Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent. First day in the liturgical calendar. First day in...
Anyway... here's the sermon.
December 1, 2013
On this first Sunday in Advent our second scripture lesson comes from just a few verses from Romans. As we read this passage, I want you to keep in mind how Advent is not just a time when we look to the past… to the birth of Christ… or to the ministry of Christ… but is also a time… especially on this first Sunday in Advent when we look forward to the future coming of Christ. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you once again this morning.
READ the scripture passage
So this morning I am going to focus on two questions to help us in our Advent exploration. The first is the question of time.
For Paul… as with much of scripture… there is the strong impression that time is constantly moving us forward towards something. Time doesn’t just pass by… meaningless… constantly ticking away… but it moves with purpose… events providentially link together in God’s good pleasure. There is meaning behind time and events whether we deem those events good or bad… there is meaning to be found and interpreted… and for the faithful, God is behind that meaning.
Let me see if I can talk about it this way. About a month ago I was able to look at some old home videos on some old VHS tapes. It’s not so easy to watch old VHS tapes since VCRs can be a bit scarce these day. So anyway… I put in a tape which happened to be of my parents’ 50th birthday surprise party from the summer of 1991. And as with any old home video you haven’t seen in a long while, there is always that shock of being transported back in time. There is always the joy of seeing people who are no longer with us. There is also that weird feeling of knowing what happens next in the story… which on the day I was watching was a very strong feeling because I was watching this tape with my children so I got to say things like… “I’m older now than my parents were at the time in this video.” And in talking to my son, I would say “Look, there I am… I’m your age.” And, of course, there was the laughing at the mullet and the cheesy mustache I was sporting at the time… but again the weirdest part in watching this video with my kids was saying how in four months from the time this video was made my whole life was going to change. And not in a way that was going to be pleasant for me to go through. Just watching a remembering… there’s that strong feeling of events connecting and things happening for a reason. Past, Present and Future all in their dance together.
We’ve been having a lot of talks about the future in my home as both of my kids are taking those first real steps into adulthood… as they start to take full responsibility for their lives and their decisions… and the future that lies before the both of them. There’s been a lot of talks about how you prepare… how you make the best decision you can make at the time… we’ve been talking about values and what for us defines what is meant by that word “best”… and how there are so many factors in life that are out of your control that will invariably create a tension between what you value and what is being demanded of you. A lot of being a grown up is about having some form of personal integrity… right… that will carry you through it all… all those events of your life… that will inform your understanding of who you are and who you want to be and what you want the intangibles of your life to be about. And it is an integrity that on the one hand can’t and won’t be static and yet, on the other hand needs to have a constancy to it. So much of this is the role that faith plays in a life… giving you something else… another idea or viewpoint in which to interpret and understand the experiences of your life… looking at them through the scope of a larger picture like the concept of the Kingdom of God… helping to guide decision making in a way that has some integrity and a constant moral center… that somehow God is there not just because God is everywhere… but God is there because God is living through you… maybe guiding and nudging… always walking with you through all these different events good or bad. The Word of God is creative and fluid… and yet it is also always of God.
Sitting there with my children, I found myself looking backward as much as I was looking forward. I thought a lot about my childhood and I tried to remember what it was like to be a child… or even that young adult person in the video I was looking at from the third person point of view. I tried to catch a peek from behind those young eyes again… to remember what that first person point of view was like at that time. And I have to say I’m a bit thankful that I couldn’t fully understand or immediately relate to the “me” I was seeing from 1991. It is weird to say but that “me”… while still “me”… was somewhat of a stranger to the “me” of today. I hope the “me” twenty eight years from now… if he’s still alive… I hope that “me” has the same experience looking at or listening to the “me” of today. If there is purpose behind the passing of time… then there has to be a difference. In a sense, we are always becoming someone else. And through faith, we trust that God hand is in that becoming.
