Sermon delivered on Advent 2C, Sunday, December 6, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Malachi 3.1-4 ; Luke 1.68-79 (Benedictus); Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we continue our observance of the season of Advent. As Fr. Sang reminded us last week, 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 we the Church prepare to look back and celebrate the coming (adventus) of Christ in his incarnation and also look 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 involves patient waiting. But for what are we waiting? How we answer this question will determine if our waiting is in vain or has real meaning and purpose.
The key to making our waiting meaningful and giving it purpose, of course, is to have a sure and certain hope and expectation about something. And we as Christians definitely have that sure and certain hope. More about that in a moment. Right now, let’s think about the nature of waiting. When we were kids we waited impatiently in the weeks before Christmas as we prepared for Santa to come, trying to be on our best behavior. The waiting was sometimes almost unbearable but we always knew there would be a reward for us when Santa arrived! Likewise as we grow older, young parents wait expectantly for the birth of their first child and prepare for its arrival. We wait and work patiently in preparation for our careers because we expect our jobs to bring meaning and purpose and wealth to our lives. So while there might be a sense of impatience and anticipation in our waiting, it serves a good purpose. We wait because we have a hope and expectation that there will be rewards of some sort when the waiting is over. Hopeful waiting can therefore help keep us focused and on-task.
But there is a type of waiting that can be counterproductive and wear us out. People who have no hope or expectation about their future are those who suffer this kind of destructive waiting. Think, for example, of those who keep a death watch over their loved ones and who have no hope of a future life of any kind. There is nothing good emotionally that can come out of their waiting. Once their loved one dies, that’s it; it’s over. Or think of people who don’t believe that God is really active in his world, working to set it to rights. What are these folks waiting for in life? What good purpose can be found in their waiting?
Consider, for example, the latest act of terror committed by radical Muslims. The first inclination of most people—indeed, the first request of the people trapped in the building—is to pray. And this is a good and right thing to do for lots of reasons I don’t have time to articulate. But when people who have no real hope or who put their hope in false idols are confronted by the sin and evil that have radically infected God’s good world, a different story emerges. We see it illustrated in the recent headline in the New York Daily News. “God Isn’t Fixing This” it screamed.
In other words, God isn’t fixing the increasing epidemic of mass shootings and terrorism we see in our country and around the world. It’s solely up to us. The point of the headline and ensuing story, aimed mostly at Republicans, was to criticize the latter’s refusal to enact more gun control laws, spending their time instead on “meaningless platitudes” and prayer, which are clearly ineffective and a waste of time to the writers of the Daily News.
It is not my intent here to politicize this tragedy or engage in the gun control debate. My point is simply this. When we put our ultimate hope in strictly human solutions of any kind, and/or do not believe God either exists or is nothing more than an absentee landlord, we have few, if any, resources to help us deal with the reality of evil and sin in our world because the problem of evil is vastly bigger and more complex than us. Indeed, we are part of the problem! Our waiting for strictly human solutions therefore becomes futile and has no real chance to succeed. When that happens, we become anxious, afraid, angry, and prone to despair and hopelessness. Waiting of this kind is a grim picture indeed, and sadly folks in our society are engaging in this kind of futile and anxious waiting in increasing numbers as we reject our Judeo-Christian heritage with its accompanying hope and trust in God’s good power and will for his broken and hurting creation and creatures, especially for his image-bearing ones.
And this is where we must return to the season of Advent with its emphasis on waiting and watching with hope and purpose. It is not that Christians are immune to evil and sin. We aren’t. But we are a people with a hope and a future despite the sin and evil around and in us! We believe that God has a plan to put his sin-sick and evil-infected world to rights, that God has acted decisively in history through his people Israel and ultimately by entering history himself as Jesus of Nazareth to defeat the forces of evil by dying on a cross, and in the process freeing us from the ravages of sin and death. Moreover, we believe that God is active and present in his world in the power of the Spirit who lives in God’s people gathered together around Jesus. To be sure, there is much we cannot explain or understand. We don’t know, for example, why God allows evil to continue to operate in his world after defeating it on the cross. God has the power to destroy evil, so why doesn’t he? Scripture steadfastly refuses to tell us. But it is not entirely silent on the issue. Instead, Scripture insists on telling us the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do for his people to rid us and his good creation of evil and sin and death forever, especially in and through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit who lives in us. And we who seek true wisdom, godly wisdom, had better learn and pay attention to that story if we are to have real hope as we live in this present evil age.
