Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Nov. 28, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Nov 28, 2021 in Advent, Sermons

The First Sunday of Advent

Nov. 28, 2021

This first week in Advent begins our season of waiting and anticipation of the coming of Christ, and rather than start at the beginning and work our way through a chronology, we begin this season with Jesus in his last days in Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion. He is teaching at the Temple, describing apocalyptic signs to expect before the second coming. We will reverse our way through Advent from these final days to the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth as they share their mutual joy in the two babies they carry who will change our world. Apocalyptic readings frustrate those who like scripture to sound perfectly rational and altogether possible, and Episcopalians aren’t known for watching the sky for signs or a Christ-bearing cloud. Yet the second coming of Christ in triumph is being promised here, and may be exactly the right place for us to begin looking towards that first one in Bethlehem. We hear the prophet Jeremiah say ‘the days are surely coming…’ when God will make good on the promise of saving them through one who will bring justice and righteousness, and people will live in safety. My ears hear this in anticipation of the Messiah’s birth, but I wonder how Jesus’ followers understood it.

Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven coming even before their generation died, that they would see the Son of Man returning themselves. He paints a picture and the signs are fearsome! The sea will roar, the sun, moon and stars will be reordered, the heavens shaken, so they’d best be on guard and be prepared—it’s coming soon. Although we are loathe to say so, it sounds like Jesus was wrong about that. Theologians and preachers have multiple explanatory workarounds; bad translation, not what he really meant, he was speaking in metaphor, being mystical, he meant in God’s time zone, etc. Given ambiguity and we reach for sensible certainty! Which is why the church in her wisdom assigned a whole season devoted to spiritual waiting and preparing our hearts. We don’t like unsolved problems or to defend a faith which makes us sound foolish. The psalmist says; “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; my God, I put my trust in you; let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.”

Jesus’ return was not as close at hand as they heard, and now after 2000+ years and plenty of near-apocalyptic signs we have stopped looking up in anticipation of “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” This frustrates us, perhaps more than our forebears; we are accustomed to getting answers as fast as Alexa can ask Google or we can find on our phones. If we’re waiting, it means our device is outdated or we didn’t work long enough hours to get it all done. Let’s stop and take a deep Advent breath here. And another. In Advent we honor the waiting. We pause after a scripture reading to let it sink in a bit, we mark the weeks by moving around the wreath in this sacred place, we light Advent candles at home, one each week, until the time comes for the Christ candle. Children open windows in their Advent calendars not in a race to the end, but to pause and enjoy the moment, picture, scripture passage (or the chocolate) each day. Many generations have ‘passed away’ before ours. Do we live with anticipation and wonder? Can we even entertain the possibility of what Jesus spoke of, and does the answer matter? Instead of reaching for the nearest answer we are invited holy Advent waiting, even if we don’t exactly know how long or for precisely what.

I imagine those who heard Jesus first hand or from his disciples growing confused, arguing about what he meant, if he was really who they thought he was, or if they’d missed it somehow. As some of them began dying the questions became increasingly difficult to answer. This is what Paul writes to the church in Thessaloniki. They struggle with waiting and the lack of definitive future. Paul reassures them and doesn’t deny their fears or feelings, their grief and frustration. He does not however countenance loss of hope as they wait. He prays for the restoration of whatever is lacking in their faith, and that Christ increase their love for each other and for all, just as they are loved. He reinforces the reason for waiting in hope praying God may strengthen their faith to prepare for this promised return. 

They are not waiting for a time certain, like when winning lottery numbers are announced, nor are are they waiting for that which may or may not occur, like rain in August. They (and we) wait in hope for what is just beyond imagination and divinely promised. The fact that we do wait says there is something to anticipate, something not yet here, not fully known but which we believe is coming. Do you remember seeing a present under the tree with your name on it, and not knowing what it could be? (This was pre-Amazon wish list.) You got to wonder about it, imagine possibilities, maybe what you hoped it was would change as you waited. Even if you didn’t know who it was from, you enjoyed the feeling that someone thought of you and cared. What do we imagine the return of Christ would be like? What is the justice, righteousness, and peace you most long for? Last Sunday a piece of it sprang to life as we came together celebrating the Confirmation and Reception of people we love and reaffirmed our baptisms. What will our Advent waiting bring to us? As we hear the stories advance week by week we will still hear of turmoil and promise, and we will listen through the ancient voices of those who waited, some with dread and some with hope. I pray we don’t allow the fears and worry of our own lives to eclipse the hope of our waiting.

Earlier I asked if Jesus could have been wrong—an absurd question for a priest to ask just weeks before Christmas, and yet we are a people who risk the questions even when uncomfortable. It’s good to be still and wait with them, feel them, turn them over in your mind. Too often difficult questions or feelings make us run to the safety of quick simplistic answers. Sit. Stay. Feel. Wait. Hope. Advent is our spiritual GPS recommending the longer less efficient way home by the more beautiful rewarding route. The fastest highway or commuter lane is not the best way this time.

We travel the path to Bethlehem every year, and this time I am much more aware that the route is different every year; the questions, the scenery, which scriptures we hear in new ways, what worries us, and what delights us – they are ancient and new at once. As Christians we know that God is with us always, that God comes to us again and again in the body and blood of Christ and in being his heart and hands. God comes in the Spirit; wild, surprising, mystical, and God comes in the wholeness of the most loving Creator and source of life. Still, we wait. We wait because we also believe in a God of what is unknowable, and yet to come.

Early Christians were also early multitaskers, not waiting idly but working to live as disciples of Jesus, just as we do. Renewing our baptismal vows last week reminded us that we do these things in faithfulness, not expecting to fix all things or save the world. We take up striving for justice and peace, showing compassion and forgiveness, being with those who struggle, who hurt, who are dying, afraid, lost, or alone. We endeavor to illuminate Christ’s love in the world around us not because we can fix it all but because his resurrection changed the world, and us too. To believe and trust Jesus’ promises would seem an impossible thing, if we didn’t already know this. Once again we take up our Advent waiting in earnest, aided by living out one act of love, courage, compassion, forgiveness, or justice at a time. These are not insignificant even if they feel small in the face of the world’s great fear, pain, and brokenness. A gift of love in Christ’s name is never wasted, rather it makes it possible to wait and to obey what Jesus proclaimed, 

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near! 

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.