Fr. Philip Sang: Advent: A Time of Holy Waiting

Sermon delivered on Advent Sunday C, November 29, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 33.14-16; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36.

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

Advent is a time of preparation for Christ’s coming—yes, his first, but also, and perhaps even more, his second. So the season of Advent is not a time of high festivities; we’re not yet celebrating “The Holidays.” It is a time of sober reflection aimed at growing in holiness; we should treat the days of Advent as “holy days.” At least that seems to be the message of the passages today. After a very brief ministry in Thessalonica, Paul was forced to leave. He’s been gone for several months now and he has been worried about his newly born church. Will they stray from the faith they have so recently embraced? Will they forget about Paul himself, “out of sight, out of mind?” in the previous verse before our reading today, to be precise verse 5 of chapter 3 Paul says, “I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might be useless.” (Verse 5) To check up on them, Paul sends Timothy for a little informal church visiting. Timothy returns with the good glad tidings that all is well in the little infant church. Not only is their faith intact, but they remember Paul with genuine fondness. Paul is so excited that he feels as though he has been given a new lease on life. “”For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.” (Verse 8) He doesn’t know how to express his thanks enough, as he prays fervently and constantly for them (verses 9 and 10).

All of this personal correspondence can serve as a reminder to our church that Advent is about the ordinary affairs of our lives. In the midst of life’s loves and loses, Jesus comes to judge and to save. We rarely think of his coming as we live with family and friends, dealing with absence and heartache, reunion and joy in human relationships. This text gives us the opportunity to connect the tangled relationships of our lives to the coming of Christ, both his first and, especially, his second. For many people, us included, Advent is a time for special ceremonies or disciplines, like Advent wreaths or Advent devotionals, which is good. However, here Paul gives us some very practical Advent projects in his three wishes or prayers in verses 11-13, It’s hard to be definite about whether these are merely wishes or actual prayers. It is definitely true that we cannot do these three things in our own strength, so there’s a sense in which these are prayers asking God to help us. But they aren’t exactly addressed to God. Maybe we can think of them as blessings. Here are three wishes or prayers or blessings that should shape our Advent observance. “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you.” Clearly, this refers to Paul’s desire to rejoin his friends physically. “Satan stopped us” from coming to you, says 2:18. Paul and his colleagues couldn’t remove the obstacles, so he knows that their re-union will depend on the intervention of the Father and the Son. We could apply this to the relationships in our congregation. The Holidays are often a time of great stress and disappointment as we are reminded of the blocked relationships in our lives. Satan has stopped us from getting past old memories and hurts and grudges and resentments. Our relationships have become rough and crooked. However, in the light of Christ’s coming, Advent should be a time to ask God to “clear the way” for us to come back together with those from whom we have become distanced. Before Christ comes in his Parousia, let us ask him to come into our relationships and “make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” we can’t do that by ourselves, and Paul says, “the Lord [will] make your love increase and overflow, for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.” We live in an age when Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 24:12 seems to have been fulfilled. In the last days, “because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” Think of the cold blooded murders perpetrated by ISIS and the cold hearted response of some Eastern European countries to the flood of refugees from ISIS. We can multiply examples from our own country and our own lives, Colorado Springs shooting last Friday and others. In a loveless world, how can we grow in love? Paul knows. In the light of Christ’s return, ask Jesus to make our love increase. This Advent season, rather than focusing on presents and parties, let us focus on the fact that we will appear “in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes….”

Before Jesus comes (Mark 13:18), let us use this season of Advent to focus on loving each other and everyone else, even as God loved us in Christ’s first coming. May Jesus increase our love in order that he may strengthen our hearts, so that we may be holy and blameless in the presence of God at the Parousia. The point of that prayer is that Jesus will make us completely holy, so that we can stand in God’s presence when Jesus comes back. There is much in that sentence that calls for comment. First, the word “strengthen” was used in classical Greek to refer to putting a buttress (reinforcement) on an existing building to strengthen it. As our hearts are attacked by “the world, the flesh and the Devil,” we need to be buttressed, reinforced, or supported, so we will not fall. Second, notice that holiness is the focus of this prayer. It is very important that we be holy, because we will one day be “in the presence of our God and Father.” This reminds us of the words of Hebrews 12:14: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” While we should be careful not to turn such admonitions into a kind of legalistic works righteousness, they remind us that holiness matters to God. Jesus died to save us from sin, so that we would not only be declared righteous (justification), but also become holy (sanctification). Third, Paul asks that our love will increase so that we will be holy. What is the connection between love and holiness? Could it be that love is the essence of holiness? In my growing up, holiness was often interpreted as being separate from the world, that often meant nothing more than not participating in worldly amusements, such as drinking, dancing, card playing and theater attendance. While there was some good wisdom in the call to be careful about getting entangled in sinful pursuits, holiness in the Bible doesn’t seem to be described primarily in those terms.

Rather, holiness is loving the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. So, of course, Paul prays that we should increase in love so that we might be holy, because the essence of holiness is precisely love. In the light of Christ’s coming, let us turn the days of Advent into holy days, days in which we focus not only on enjoying the worldly holidays, but also and primarily on growing in love and holiness. Our Lord Jesus is coming with all his holy ones, says verse 13. That might mean his holy angels, but it certainly means the saints who have died and gone to be with Jesus (cf. I Thess. 4:13-18). When Jesus returns, he “will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in him.” During this holiday season, we feel more keenly the loss of loved ones, lamenting “that empty place at the table,” and looking forward to that day when we are re-united with our dearly departed. Let’s use this season of Advent to focus on holy living, so that we won’t feel out of place when Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Jesus in the Gospel describes the kind of trust with which God calls God’s people to await his return. However, he also alludes to the kind of threats to the kind of godliness for which the psalmist prays in our text. Jesus seems to think of “dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life” as particularly powerful temptations for those who await his return. However, He tells us that the ultimate future really does contain a world of hope.

And Jeremiah reminds us that even in the midst of life’s worst woes, even in a time of collapsing securities and the disorientation that always results, God has a word. God has a plan. God has a gracious set of promises that he will fulfill. Destitution does not have the last word. The tragedies that come do not define us ultimately. God’s ways will not be thwarted by a bad economy, by unemployment, by disease, by outright poverty, by terrorism, by shootings, or even by death itself. These promises will be fulfilled by the promised “righteous Branch” whose name is “the Lord our righteousness” . He will come to do what is “just and right”. Let us wait expectantly being prepared as we pray to God to open our way, to increase our love for Him and others, and May He strengthen our hearts in holiness.

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