This sermon, given at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church December 1, 2013 is based on the readings for the First Sunday in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
What a great opportunity for the preacher, to be able to offer these instructions straight from the texts right here at the beginning of the sermon! Jesus speaks to us from our Gospel reading and says, “Keep awake!” Paul tells us that this is the time to awaken from our sleep… So no nodding off during the sermon this morning!
Paul says, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11). He wants us to wake up because we are about to begin something remarkable. It’s the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a new liturgical year. We begin our walk through the Gospel of Matthew today. The crèche is out. Today we will begin to fill it with animals and shepherds. We have blue on the altar. The Advent wreath is out and the first candle is lit. We are about to begin again.
Once again we will tell the story of a young woman who says “yes.” We will tell the story of the life to which she gives birth. And we will tell the story of the light that life brings into the world. We will tell the story of a child born in a manger, the story of a star leading the Maggi through the desert. We are about to begin again and Paul tells us that now is the time to awake from our sleep. Jesus tells us in Matthew’s Gospel to keep awake. We know that something truly wonderful is about to begin.
And so, just like we do every year in the church, we are going to begin this wonderful adventure, we are going to start this new season… by waiting.
Waiting. Here we are. The table is set, the scene is prepared, the stage is ready but we won’t hear the story about that miraculous birth for another month. We will hear lots of other stories, stories that help us to prepare for the story of Jesus’ birth. But that moment when the star comes to rest, when the light enters the world, when the moment to which all of history points and from which all of history flows… We are going to have to wait. Advent is about waiting. And waiting is an important thing.
Every year about this time people ask me why we can’t sing Christmas Carols during Advent. I tell them, “Well because it isn’t Christmas yet. We have wonderful Advent hymns and we will sing those. But we don’t sing Christmas carols or hymns until the season of Christmas which will begin on Christmas Eve.” When I say that people often look at me like they are being punished, it’s like I am withholding something from them that should already be theirs. But there is a real importance, a real value to the waiting that we are about to begin.
While Jesus came some two thousand years ago, and gave us a sense of “already” we are still a church of the “not yet.” Listen to what the Prophet Isaiah says that we are waiting for:
“For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:3b-4).
We are waiting. We have been waiting since way before Jesus’ time. We have been waiting for a long time for the world to be made new according to God’s vision and dream for creation. We have been waiting for a long time for that reality and that truth to be ushered in and for God’s justice, compassion, and God’s light to reign in all of the world.
That is our experience of life. That’s what we know. We are waiting. So we spend the season of Advent acknowledging that it is so. Jesus has come once and has ushered in the “already,” but we are still living in the “not yet.” We are still waiting.
That’s an important thing for us to acknowledge. It is also important for us to acknowledge how long we have been waiting because this kind of waiting can really grind you down. When we have been waiting this long our attention can begin to drift, our focus becomes a little fuzzy, we might even begin to fall asleep. The danger is even greater when we don’t know how much longer we are going to have to wait.
We don’t know how long we will have to wait. Jesus is pretty clear:
“Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
When we have been waiting for something for this long, and we don’t have any idea when it will actually come… there is a real danger that we will begin to settle for the “already” and stop looking towards, hoping for, and working to realize the “not yet.” That would be a real tragedy.
So in this moment Paul is telling us to wake up, to fix our attention, to sharpen our focus, and, while we are living with the joy of the already, to keep watching, waiting, working, and striving for that which has yet to be realized.
OK. Big picture, cosmic metaphors… We are waiting, longing for Jesus to come again and for the whole world to be changed. Let’s bring it a little closer to home.
There is another waiting and longing that we all experience and which we need to acknowledge this morning. We are beginning again this morning and we are acknowledging that we are still waiting. It is also true that some of us here today have experienced this “beginning again” quite a few times… Year after year Advent arrives, Christmas comes and goes, and we are still waiting; waiting for Christ to be born in us in a way that transforms us and changes our lives.
We may have had a taste. We may have experienced some of that new birth. On occasion we may feel that we have made a lot of progress on the journey towards a life in Christ… But we have to acknowledge, and we don’t have to dig very deep to know that this is true… that there is a lot of “not yet” still within us.
Jesus and Paul are both urging us to keep awake because when we have been waiting this long, and we don’t know how much longer we will have to wait there is a danger that our focus will attention will drift, that our focus will become fuzzy, that we might even fall asleep… And there is the danger that we will turn our attention to other things and focus our sights on other, nearer horizons.
It isn’t easy to wait. And it is especially difficult to wait alone in the dark with no company other than our selves. It is not easy to wait, hurting, broken and longing, for something that will make us whole. When we have been waiting this long there is the danger that we will begin to chase after “not yets;” shadows and fantasies; things that will never make us whole and which, at best, will only distract us from the vigil that we sit.
This is a season when we are particularly susceptible to the temptation to settle for an “already” that will never help us to achieve the “not yet” for which we long. Black Friday become Black Thursday and stretches into Cyber Monday. Endless to do lists, thing after thing, task after task, the busyness that we experience this time of year don’t really address the longing. They don’t give us light and life. They drag us down and make us forget who we really are so that we end up replacing our Facebook picture with a picture of the Grinch! The endless shopping and to do lists may in fact be nothing more than a diversion from the acknowledgment that, despite the distance traveled, the time that has passed, the several new beginnings… we are in fact still waiting. And if that is the way that we spend Advent, busily avoiding the truth, then when it is all over, when we finally stop shopping, stop doing, when Christmas has come and gone, we are likely to find that we are still… waiting.
We need to spend this season waiting and acknowledging that we are waiting. We need to hear Paul tell us in the Letter to the Romans:
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22,23).
We need to acknowledge that there is a lot of “not yet,” yet to go. Only then, when we have come to that realization, can we look back at the “already” and realize the comfort, the support, the light, the life and the warmth that lies there for us in that manger.
It is a difficult and strange place to stand, with one foot in the past and one foot in the future, and to think of the gap between the two as the present in which we live. So, make sure that you “mind the gap” this Advent.
That’s where we are… waiting. It’s not a punishment or a withholding of something that is already ours. We are waiting intentionally trying to acknowledge and embrace that uncomfortable gap space that we inhabit where we have no choice but to acknowledge our need and our dependence on God alone. We wait in hope and thanksgiving for the moment when Christ will be born into the world and into us.