We see elements of God’s story in our lessons today. We began our worship this morning by lighting the second candle on our Advent wreath, the candle that represents the prophets. Prophets sometimes predicted the future, but their main job was and is to reveal God’s word to God’s people, making prophets an essential part of God’s rescue plan. As all our lessons remind us, we are not the only people who are confronted by evil and sin, and who must wait for God to act. Take our OT lesson, for example. Malachi (messenger in Hebrew) is the last book of the OT and it deals with God’s response to his people Israel’s anxiety about God’s absence. When Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem, the glory of the Lord appeared in the temple and dwelt there (1 Kings 8.1-11). God’s people Israel believed that the temple in Jerusalem was the place where God lived with his people, where heaven and earth intersected. But of course God’s people rebelled against God and so God left the temple and it was ultimately burned down by the Babylonians. God’s people were sent into exile for about 70 years and there was a general feeling that God had indeed abandoned his people, not without some basis of truth. After all, had God not left his temple it would not have been destroyed and his people would not have been sent into exile.
But God is faithful to his people and God promised to restore a remnant of Israel. And so some of God’s people did return home and the temple was rebuilt. But God’s glory never returned to this second temple as God had promised through the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 43.1-4) and in the way it had been present in Solomon’s temple. So after awhile God’s people started to wonder if God had really abandoned them after all. Sure, a remnant had found their freedom, but God’s glory wasn’t dwelling with his people as it once had.
Enter the prophet Malachi. You want God to return to you? Careful what you wish for he tells us. You may just get it and when that day comes, it ain’t gonna be pretty. The great and terrible day of the Lord will indeed come, and when God returns, he is going to judge all evil and those who perpetrate it. God has to do this, of course, so that he can restore his good but broken creation. For those who truly are God’s people, judgment will be a good thing because it means evil will be destroyed forever. But who of us hasn’t committed some kind of evil? So be ready, Israel. God is sending a messenger ahead of his return to announce it. Get your house in order so that you will not be on the wrong side of God’s return and subsequent judgment.
But then a strange thing happened to which we can surely relate. Hundreds of years passed and God’s glory still hadn’t returned to his temple to live with his people. Was it all a farce? A Big Lie? People in Jesus’ day, some 400 years after Malachi, were still waiting for God to return to his temple, wondering if God had abandoned them, just like we wait for Jesus to return, sometimes wondering if God has abandoned us. Anxious waiting is not unique to us and our generation!
But of course, we Christians believe the messenger Malachi promised is none other than John the Baptist. And instead of returning to his temple, God returned to his people in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God become human. This is what Luke is telling us in our gospel lesson. You folks who don’t love history doubtless were impatiently tapping your foot as you listened to Luke recount all the rulers who were in power when John appeared on the scene. But there is a reason for this. Luke is telling us definitively that here is God’s messenger coming to his people in fulfillment of prophecy to announce God’s return to his people in the midst of history, ambiguous as that may appear to us at times! Luke is telling us in no uncertain terms that God isn’t an uncaring, absentee landlord. To the contrary, God is working out his purposes in history. So pay attention dudes! Quoting Isaiah 40.3-5, Luke tells us to get ready for the Lord’s return in the person of Jesus. In those days, when a king visited his people, they would make sure the roads were made fit for him to travel on, and God’s messenger John tells us to make the road ready for King Jesus by turning away from our worship of idols and false gods like money, power, and worship of self, etc., turning instead to the one true and living God made known to us in Jesus (i.e., to repent) so that we don’t find ourselves on the wrong side of God’s righteous judgment. And let me be clear here if you are worried about this. John was not talking about the occasional sin we all commit.He was talking about a pattern of living that remains hostile to God and rejects God’s gift to us in Christ. As far as I can see, none of you here has to worry about that, precisely because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. Because God loves us and gave himself for us in and through his Son, we have real hope that we won’t end up on the wrong side of God’s righteous judgment, thanks be to God! Amen?
