Sunday, December 3, 2017

I Advent

December 3, 2017

1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37

+ In case you haven’t noticed, it is the first Sunday of Advent. It is a beautiful time in the Church, and here at St. Stephen’s. This morning, we have the beautiful Sarum blue frontal on the altar made by Gin Templeton.  I get to wear the beautiful blue vestments.  We have the first candle lit on the Advent wreath.
It is a time in which we, as the Church, turn our attention, just like the rest of the world, toward Christmas.

But…we need to be clear: it is not Christmas yet for us Christians. Christmas starts on Christmas eve, on the evening of December 24.

For now, we are in this almost limbo-like season of Advent.  All the major Church feast days—namely Christmas and Easter—are preceded by a time of preparation.

Before Easter, we go through the season of Lent—a time for us to collect our thoughts, prepare spiritually for the glorious mystery of the Resurrection.

Advent of course is similar.  We go through Advent as a way of preparing, spiritually,  for Christmas, for the birth of Jesus.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that Advent is as much of a penitential time—a time in which we should spend time fasting and pondering about our place in life—as Lent is, to some extent.

In this way, I think the Church year reflects our own lives in many ways.  In our lives, we go through periods of fasting and feasting.  We have our lean times and we have our prosperous times.

And with the latest Tax Bill just passed by Congress on Saturday morning, it looks there are lean times coming for many people.  An aside about this Tax Bill: this is one of the most un-Christians I have seen recently by our government (and there have been a lot in this past year). It is absolutely appalling.  

But, my hope is that it will all somehow balance out in the end.  Because there is a balance to our lives in the world and there is a balance, as well, to our church lives.  We will feast—as we do on Christmas and on Easter—but first we must fast, as we do during Advent and Lent.

Do you ever notice how, when you know you’re going out to eat with friends at a nice restaurant, you cut back on your food during the day?  You maybe eat a little less at breakfast and only a very light lunch.  Or if you’re like me, you just don’t eat at all.  You avoid snacking between meals, just so you can truly enjoy the supper that night (even if you are a bit lightheaded) .

That is what Advent is like. We know this joyous event is coming, but to truly enjoy it, we need to hold back a bit now.  

Advent then is also a time of deep anticipation.  And in that way, I think is represents our own spiritual lives in a way other times of the church year don’t.  We are, after all, a people anticipating something.


But what?

Well, our scriptures give us a clue. But what they talk about isn’t something that we should necessarily welcome with joy.

In our reading from Isaiah this morning, we find the prophet saying to God,

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil--
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

That doesn’t sound like a pleasant day to be anticipating. Even Jesus, echoing Isaiah, says in our Gospel reading:  In those days,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. 
Well, that’s maybe a bit better, but it’s still pretty foreboding.

However, it doesn’t need to be all that foreboding.  Essentially, all of this is talk about “the day of the Lord” or the day when the Son of Man will come in the clouds” is really  all about waiting for God, or for God’s Messiah.

It is all about God breaking through to us.

That is what Advent (and Christmas) is all about.

God breaking through to us.

God coming to us where are we are.

God cutting through the darkness of our lives, with a glorious light.

For the Jews before Jesus’ time, waiting like we are, for the Messiah, they had specific ideas of what this Messiah would do. Oppressed as they were by a foreign government—the Romans—with an even more foreign religion—paganism—, they expected someone to come to them and take up a sword. This Messiah would drive away these foreign influences and allow them, as a people, to rise up and gain their rightful place. And for those hearing the prophet Isaiah, the God who came in glory on that day would strike down the sinful, but also raise up those who were sorry.

The fact is, as we all know by now,  God doesn’t work according to our human plans.

God isn’t Santa Claus.

We can’t control God or make God do what we want.

And if we try, let me tell you, we will be deeply disappointed.

The Messiah that came to the people of Jesus’ day—and to us—was no solider.  There was no sword in Jesus’ hand. The “Son of Man” that came to them—and to us--was a baby, a child who was destined to suffer, just as we suffer to some extent, and to die, as we all must die.

