Taking the Advent Challenge

Sermon delivered on Advent Sunday A, November 30, 2014 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37.

Happy new year, St. Augustine’s! Today is Advent Sunday. We begin a new calendar year for the Church and have lighted the first purple candle on our wreath that represents the patriarchs. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus (parousia in Greek), and means coming or arrival. Advent is a season of expectation and preparation in which the Church prepares to celebrate the coming (adventus) of Christ in his incarnation and also looks forward to his final advent as judge at the end of time. Advent is not part of the Christmas season but rather a preparation for it. It is an appropriate time to reflect on the Four Last Things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell, always popular things to talk about, especially in our culture today—and the related themes of yearning and judgment are prominent in our lectionary readings today. Therefore I want us to look at how these themes might affect the way we observe this Advent season.

Did you sense the themes of yearning and judgment that are intrinsic in all our lessons today? The prophet Isaiah begs the Lord to show himself so that all the world’s wrongs will be put to rights. The psalmist laments God’s seeming absence as he contemplates the defeat of God’s people. How else to explain why God’s people have been overrun by their enemies? Implicit in our epistle lesson is the notion that all is not right with God’s world. Otherwise, why would Paul assure us that God is faithful and will strengthen us so that we will be blameless when the Lord returns to judge the world who crucified him? And in our gospel lesson we see Jesus warning his disciples to be prepared for the unthinkable—the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s temple against which Jesus had earlier prophesied—so as not to be consumed by it.

Our experience as Christians living almost 2000 years later confirms that not much has changed with the world. We see our Christian brothers and sisters being slaughtered in the Middle East, our towns set afire, and closer to home we must endure as our loved ones suffer from various physical, emotional, and spiritual maladies. If you or a loved one have ever suffered from a potentially mortal disease or struggled with various kinds of addictions that corrupt and ultimately destroy if left unchecked, if you have been alienated from family or friends or have experienced financial ruin, to name just a few, you know instinctively why the prophet and psalmist cry out to God. When we are forced to walk through life’s darkest valleys, we cry out to God, begging him to make himself known to us so as to rescue us from our dark situations in dramatic fashion. After all, if God is loving and omnipotent isn’t this what God is supposed to do? And so we pray to God as Isaiah and the psalmist did. In other words, when we are walking in the darkest valleys it feels like God is either absent or has abandoned us, especially when our prayers go unanswered. This is a real dilemma and danger for God’s people in Christ because having to walk through dark valleys and having some of our prayers go unanswered can shake our faith to the core and make us wonder if God really does love us. We simultaneously yearn for God’s love and rescue while wondering why God would allow us and our loved ones to experience such darkness in the first place.

I can hear you now. Ah, Father Maney! We’re so glad you’re back after a week’s hiatus. We missed your feel-good sermons and are delighted to hear you delivering yet another one! Do you happen to have an ice-pick we can put to our head? Bear with me, please. I would much rather be talking about Santa Claus coming to town, etc., at this time of year but that is not the way the world works and I have rehearsed this grim picture to help us all see (or begin to see) why this season of Advent is so important to us.

The yearning for God that we experience comes from the fact that we live in a good world gone bad and we as Americans have have lost sight of this fact. Please don’t misunder-stand. There is much beauty and grace in this world. We cannot look into the eyes of our beloved or a new-born baby or gaze on a breathtaking sunset and not understand this truth. But the fact is that as Genesis 3.1-19 starkly reminds us, human sin entered God’s good creation to corrupt and defile it and to allow evil an opening in which to operate. But many of us have not come to grips with this awful truth. Because of our wealth and power, we see bouts of evil that confront us regularly as anomalies, not as an inherent part of life. So, for example, we see health and wealth and happiness and a struggle-free life as the norm and expect these things.

But this is not the biblical view of the world. Rather, the writers of Scripture were realists and they understood that human sin and the evil it helped unleash are not anomalies but rather part and parcel of daily life. Again, this is not to say that there are not moments of happiness and joy and love and success. Of course there are. But these are a result of God’s love and grace, not something that comes automatically. And so when evil smacks us in the face, we don’t know what to do with it and this is why we yearn for God to show himself so that he will put to rights all the evil and injustice and suffering and death that goes on in his world and our lives.

And here is where the season of Advent becomes so important because it is an oppor-tunity for us to begin to lose our delusional thinking about what living in a fallen world looks like. Often times it is not pretty so that perhaps, for example, we ought to look at our health not as something that is the norm but rather as a product of God’s grace, love, and mercy toward us. When we start to think realistically (not pessimistically as we shall see in a minute) about living in a sin-sick world, we are on the road to understanding why we need a season like Advent.

