The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2022, was preached as a response to the First Sunday of Advent’s appointed texts. The sermon was based on the manuscript below.
When I first came into liturgical traditions
from growing up Southern Baptist,
I fell in love with Advent.
It wasn’t Christmas yet,
but it was time to get ready.
As soon as today,
liturgical new year,
the First Sunday of Advent,
“The Holly and the Ivy”
was the background music on my Xanga.
We were counting down the days until Christmas.
Without ever having had one,
I embraced the chocolate
or Bonne Maman
or take your pick
Advent calendar idea.
That is the historical root
of the contemporary advent wreath.
A man running an orphanage
got tired of answering “How long until Christmas?”
and made a wheel with a candle lit each day
and big candles for Sundays
marking the denoted Sundays of Advent.
That counting down,
looking to Christmas,
building anticipation and excitement
has its place.
It’s not, however,
what the season of Advent
as captured by our collects and readings
pushes us toward.
Fleming Rutledge writes,
“When the Advent wreath is used
to distinguish Advent from Christmas,
that is useful;
but when it is taught and understood
almost entirely as a way of preparing for Christmas,
it loses any relationship to the eschatological,
future-oriented nature of Advent.”
In Isaiah we hear words of comfort,
“In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.”
In Romans Paul writes,
“For salvation is nearer to us now
than when we became believers;
the night is far gone, the day is near.”
To conclude our gospel passage,
“Therefore you also must be ready,
for the Son of Man is coming
at an unexpected hour.”
None of our passages point us
to Jesus’ incarnation
or the getting the manger ready
for the sweet baby Jesus.
After falling in love with Advent,
the getting ready for Christmas
I swung into a season of what might be described
as Advent puritanism.
Not only were we getting ready,
it was NOT CHRISTMAS
in any way.
no Mariah Carey
no trees for anyone
at home or at church.
I was missing the mark.
Advent isn’t Christmas,
but it’s also not just not Christmas.
On page 1 of her book on Advent,
“Advent is not simply a transitional season
but in and of itself communicates a message of immense,
even ultimate, importance.
Of all the seasons of the church year,
Advent most closely mirrors the daily lives of Christians
and of the church,
asks the most important ethical questions,
presents the most accurate picture
of the human condition,
and above all, orients us to the future
of the God who will come again.”
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That Advent orients us to the future
of the God who will come again
might be difficult for some of us to hear.
The Protestant work ethic
combined with modern progressive
thought and theology
wants us to be the drivers
of when all shall be well.
Advent forces us to confront,
as Jesus tells us,
that God’s reign is coming
in God’s own time
and we’re not going to do anything
to trigger when the arc of the moral universe
reaches toward justice.
For those of us who work so hard
To Be Good™
this can be disappointing.
Of course we should strive for justice and peace
and respect the dignity of every human being.
It’s what we’ve vowed to do.
Talking about the end times
acknowledging that the Church believes in end times
makes some of us skittish.
On the one hand
there’s the idea that as a species
we’ll pull ourselves up by our collective bootstraps
and save it all sooner than later.
Two World Wars in the last century
and an unwillingness to rally together
to alleviate the climate crisis
and protect and care for
those most affected by it
might give us pause.
On the other hand
most of us remember the late 90s and the Aughts
and the Left Behind books.
I read them all.
Advent forces us to deal with God’s end time:
the righting of all things
in God becoming human in Jesus
and reconciling us to Godself and one another
through Jesus’ defeat of death.
Advent forces us to deal with God’s end time:
that we neither earn or usher in
but only prepare for
and stay alert.
Justo Gonzalez challenges,
‘Many of us are so well installed in the present order
that we look at its passing not with hope,
but rather with dread…
We convince ourselves
that the kingdom of Christian hope
is a nice idea,
but little more than a chimera.
It is not rational.
It is the expectation of a bygone age of superstition,
still kept alive by ignorant people who should know better.
But perhaps our thinking on this matter
is tainted by our own secret hope,
which is no longer the hope for the new order,
but rather the hope that the present will never pass away.
And so, just as Augustine used to pray,
“Give me chastity, but not just yet,”
“Thy kingdom come,”
and then silently add, “but not just yet.”’
Like Rutledge says,
Advent is the season that most reflects
our lived lives.
It begs us to hope
that Jesus returns
not to claim dominance as a new emperor
but to declare justice over and against
any failed human empire –
which is all of them.
It invites us to confront
that we wait for a new heaven and earth
while we go about the day-to-day habits
of working, praying, and sleeping.
It assures us that
this is not all for naught
as we work as though everything depended on us
and pray desperately like we know
nothing depends on us.
Step into Advent.
Hold your breath.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.