But, what we are reminded of is that Jesus will come again.

It is about what happened then, and what will happen. This time of Advent is a time of attentiveness to the past, the present, and the future.

Attentiveness is the key word.
 Actually, in our Gospel reading for today, we get a different way of stating it.  We get a kind of verbal alarm clock.  And we hear it in two different ways:

“Keep alert.”

“Keep awake.”

Jesus says it just those two ways in our reading from Mark: It seems simple enough.

“Keep alert” and “keep awake.”

Or to put it more bluntly, “Wake up!”

But is it that simple?

Our job as Christians is sometimes no more than this.  It is simply a matter of staying awake, of being attentive, of being alert, of not being lazy.  Our lives as Christians are sometimes simply responses to being spiritually alert.  

For those of us who are tired, who are worn down by life, who spiritually or emotionally fatigued, our sluggishness sometimes manifests itself in our spiritual life and in our relationship with others.  When we become impatient in our watching, we sometimes forget what it is we are watching for.  We sometimes, in fatigue, fail to see.

For us, that “something” that we are waiting for, that we are keeping alert for, is none other than that glorious “day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that we hear St. Paul talk about in his epistle this morning.  That glorious day of God breaking through to us comes when, in our attentiveness, we see the rays of the light breaking through to us in our tiredness and in our fatigue.

It breaks through to us in various ways.  We, who are in this sometimes foggy present moment, peering forward, sometimes have this moments of wonderful spiritual clarity. Those moments are truly being alert—of being spiritually awake.  Sometimes we have it right here, in church, when we gather together.

I have shared with each of you at times when those moments sometimes come to me. There are those moments when we can say, without a doubt: Yes, God exists!

But, more than that. It is the moments when we say, God is real.

God is near.

God knows me.

God loves me.

And, in that wonderful moment, in that holy moment, the world about us blossoms!

This is what it means to be awake, to not be lazy.

See, the day the prophet talks about as a day of fear and trembling is only a day of fear and trembling if we aren’t awake. For those of us who are awake, who truly see with our spiritual eyes, it is a glorious day. For us, we see that God is our Parent. Or as Isaiah says,

 O Lord, you are our Father;

We are God’s fully loved and fully accepted children.  And then Isaiah goes on to say that

we are the clay, and you are our potter; 
we are all the work of your hand.

Certainly, in a very real sense, today—this First Sunday of Advent— is a day in which we realize this fact.

Advent is a time for us to allow God to form us and make us in God’s image. It is a time for us to maybe be kneaded and squeezed, but, through it all, we are being formed into something beautiful.

The rays of that glorious day when God breaks through to us is truly a glorious day!

In this beautiful Sarum blue Advent season, we are reminded that the day of God’s reaching out to us is truly about dawn upon us.  The rays of the bright sun-lit dawn are already starting to lighten the darkness of our lives.  We realize, in this moment, that, despite all that has happened, despite the disappointments, despite the losses, despite the pain each of us has had to bear, the ray of that glorious Light breaks through to us in that darkness and somehow, makes it all better.

But this is doesn’t happen in an instant.  Our job as Christians is somewhat basic.  I’m not saying it’s easy.  But I am saying that it is basic.

Our job, as Christians, especially in this Advent time, is to be alert.

To be awake.

Spiritually and emotionally.

And, in being alert, we must see clearly.

We cannot, when that Day of Christ dawns, be found to lazy and sloughing.

Rather, when that Day of our Lord Jesus dawns, we should greet it joyfully, with bright eyes and a clear mind.  We should run toward that dawn as we never have before in our lives.  We should let the joy within us—the joy we have hid, we have tried to kill—the joy we have not allowed ourselves to feel—come pouring forth on that glorious day.

And in that moment, all those miserable things we have been dealt—all that loss, all that failure, all that unfairness—will dissipate like a bad dream on awakening.

“Keep alert,” Jesus says to us.

“Keep awake.”

It’s almost time.  Keep awake because that “something” you have been longing for all your spiritual life is about to happen.  It is about to break through into our lives.  

And it is going to be glorious.

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