A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent + December 3, 2017

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, December 3, 2017

The First Sunday of Advent + Year B
First Lesson: Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Second Lesson: I Corinthians 1:3-9
Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

24337584_1564489326975651_1342812250_nToday is the First Sunday of Advent. Today is the beginning of a new year in the life of the church, and with a new year comes new life and new possibilities. You’ll notice that the Nave and the outside of the church have been decorated with beautiful greenery and special symbols of the season, such as the Advent Wreath. The greenery symbolizes for us the eternal hope that we have in Jesus Christ, and the Advent Wreath, with its four purple and pink candles, reminds us of the four central themes that we focus on during the season: hope, faith, joy, and love, one candle for each Sunday in Advent. The white candle in the center is the Christ Candle, representing Jesus – the True Light who has come forth into the world to save us. We’ll light the Christ Candle for the first time on Christmas Eve. Since today is the First Sunday of Advent, only the first candle on the Advent wreath has been lighted. This candle serves as a symbol of hope as we prepare to receive God’s greatest gift at Christmas and as we prepare for our Lord’s triumphant return.

The season of Advent is a time of waiting in hopeful expectation as we prepare for Christmas, but it’s also a time of prayer and introspection as we wait for our Lord’s return. As the psalmist writes in today’s selection from Psalm 80, “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” Advent provides time for us to examine our lives and ask ourselves, “Are we doing the work of ushering in God’s kingdom?” “Are we ready for Christ to return?”

In today’s lesson from the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus offers his disciples a prophetic glimpse of God’s final judgment, one that is quite different than the version that we heard last week in Matthew’s Gospel with Jesus’ story about the sheep and the goats. In today’s lesson, Jesus says, “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” Many Christians become apprehensive when they hear words like “end times” or the “second coming” of Christ, and there is good reason for this. We know very little about what will happen when the world as we know it comes to an end, and, as history has proven, human beings fear that which is unknown or unfamiliar. Unfortunately, throughout the history of the church, we have often witnessed the exploitation of these fears and the misuse of apocalyptic writing found within the pages of Holy Scripture. Many of our brothers and sisters have been taught to believe that, during the “final judgment” of Christ, God will only save an elect few and condemn the rest of humanity to eternal pain and torment. The word, “apocalypse,” is derived from the Greek word, “apokalypsis,” which means, “lifting of the veil.” In his book, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright uses the image of a lifting veil to describe his vision of what he calls the “reappearing” of Christ. The bishop writes, “He is, at the moment, present with us, but hidden behind that invisible veil which keeps heaven and earth apart, and which we pierce in those moments, such as prayer, the sacraments, the reading of scripture, and our work with the poor, when the veil seems particularly thin. But one day the veil will be lifted; earth and heaven will be one; Jesus will be personally present, and every knee shall bow at his name; creation will be renewed; the dead will be raised; and God’s new world will at last be in place, full of new prospects and possibilities.” Bishop Wright’s vision of heaven and earth becoming one creation, of God’s future overlapping with our present, is a concept that may be difficult to accept, especially for those of us who’ve always been taught that “heaven” is simply a destination for souls, a world or reality that exists separate from our own, but the writers of the New Testament and the early church fathers would have considered this concept of “heaven” to be equally foreign. In fact, the word “resurrection,” as it’s used in the New Testament, is not about “life after death.” According to Bishop Wright, it’s about “life after ‘life after death.’” As the end of this world comes to an end, we are promised bodily resurrection in God’s new creation. Or, as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed, “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” No one knows when the end of this age will take place. The earliest Christians believed that Christ’s return was imminent. However, as Jesus proclaims in today’s Gospel lesson, no one but the Father knows. He says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake- for you do not know when the master of the home will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Our Sunday Adult Forum class recently began watching a series of short films entitled, NOOMA, by author and speaker, Rob Bell. The curriculum is designed so that participants have an opportunity to watch a short video each week, followed by a group discussion based on material from the video. Several years ago, before going to seminary, I used this same curriculum with a young adult Sunday school class at my parish in Dothan. On week three of the class, we watched a video simply titled, “Trees.” During the video, Rob Bell shared a story about a preacher that he once heard while listening to a Christian radio station. The well-known preacher was telling his audience about the “end of times” and that Jesus was going to return and magically fix everything that was wrong with the world. Essentially, the preacher’s message was that, in order to be faithful Christians, we should simply be hoping and waiting for that day to arrive. Bell used the image of two trees: one representing the creation in Genesis and the other representing the “end of times,” to pose a question. “Are we living between the two trees?” If we are, we have an important decision to make. We must decide how to use the time that God has given us in this life. We can either sit idle, hoping and waiting for some unknown day to arrive. Or, we can actively participate in God’s creation, working for earth and heaven to become one. We can work for that day when Christ will return. The choice is ours to make.

During this season of Advent, I pray that God will bless us with “grace upon grace” as we carefully examine our lives and the choices that we make, and I pray that God will fill our hearts with the hope of the resurrection as we prepare for the day of our Lord’s return. Amen.

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