Monday, December 3, 2007

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Preached 2 December, 2007 at Grace Church, Ilderton and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre

“Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44)

More than anyone I ever met, my mother loved Christmas carols. She loved them so much that she would walk down the sidewalk singing them out loud – in August! Needless to say, that caused me some embarrassment when I would go out with her as a boy. One of her favourites was the Advent hymn, “People, Look East!” that our choir sings as an anthem today. Another one that she loved to sing was the traditional “Christmas is coming”. She loved to make up silly lyrics to these songs, which made it even more embarrassing for me, but deep down I think my mother loved the joy and anticipation of these carols. My mother was willing to wait for Christmas. She didn’t sit and wait, because there was plenty to do – baking, decorating, church work, visiting – but essentially she was willing to wait. She knew what was coming, she knew what it meant, and the time in between was a time to be savoured and enjoyed.

Some people aren’t keen on waiting for Christmas. There’s been a debate behind the scenes about tonight’s service of Carols and Lessons at Ilderton United. Some felt that the carols should be the carols of Advent, with their focus on waiting, preparing, expecting. Others felt that we should sing the Christmas carols that people know, love, and don’t get to sing enough, and they carried the day. So tonight if you go, you will hear and sing favourites such as “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Angels from the Realms of Glory”, and that’s fine. I think that in these kinds of disputes, the host is always right, and I think it’s important that our churches come together in worship and witness as God’s people. But I do think that the Advent hymns, despite their unfamiliarity to many, have much to teach us. The hymns of Advent, along with the season’s rituals such as the Advent candle, and the scripture readings with their emphasis on expectation, are all designed to help us prepare for the coming of that special visitor, the Son of God. In all its forms, Advent has one purpose – to prepare us for the coming of God.

How do we feel about the coming of this visitor? What might his entrance into our lives look like? Is it cause for joy, or does it make us nervous? Our readings today might cause a variety of reactions. First we heard Isaiah’s prophecy, the classic Advent promise of light in the darkness. The prophet Isaiah speaks of God’s house coming to earth, of nations and peoples leaving their quarrels and walking together. These are words of hope for people weary of conflict, whether it’s the global conflict of war and terrorism, the intimate conflict of a troubled marriage or divided family, or the interior conflict of a troubled soul. Christ is coming to heal and to arbitrate, to settle conflicts and end conflicts. That’s a visitor we would all welcome.

But then we hear St. Paul talk about using the time remaining to us as a time of spiritual preparation. It’s pretty serious business as he describes it. If we want to walk in that light that Isaiah talks about, first we have to get out of what Paul calls the “works of darkness”. Paul warns us that if we want to be ready for the coming of “the Lord Jesus Christ”, ready to put him on like a new clean garment, then we need to undergo nothing less than a spiritual makeover, throwing off old habits and old ways of living and thinking.

In Matthew’s gospel, the visitor himself, Jesus, warns us as Paul did that God’s coming is linked to our salvation. The image of Noah’s flood, captured on our bulletin this morning, isn’t just an image of the unexpected. It’s also a warning that if we are still found sleeping, still found in our old clothes, then we risk, to borrow the title from Timothy Findley’s book on the flood, being classified as “not wanted on the voyage”. Like Paul, our Lord also warns us to get busy, because we don’t know when he’s coming. We often think of the second coming with trumpets and fanfare, but Jesus warns us that he might come like a thief in the night, when we’re in bed watching Letterman.

Put all these themes together and it’s unnerving. The promise of hope and light, but the warning that we better not sleep through it. The challenge to undergo a spiritual makeover, and the warning that we better not fail, like the people who weren’t ready for Noah’s flood. Wow, that sounds like a lot of work, and little time to do it in. So where do we start? How do we manage our Advent preparation?

First, let’s remember where we are. We’re at the Eucharist. We’re about to encounter our Lord in the meal we share together, in the sacrament of his body and blood. We do this because we want to be changed for the better, and we know that only Christ can do this for us because of who he is and what he did on the cross. We know from our tradition that we have to prepare for to take Communion. You may remember some of your confirmation classes on preparing for Communion. If not, here’s a reminder from a great Anglican thinker, Austin Farrer:

"It is hard to prepare for Communion, because it is hard to face the truth. But it is not at all complicated or puzzling. You have merely to accept what you know God demands of you, and to renounce what you know he forbids you, and to be sorry. Remember something to thank him for, and someone to pray for, and you have made your preparation." (Quoted by the Rev. Gavin G. Dunbar, in The Anglican Digest, Advent 2007, p. 8)

Understand this idea of spiritual preparation, and you’ve almost got the idea of Advent. But this spiritual preparation is anticipated, isn’t it? You know when you walk in here that there will be a Eucharist this morning. All you have to do now is add a bit of the uncertainty and the vigilance of Advent.

Think of Our Lord’s use of everyday language – “drinking, marrying”, working “in the field”, “grinding meal” – in today’s Gospel. Jesus was saying that the people of Noah’s time had no warning of what was coming. To them it was just one thing after another. Put it in today’s language and you start to wonder, how might God show up on your morning commute or when you’re out ploughing or chatting with a friend at Tim Horton’s?

Ask yourself, who might I meet this Advent? Who can I visit? How can I bring Isaiah’s light and hope to someone? How can I be more aware of what God may be calling me to do in my immediate surroundings? How can I best use the time before Christmas? What can I change about myself? Who can I pray for? Who can I pray with? Seen in these terms Advent ceases to be the fearful anticipation of some sudden catastrophe. Advent starts becoming manageable, even fun. You may even find yourself, like my mother, bustling about, whistling People Look East or Christmas is Coming, in joyful anticipation of our Advent guest, our Lord Jesus Christ.

©Michael Peterson+ 2007

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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