In his theology, Paul felt the influence of an in-breaking future and the grounding of the past. He felt the turbulent newness of the future stirring up the past… of elements of the past coming together with a different emphasis… giving him a different vision for the present… different from the vision for the present before his experience of Christ… before that strong anticipation for Christ’s return. The future, for Paul, gave the past a new clarity and a new sense of discovery for all those God purposed clues that pointed to the Christ filled future. And in Paul’s mind and heart, the future was coming fast. Christ would return in his lifetime and a new age would break upon the present of creation. Time was ticking away and each sunrise was bringing us closer to that day… closer to the God purpose… to the meaning of time. There was and is an understanding that God’s being with us in the future was going to be even greater than the incarnation. Paul’s urgency with the church in Rome, telling them how they were closer to salvation now than when they had first become believers is not a statement for a far off future that one day… one day maybe will be here. That is a statement of immediacy. There was a new reality coming and for Paul the reality of the future began in the present. The seeds coming to harvest in the here completed the planting begun in the past. The future harvest was fast approaching. You could say there was a process of the field reseeding itself again and again. As he writes to the church in Rome, these few verses are not so much a dire warning as they are an encouragement to go ahead and embrace the new age of God’s kingdom.. to go ahead and live now as you will be living in the not so distant future. Paul’s vision isn’t about earning the kingdom or ushering in the kingdom through our own good works and moral life, but joining in the kingdom that is coming… the kingdom purposed by God… equipped by God… made a reality by God. Even though we will be imperfect in our attempts, nevertheless we are to put on Christ in the now and live as Christ will have us live in God’s coming kingdom… as we will all live in that coming day.
For Paul that way is characterized by having love for one another. That is his grounding… that is the seed that keeps getting reseeded… that is his integrity that he brings to understanding the world that is around him and in making the best decisions of his life. Having love for one another is his definition of “best”. In the verses immediately preceding our reading this morning, Paul once again drives this point home by writing, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” This law from the past is central to the coming kingdom. Paul’s vision of the future falls apart if love is not there at the center… the kind of love that God had shown in Christ… the kind of love the prophet Isaiah hinted at in his time. That love is the light that shines into the darkness making it possible to beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks; so wars will one day cease and peace will be the rule.
Paul’s vision of the future kingdom of God is still our vision for today. The vision itself has not changed. But, Paul’s timetable was off. Christ did not return in his lifetime as he had expected. So while we are still looking toward Paul’s future vision, for us it can sometimes be difficult to have the same feeling of immediacy as Paul had. Still, Advent each year reminds us how as Christians we are still living into the future of the second coming of Christ… that part of our watching and anticipating is allowing that future reality to guide our present selves… a present self that is also being shaped by the past.
Advent brings continuity between future, present and past… the three are supposed to align into a singular vision of a lived faith as they dance together throughout our lives.
That finally brings us to our second question… which I’ve already hit on a bit… the question of maturity… a process that doesn’t automatically come with age. Maturity is linked to wisdom… to learning and applying the lessons that are a part of life… purposefully opening ourselves to grow into a better disciple of Christ. Wisdom is in our growing awareness and understanding of God’s purpose not just for us as an individual… but for us as a community of believers. We never become so old that there is no longer any room for growth… for maturing in our faith.
Christ, for Paul, was a signal that it was time to grow up. It was time to stop messing around and to start living as God intended… as revealed in the moral heart of the law. In a way, this signal to mature was a part of Paul’s immediacy. The resurrection was the clear sign to Paul that God had come among us while we still thought God far, far away and uninvolved. After all, everyone reasoned, look at the mess the world is in. If God had really come into the world, things wouldn’t be as bad as they are. Surely God would straighten things out for us. But isn’t it immature of us to still be waiting for God to straighten everything out for us while we stand idly by? As though God is a parent who will come in and clean up the children’s mess with a tsk tsk tsk. Being an adult… being a mature Christian… means taking responsibility for our lives and our decisions What more can God do that God hasn’t already done? You know what’s interesting about the Isaiah passage about swords and plowshares… look at the pronouns. It isn’t God who will beat out the swords and the spears… it isn’t God who will learn war no more. There is a point of maturity of faith where peace becomes natural, where love for our neighbors becomes the norm instead of the exception… because that is what we do as Christians… that is how we act… that is how we live… that is what it means for us to be responsible mature Christians. When Paul wrote to the churches that he had founded… that was his expectation… that it was time for them to put away childish behaviors and for them to mature in Christ.
The past and the future. Time and maturity. This morning we begin yet another Christian year with the start of Advent. And my challenge to you… as individuals… and as a congregation… is to not let this be yet another Advent season… another season where neither the birth of Jesus nor the coming glory of Christ means little to your present self. But as you start this new year… start it by honoring and learning from the past in a way that moves you another step forward as one living as though in the quickly coming future kingdom.
Saints, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. The night is far gone, and the day is near. Amen.