This is also what Paul is getting at in our epistle lesson. God has made good on his promise to return to his people. He has rescued us from evil, sin, and death in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and has given us his Spirit to live in us so that we can be healed and made whole again. But God’s victory won for us is currently incomplete. We still live in a world ravaged by sin and evil. Hold on, Paul tells us. When Jesus returns to consummate his saving work, his victory over evil won on the cross will be fully completed. And because our sins are covered by Christ’s blood, we can have hope for that day that we will be on the right side of God’s judgment. In the meantime, while we wait for God’s final victory, we are to continue to make straight paths for our Lord’s return by being his faithful people. We are to extend God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness to others who will take it. We are to embody God’s love for all people by loving even our enemies. We are to live our lives for God and God’s glory, not our own, so that God can use our faithfulness to bring his healing to the nations that was promised in Isaiah 40.3-5.
But we will need help in all this because we are too badly broken to do it on our own strength. And so we are to participate in the common means of grace to help open us up to the Spirit’s healing influence in our lives. We are to worship God together. We are to love each other as interconnected parts of Jesus’ body, the Church. We are to enjoy fellowship together, both on Sundays and in small groups. We are to read the Bible together regularly so we know the story of God’s rescue plan for us and his creation. We are to pray regularly to increase our intimacy with God and to receive his directions for living faithful lives. We are to consume our Lord Jesus at table each week to strengthen us in deep and profound ways, and remind us of God’s great love for us so that we can go and do likewise for others.
Paul and the folks at Philippi modeled that, of course. Paul was writing to them from prison. But he saw his imprisonment as an opportunity to spread the gospel to his captors! The Philippians risked being persecuted by sending Paul material support while he was in prison. But it didn’t matter to them. Jesus is Lord—crucified, risen, and ascended as King of the entire cosmos! What could mere mortals do to them given this new reality? And if you are wondering why I am investing so much time in talking about this, it is because we live in no less an evil age than the first Christians lived. They were every bit as much in danger as we are, probably more so. They just didn’t have mass communication to make them aware of the extent of the problem like we have. The difference is, those first Christians believed in the power of God made manifest in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. They believed that God is actively involved in his world, especially in and through his people in the power of his Spirit. Do you?
They also understood that the power of God looked radically different from what they expected. God is not defeating evil by an outright show of force, what Martin Luther called right-handed power. Right-handed power is based on brute strength and of course can always be defeated by someone or something stronger and more powerful. Now of course, God can exert right-handed power and has done so on occasion. Just ask the Egyptians who pursued Israel into the Red Sea! But this is not how God typically works. God typically works through left-handed power, the power of crucified love and suffering on behalf of the beloved, to defeat evil. It is a power that the world does not recognize or understand. But it is a power that we as Jesus’ people must. This is why we are called to act rightly in the manner of our Savior who loved us and gave himself for us so that we might live.
The Daily News got it wrong in its headlines. God is fixing this, but not how the world expects. God has chosen to fix his world in and through his people praying and acting faithfully on his behalf, even as God is actively at work restraining evil in ways we do not see or comprehend. To be sure, there is a great mystery here and this course of action is deeply paradoxical to us. Nevertheless, we are to pray and to act in the manner of Jesus, and sometimes it will appear we are defeated. But we never are because we are a people who have a past, present, and future that are assured by the love and goodness and power of God. So during this season of Advent, stop and reflect on why we watch and wait, and then act accordingly. What does that look like? Hear St. Teresa of Avila:
No body now on earth but yours;
No hands but yours;
No feet but yours;
Yours are the eyes
Through which is to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet
With which he is to go about
Yours are the hands
With which he is to bless now.
We watch and wait and act in this manner because we believe that God is in charge despite the evil around and in us, and that God has overcome. Not yet fully, but that day is a-coming, we just don’t know when. But knowing when is irrelevant because we are people of new creation and hope, precisely because we have seen how God has acted for us in the course of history, our present day included, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After all, if God can call into existence things that do not exist and give life to the dead (Romans 4.17), is there any doubt that God can and will defeat evil once and for all? The troubles of this life are fleeting. The promise of healing and redemption made known to us ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus are eternal, and we must treat these statements as more than just mere platitudes. Let us therefore embrace God’s promises and power made known to us in Jesus this Advent season and beyond so that the world may see and join us in believing that we really are people who 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.