Having a realistic worldview will also help us as Christians understand the true nature and purpose of God’s judgment that is pronounced in our lessons today. Yes, we should have a healthy fear of God’s judgment on our sins because our sins are a huge reason why we live in a broken and corrupted world. But if we think it through for a moment, we realize that God’s judgment has a positive dimension to it because when God finally judges our sins and all the world’s wrongs, God will put everything to rights so that his curse will be removed along with all that is wrong with God’s world. No wonder the psalmist tells us that when God finally judges the world the heavens will sing, the earth will rejoice, and even the trees of the forest will sing (Psalm 96.10-13)! No wonder Paul tells us that all creation waits with eager longing for Jesus’ people to be raised and redeemed at the final judgment because only then will the bondage and decay to which it has been subjected finally be removed forever (Romans 8.18-23). So the first thing that we must note about God’s final judgment of the world is that it is for our good. As Christians, we are to stand in sorrow and reverent awe of God’s terrible judgment but not fear it.

Why? Because we believe that God has answered the yearning of our hearts to come and live with his people. But unlike the mighty act of deliverance God worked for his people Israel as he rescued them from their slavery in Egypt, God ultimately answered our yearning hearts for his good presence and justice by coming to us as a human being that we celebrate at Christmas. And as we reflect on this awesome mystery, we begin to realize that God has answered our prayers in a totally unexpected way.

Instead of rendering a final judgment on us all, a judgment that must sweep us all away because all of us are stained with sin, God came to us first in Jesus of Nazareth to confront and defeat sin and evil by dying on a cross (Colossians 2.14-15). God has answered our prayers of yearning for his good justice and love by dying on a cross so as to condemn our sin in the flesh by taking it on himself so that we do not have to suffer God’s righteous condemnation. That is why Paul could make the remarkable statement that there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1-4). And that is why we no longer need to fear God’s right judgment because we are reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus shed for us on the cross and transferred from the dominion of evil into the kingdom and light of his beloved Son (Colossians 1.13-14, 19-20). We know this is true because God raised Jesus from the dead to vindicate him and to usher in the end time in which we live.

Now most of us want to shout at this point, “But nothing apparently has changed!” That’s right. But the key word is apparently because the fact is we do not have God’s knowledge, eternal perspective, or wisdom. There is lots going on that we cannot see or comprehend. But unless we are willing to call God a liar, we had better develop the needed humility to trust God’s promises because all of our lessons today in one way or another affirm God’s faithfulness.

Not only do we have the cross and Jesus’ resurrection, which were one-off events, we also have our Lord Jesus’ continuing presence with us in the person of the Holy Spirit to remind us that God is faithful so we can believe his promise to equip us to live as his people and to be with us so that we have assurance that we do not have to navigate through our dark valleys alone. This is what Paul was talking about in our epistle lesson. God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus and gives us his Spirit so that we will be found blameless at the final judgment and in the meantime find the strength to live faithfully and navigate through our dark valleys confident that the Lord loves us and has not abandoned us.

Now of course on one level God’s rescue plan in Jesus is bound to disappoint because it is not always obvious to us that God is at work to rescue us nor do we not get to see God face-to-face as we will one day in the new creation. That is the main reason why our hearts will always yearn for God and his goodness while we live in this mortal body of ours. But our yearning is not a bad thing because its very existence indicates that God is present to us in the power of the Spirit! And this is why the season of Advent is so important to us because it gives us a chance to ponder these mysteries and bolster our faith and response to God’s love for us.

One day God will indeed tear open the heavens and appear. This is a promise that runs through both the OT and NT. But we can take heart and hope because we believe that God has done all that is necessary for us to be found blameless on that day when he restores his good creation to its original goodness beyond our imagining and our yearning hearts will be no more.

In the meantime, let us use this Advent season to ponder and embrace God’s promise to us through a renewed focus on prayer, the study of Scripture, worship, self-reflection, and repentance. Let us come weekly to his Table to feed on our risen Lord’s body and blood and so be reminded that we are not abandoned and that God really has defeated evil and sin. And from this, let us find the strength to embody God’s love for us to the world in our daily lives so that we can be living signs to the world that God’s victory over evil is won in the life and death of Jesus, whose birth we eagerly await to celebrate this Christmas. Doing so may not remove us from our dark valley, but it will remind us our longing for God’s goodness has been answered and that he is always available to us to strengthen and encourage us in the midst of our trials in ways we do not always expect.

This then is the challenge of Advent. As we live in a fallen world that is full of heartache and wrongs, do we really believe with Paul that in all things God works for good for those who love him (Romans 8.28)? This takes great faith because as we have seen, the outworking of God’s good purposes is not always obvious or evident to us. But it is the consistent promise of Scripture and the witness of countless Christians that God really is present and working for his good, even when we cannot see or comprehend it. This Advent may God use the yearning of our hearts to renew our faith, hope, and love so that we will know and act like we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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