November 29th, 2020: The First Sunday of Advent

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The texts for the day were those for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B, in the Revised Common Lectionary. The sermon was based on the below manuscript .

Happy New Year!
The church at Corinth —
mostly gentile, but likely as diverse as the city itself —
has been waiting for Jesus to come back.
It’s been about 20 years,
so where is he?
Especially since he told his first hearers
“this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.”
They’ve written to Paul,
away in Ephesus,
about all kinds of things,
and now he’s writing back.

Twenty years since Jesus’ ascension,
and the churches are already falling down on the job.
Later in the letter Paul tells them
that the gifts of the Spirit are gifts
and not testaments to who God loves best
or who should be in charge over others.
He warns them
about how they are treating those on the margins
both of their community and the city.
He’ll get to all of that later in the letter
but for now he wants to remind them:
“by God you were called
into the fellowship of his Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.”
They didn’t do this on their own,
and they’re going to need God to keep at it.

The church today, the world today,
is a lot like the church in Corinth,
the world through all time
since Jesus walked this earth.
We aren’t doing this on our own.
The Enlightenment made us think
that we could save and were saving ourselves.
The bloodshed of the 20th century
has brought that idea into question.
The World Wars, global civil wars, and other conflicts
aren’t the only evidence
that we are not, in fact,
saving ourselves and getting better.

I read a paper introduction this week
that pointed out that because of the climate crisis
we have 20 Easters left to celebrate.
One of you took the words from my head last night
when posting on Facebook (I’m preserving the language),
“We wait expectantly for the Christ—
who gives us our true nature—
to come into the world and be with us, in us, among us.
This Advent 2020 is going to be one long-ass haul.
Shit’s on fire;
people are dying by the thousands
of willful ignorance and untamed disease.
The feeling of powerlessness drives us to arm ourselves
and let the bullets fly where they may,
as long as someone finally acknowledges us.”
One of the options for the scripture sentence
in the Penitential Order is 1 John 1.8-9:
If we say that we have no sin,
we deceive ourselves,
and the truth is not in us.
But if we confess our sins,
God, who is faithful and just,
will forgive our sins
and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

And that’s what Advent brings us to:
a long-term acknowledgement
that no matter how hard we try,
we’re still fallen.
Advent tells us time after time
that that is not the end.
As both John says in his letter
and Paul says to the Corinthians today,
“God is faithful” and
“The testimony of Christ
has been strengthened among you–
so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He will also strengthen you to the end,
so that you may be blameless
on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Even as Paul is getting ready
to tell the Corinthians how they’re failing
to lead a life worthy of their calling
(as he says to the Ephesians)
he assures them that God is faithful,
Through their participation
in God’s ongoing saving work
they will be strengthened and found blameless.
Before telling them the bad news
he leads with the good:
God is faithful.

Advent is when we acknowledge
that Jesus still isn’t back,
but we stay awake looking for his return.
We know that we are fallen,
that we can’t fix this on our own,
and we plead like Isaiah in exile,
“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!”
I hope for Jesus’ imminent return
when all things are made well,
but I hope it’s not because we’ve burned ourselves up.
I look to the manger and the cross
when the God of the cosmos
was born in humility as Jesus the Christ
and died a common criminal
bringing divinity to humanity
and defeating death
in his glorious resurrection.

Advent reminds us
that if we say we have no sin
the truth is not in us.
More importantly, though,
as we repent
we look for God to intervene.
To intervene in our hearts,
the hearts of others,
and the hearts of our leaders.
We look for God to give us signs
that the world is about to turn,
that all is being made well.
We look to God
“to give us grace
to cast away the works of darkness,
and put on the armor of light,
now in the time of this mortal life…
that in the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal.”

We aren’t saving ourselves,
and we can’t save ourselves.
But God is faithful.
Keep awake!

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