Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Sharp Elbow to the Ribs
(a sermon for Advent I)

{Sermon preached Advent 1, November 27, 2011, St Christopher's by-the-Sea}

It’s become popular in recent years to complain about how very, very early the various retail stores – presumably fueled by their godless worship and pursuit of the almighty dollar – have begun decorating their stores for Christmas.  “But it’s not even Thanksgiving!” we say, with indignity.  We roll our eyes at the hedonism of our age.

And then, every year, we come to this Sunday, the one just after Thanksgiving, and in our turkey-drunk stupor we act totally surprised, “What??  You mean it is Advent already?  Why didn’t anybody say something?  Nobody told ME!  You mean it happened again?”

Yes.  Yes.  And yes.  It’s Advent already.  It happened again.  And a part of me laughs: even godless consumer capitalism saw it coming – even godless consumer capitalism tried to warn us – the very rocks were crying out.  Three months ago, while we were still buying swimsuits!  We mocked Noah as he built the boat and warned us about the flood.  Too much??

Now, I realize there’s a danger in making Black Friday sound semi-pious; I get that in no way does the consumer culture capture the true spirit of the season - it needs the church’s help for that - but it DID try to tell us: Sleeper, awake!  4 AM special!  Christmas is coming.
 
In any case, here we are again, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the first Sunday of Advent, one more time allegedly surprised by the impending coming of our Lord.

Happy Advent.

By the way, no one else is surprised.  But we are.  The people who proclaim each week, “Christ will come again.”  God’s sense of humor: his church.

Christ will come again.  The promise of Advent.  The promise of the whole Christian life: not that we will go up, says NT Wright, but that Christ will come down, make all things right, restore the whole earth; that heavenly city, the glorious New Jerusalem.

Or, if you prefer the imagery from Isaiah this morning, that God “would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at [God’s] presence.”

Christ will come again.

Ready or not, here he comes.

Good news on this front, by the way.  Did you know that because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, this is the single longest Advent you’ll ever get?  We may not have remembered; this Sunday may have surprised us, but there’s still time to prepare.  Advent is the season of preparation, and in Advent, as in life, you’ll never have more time to prepare for his coming than you have today.

In Advent, we prepare for Christ’s coming.

Now, if we allow ourselves a moment’s honesty, the fact that we are surprised by Advent every year suggests that preparing for Christ’s coming is not something that comes naturally to us.  This could be for any number of reasons:

Maybe we take his coming for granted.  Like we’re entitled to glory, the goodness of God.  Or, on the other end of things, maybe we’re in denial with respect to God’s glory.  We know too much about ourselves to believe that any good could come to Nazareth - or to us.  Maybe, somewhere along the spectrum between entitlement and guilt, it’s not that we don’t know it’s coming, but we’re disappointed when it does.  Call us the skeptics, but we’ve seen Christmases come and go and things can be good for a season but it’s a pretty big hole that we start from and by January 2nd everybody’s more or less as ordinary as when they started; we quickly forget whatever good came for a season.  Entitlement.  Guilt.  Disappointments of the past.  All of these things can make it hard to prepare.

And I don’t know about you, but when I feel guilt or disappointment coming, some days I’m tempted to just stay in bed.  Sleep it through.  Self-medicate.  Disconnect.

If you know what I’m talking about, if you've been there in that feeling, then you hear, maybe, the power of Jesus’ words when he says to friends this morning, “Keep awake.”

Keep awake. 

(Quick story: Sometimes it’s too late to keep awake.  I remember my own first communion - six years old on Christmas Eve.  I took my Advent first communion class, preparing for Christmas.  But that was back when midnight masses were still the norm and midnight hit me hard that night and I don’t remember much except an elbow in my side at the altar rail, just in time, as Dad put the host in my hands.  Some of us need the kind, strong words of encouragement - stay awake; and others of us need the sharp elbow.  Christ is coming!)

The arrival of change, the prospect of new creation, leaves even the most mature among us closing our eyes like small children, wishing the fears, our failures, and the future away. 

“Therefore, keep awake,” Jesus says.  “For you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”

So Christ is coming.  Our job is to prepare, and we have time to prepare. 

The only other point I want to make this morning is that to prepare for his coming is to commit to the hope that only God can bring.

To prepare for Christ is to prepare for hope of the God-can-bring kind.  How does one do that?  What does it look like to prepare for the coming of God? 

I wonder if you’ve noticed that the entire Christian year is present every time we celebrate the Eucharist.  Every season present to the liturgy.  Here’s what I mean by that... that on Christmas, the shepherds hear the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”  And at every Sunday’s Eucharist we sing the angels’ song: we sing the Gloria. 

Epiphany is the season in which God shows us more clearly who God is, most especially in Christ - that action roughly corresponds to the part of the service in which we read from Holy Scripture.  God telling the story again, so that we might know God more nearly.

Lent might be that time in the service wherein we commit ourselves to prayer for ourselves and the world, most especially the confession of our sins.  But also talking us all the way to Holy Week, as we gather around the table at the Last Supper: “this is my body, broken for you.”  And then, through Good Friday - on the cross, we learn the words that only the cross makes possible when, in the three-day mystery, we call God our Father.

Easter comes just a moment later: “Alleluia!  Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!"  That glorious A-word of the Christian faith.  Alleluia!  "Therefore let us keep the feast!” 

Pentecost might come at a couple of times - when we call on the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and wine and us, but also, and maybe most principally at the end of the service - the dismissal, which becomes a kind of paraphrase of the Great Commission: “Go in peace to love and serve that Lord!”, whereby we take on our calling to proclaim the Good News in word and deed by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

But where does all that leave Advent?  Just before Christmas - the Gloria.  I think that makes Advent the short prayer we say before all else, the collect of purity (join me as you find the words familiar): Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Advent, this season in which we ask God to help us prepare for the rest of what comes; to open our hearts; to cleanse them by the inspiration of God’s Spirit; so that - and this is the best part - we may perfectly love God and - listen to this - worthily magnify God’s holy Name.  Worthily magnify.  That's the dead give away that this prayer is for Advent.  Do those words sound familiar?  Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, both of them pregnant, Mary preparing for the coming of Jesus, Mary says this: My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

Mary’s calling, made our own, in Advent.  Magnify the Lord.  This is what we pray for in Advent - to be opened, cleansed, inspired by the Spirit, that we might know the “yes” of Mary to the angel; that we might make room for Mary's yes - magnifying the Lord, rejoicing in God, our Savior.  The angel who said to Mary that God sees you, loves you, would like to live in and with you, in order that the world might be saved through God’s Son.

And if that sounds vague to you - if you’re left wondering what that means for you and the next four weeks ahead, preparing this Advent, and if you’re thinking you don’t have any clear steps yet, and all that you know for sure is you’re going to pay more attention to Mary and her “yes” this time around - you’re more than good for the rest of the season, I think.

Happy Advent.

Amen.

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