SERMON: 1 Advent C 12 Dec 2018
It should come as no surprise to anyone here when I tell you: if there had been damage or injury to our family in Alaska in Friday's earthquake, Molly and I wouldn't be here today. We might still be waiting at the airport, in New York or in Seattle or somewhere else. But we would be on our way to our family in the 49th State, no matter what. Oddly, we received the "everybody's ok" message from our daughter, Anna, before we knew there had been an earthquake. Their new home was undamaged; the kids' daycare was intact. However, both Anna and Jim's workplaces had some damage.That's the Jones family report. And I think it's quite remarkable that I find myself giving it on the First Sunday of Advent. Because in Advent we are looking anew at our faith, at our aspirations, at our confidence in a loving God and at our conviction that God wants good for us.
Those were not my first thoughts when I learned there had been a significant earthquake in Alaska. Even knowing there were no deaths or injuries--so far, at least--I still was racked with convulsions of emotion: fear, gratitude, awe. Fear of what might have been, gratitude that all was comparatively well, awe at how quickly my emotions overtake my theology. You see, there is one point I am called to make again and again. I make this point when people ask me why bad things happen, why there is evil, and so forth. And when I think of bad things I think of earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and tornadoes, deadly diseases and, yes, human will which manifests in all manner of unpleasant ways. And what I tell people who are struggling with these erratic actions of nature or human will is this: when God created the planet, marvelous as it is, God likely was not thinking of us. We were the last to join creation, according to the Bible, anyway, and also according to a fair amount of science. So God made the earth of molten material that is still cooling, still resolving its shape and size and temperature. This dynamic causes earthquakes. And people, like it or not, seem to build homes and cities in places where earthquakes and tidal waves and hurricanes happen.
And now we have evidence of this seemingly careless and confusing constellation of circumstances two day before the first Sunday of Advent. I'm not big on attributing the inexplicable to coincidence. I think if we look more closely at the occasional odd coordination of events--sometimes happily, sometimes not--we see that there is usually some deeper explanation. I also like the definition of a coincidence as a miracle but one in which God decides to remain anonymous. The miracle I have in mind here is not Advent or survival or the nearly simultaneous occurrence of them this week. The miracle I have in mind is the opportunity to see creation at work--in the form of an earthquake, in all its frightening power--and to see it as we enter Advent and the glories of our faith. And most of all to see them as inseparable. Creation is always happening.
Let me say that again: Creation is always happening. The world and our faith is always being reborn, and not just on the First Sunday of Advent. Jesus is always coming into the world. We need only to watch a little differently, a little more closely, a little more with our hearts than our eyes. For Christians, that is what the Creation is all about. The constant renewing, realigning, readjustment of the world and the unfolding of God's will. When we look at each day that way, we have the ripe opportunity to change and grow, despite the circumstances. By doing things a little differently, by gaining a new perspective, we can learn new things about our surroundings. We can freshen our outlook. We can see things with new eyes, if we try.
Today is an especially good day to try. As the season of Advent begins today it is formally revealed in church in the Advent wreath, in the change of the liturgical color from green to purple, and in the modification of the Eucharistic Prayer in our Communion service at 10 am from Prayer A to Prayer B. An Advent supper series has marked the arrival of the Advent season at St. Paul's at least as long as I've been here and one has been planned for this Advent season. The season is defined as a period of preparation and expectation for the nativity of our Lord. These are weighty words to consider. They are also an invitation to an event which can change your life. Advent is an invitation to see things again for the first time: look at church and at the members of the congregation and marvel at our stained glass. But also realize that there is a change in the works. The color, the prayers, the wreath all inspire the unique freshness of our faith if we let it.If we listen harder for the meaning of scripture not just in the Bible but in our own hearts we realize that our faith has a lot to say to us, a lot to reveal. But we have to keep the focus on looking deeper, listening harder, reflecting more deeply on what all these things mean to us, to you and to me. Sometimes it's a word, sometimes it's an image. Sometimes it's just a reaction to something that seemed familiar until --somehow-- it became unusual and deserving of special attention.
The season of Advent, the beginning of the church year in the Christian calendar, has a cosmic aspect to it of creation and glory, of God's plan being put into effect in wondrous ways. Our Hebrew Bible reading from Jeremiah God says, "...I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness." Now we know about the branch of Jesse's tree, but for a new branch to spring up, not out, suggests more than a bud or a mere branch, but a new mighty plant, a tree descended from David's father. The awesome might implicit in executing justice and righteousness, rather than mere military or economic power or force suggests that this Branch is what the people have been waiting for. This reading is part of our lectionary this week because of the beginning of Advent. It shows the beginning when we believe God announced the plan for another and a greater leader to help the people of God learn how to live. The clues in this brief reading point to what it is that will make the difference: executing justice and righteousness and being known as "The Lord is our righteousness."
In our epistle reading from the first letter to the Thessalonians we are provided another lens through which to explore our new beginnings in faith. Paul asks, "How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?" Take a moment, right now, and look around this church at the people you know and the people you don't know. Let's think on how it is we rely on one another to come together, as Jesus prayed --that we all might be one--and how we conduct ourselves in faith and in the regular daily life of this parish together. Think about how we help one another see God in our midst, by talking of those faithful moments in our lives in church and outside church, and sharing how that makes us feel. Paul tells the people of Thessalonica that even though he can't thank God enough for them, he wants to help restore their faith. The only clue we have to any lack of faith is what he says in the letter: "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you."
So it is that we are inspired to crank up our love for one another in faith, by opening up to one another, meaning not just you and me, but the outsider, the stranger, the newcomer, and by showering all with the love of God upon which we so deeply depend and which has been bestowed on us. For those of us disposed toward skepticism, doubt or fear, though, let us look at today's Gospel. This wonderful reading from the Gospel of Luke heralds change beyond our imagination, events both frightening and awesome, glorious and worrying. These are the opening lines of today's Gospel:
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. " Can we hear these words, can we read them and pretend we haven't felt beset by these very signals? Haven't the weather and the political atmosphere and the perpetual wars made us feel sometimes like we might faint from fear? These signals were written in the Bible two thousand years ago, yet we have been living their reality in our time. We are told, "...Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Our redemption is in our choice to live our lives as Christians, as persons committed to loving God and loving our neighbor. We need not fear. We need not panic.
Jesus told his followers the parable of the figs: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near." We can rest assured the Kingdom of God is near; in fact it is here. Jesus continued: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." The closing admonitions which Jesus closes with are but reminders of how we are to live our lives. The meat of the matter lies in those words, "You know that the kingdom of God is near."
Let us pray that our Advent, this season of preparation and expectation of Jesus' birth, unfolds in ways which enrich our faith. May we find symbols and vision s and new awareness of God at work in the world to lift our hearts, to relate and cheer others with and to cement our confidence in Christ to come once again when the season of Advent is concluded. Amen