hearts and touching lives. God will change the world, and bring the kingdom to fruition though people just like you and me, through us! And so that moment of peace, that moment of connection, that sense of communion with God through a child born in a manger; that sense of being loved that comes through God’s willingness to put God’s very self into our hands and at our disposal, that connection with all of creation that comes from being children of a loving God… That clearly isn’t too much to ask. It is incredibly important. We should be asking for that! But… it is just the beginning.
The story of the incarnation, of God in the world, revealed, made manifest in a manger in Bethlehem doesn’t end on Christmas morning or even at the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas. It continues through the season of Epiphany when we will hear the stories of God being made manifest to the larger world, the world beyond the manger, beyond the walls of the stable, beyond the nation of Israel into which Jesus of Nazareth was born. We can hope and long, we can expect to be a part of that story too. We can look forward to God breaking into the world in a way that changes everything, that restores all righteousness, and which reconciles all people to God, and which makes all creation new, if, as we hope and long for that moment of connection, that sense of communion, that peace that comes from all understanding, we see it is the first step in our being able to bring those same gifts to the rest of the world.
In our Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer C describes the way that we should come to this table when we gather for communion. I think that these words should also guide the way that we approach this season of waiting and preparation. Saying this prayer and substituting the word “manger” for the word “table” might give us a whole new appreciation for the season of Advent and indeed, for the Feast of the Incarnation for which we prepare.
“Open our Eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the Grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one sprit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name” (BCP p. 371).