Year A: The First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2013)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

There are many advantages to having a chance to sit down and discuss these texts outside of the worship service; chief among them, most likely, is the opportunity to engage the minds and hearts of all of us as listeners to an ancient story — one that, somehow, over many years and through the pens of many authors, manages to hold together with an amazing level of consistency. Therefore, a key question in coming to the discussion of these texts is, “What do you see as a common theme in each of these readings?

Of course, the answer to that question will sometimes be, “I’m not sure!” And that’s a good answer…we don’t want to be guilty of the perennial tendency of every answer to a children’s sermon question somehow ending up to be “God.”

One connection that suggests itself to my mind as I read the texts for this Sunday is the fact that there is an awful lot of action in these verses; one might say there’s a great deal of “going” and “coming” as this season of Advent commences.

Isaiah says, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord….” (v.3); the psalm invokes a joyous attitude with “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!'” (v.1) The Apostle Paul reminds the Roman Christians that the night is “far gone” and that the day is near — even day and night are active here! And, in the gospel lesson, Jesus is busy telling the disciples that they must all stay ready — no one knows when the Son of Man will come back and the kingdom of God will be inaugurated in full!

It can all seem a bit wearying, don’t you think? Kind of like the holidays themselves? As we approach Advent — which supposedly serves the purpose of helping us learn more about waiting and watching, rather than scurrying and hurrying — what can we learn from these ancient texts? Is there some method to the madness? Is there a message here for people who are always on the go (often, I’m afraid, to our detriment)?

Look carefully — for in the midst of the “busyness” there are places where peace and quiet break out. Can you find the “quiet” or “hopeful” phrases in each of these lessons, as well as the active, busy ones? They’re there, I suspect…and they are words of comfort and hope.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In our Gospel lesson we read, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That day?  What day?  When is that day?  What’s going to happen then?

Several years ago on Thanksgiving weekend my father told me about an incident late in the World War II, when his company spent a night in an abandoned village in Germany. The squad had bedded down in a large, two-story house. The officer had posted guards in the doorways. About 3:00 AM the guard at the front door walked away from his post, down a central hall to the back to get a light from Daddy, the other guard. Just as he reached the kitchen, a shell exploded in the doorway where he had been standing five seconds before. Only five seconds between life and death.

Truth be told, the question we face is not,” when will Jesus come back?” The question is, “how does the fact that none of us lives forever change our behavior?” The Scriptures continually remind us that one day God shall, as Isaiah puts it – “.  . . judge between nations and shall arbitrate for many people.”   In light of which we are reminded by Paul that “. . . it is now the moment for (us) to wake from sleep” and “put on the armor of light,” and “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus reminds us that “about that day and hour no one knows,” so we must “keep awake therefore,” because, “you do not know on what day your Lord is coming, “ and “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

In short, on this First Sunday in Advent, we are called upon to take our God and ourselves seriously. We are called upon to recognize that life can be snuffed out in an instant and to live accordingly.  We are to stay awake, to watch out for signs of God’s activity in the world.

This is a difficult thing to do in the midst of modern, secular, consumerist, Christmas.  After 2000 years, we’ve sort of stopped looking for Christ to come, and we’ve settled for a pale, weak, neon lit imitation. We schedule office Christmas parties and celebrate family dinners. We buy presents for our husbands and wives and children and significant others. We decorate our homes with lights and trees and ornaments. We send out holiday greeting cards to people over the country and we hope that our sanity and our bank account will hold out until New Year’s Day. The church’s plea during Advent  is that in the midst of all the “Holiday Hoopla” we will remember to look for Christ, to seek signs of his coming, to be alert for his presence “in, with and under” all the gifting and decorating and partying.

Sometimes in the midst of our very modern, secular, materialistic world it’s hard to find signs of life in an old faith. Sometimes it feels like God is either dead or sleeping.  This is not a new problem.  Isaiah preached for forty years to a people who mostly ignored him.  He preached in a world full of war, economic uncertainty, and political upheaval.  He continually balanced his prophecies of destruction with promises of hope, but the people ignored him because the promises of hope were so seldom fulfilled.

Many of us have for many years held onto a vision of a hopeful future, a future in which no children starve or fall victim to curable diseases, a future in which people lay aside their differences to worship a common God at a common altar, a future in which peace reigns, where military budgets are empty and schools and hospitals are fully funded, which is what I believe swords being beat into plowshares and spears into pruning forks really means.  And yet we wait, and we wait, and we seek to stay awake, and we seek to trust and hope and believe that God is coming; God is really coming. And we continue to look for signs that God is just around the corner.

Let me suggest that instead of looking for signs of Christ’s coming – our more important invitation is to be a sign of Christ’s coming; in our families, in our communities, in our world.  I am inviting us to a season of active waiting, of busy anticipation, of involved preparation, of participatory readiness.
As we enter this season of Advent, I invite each of us to not only see the signs, but also to be the signs.

1) Take five minutes every morning and make a Christmas list. Not a list of things to buy, or things to do, or things you want; but a list of blessings in your life, a list of people you love and who love you in spite of yourself, a list of the signs of God’s presence in your life. After you’ve made your list, pray a prayer of thanks for each thing on the list

2) Take another 10 minutes and read a chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. There are 24 days until Christmas and 28 chapters in Matthew, so you should be able to finish it. By Christmas morning, we will be reminded of why Jesus came and of what he did for us. By Christmas morning, we will be ready to celebrate with thankfulness and praise the Coming of the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us.

3) Pick out five names from our Christmas card list. Pick out five people that we have almost lost touch with, five people we seldom see or speak to. Call them up or write them a personal letter or send them an email and tell them how much they mean to us and why. Thank them for being a sign of God’s presence and love in our life.

4) Perform a totally new act of charity this year. Reach out and surprise someone with the unexpected love of God. Give a part of ourselves to someone in gratitude for the fact that Christ gave himself for us.

5) And finally, spend the last five minutes of every day asking God to come into our life in a fresh, new, unpredictable way this year.

But I must warn all of us to be careful. Watch out! God just might explode into our life at a time and in a way we would never expect!

Amen and amen.

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