Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent Now

This sermon refers to two of the readings for the First Sunday of Advent: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36.

Don’t ask me how it got to be Advent already. I’m still cutting-back our perennial beds for the winter, and shuffling-along the mortal coils of the 2009 gardening season so we can fit the car in the garage. I’m about ready for fall, not winter; but there’s no mistaking the season, once it gets to be about 4:30 in the afternoon, not a bad time to consider the words of our collect about casting away the works of darkness and putting upon us the armor of light “now in the time of this mortal life,” the very place and time of our being visited by Jesus in great humility.

Already, 4:30 arrives and I’m startled by the darkness… and there’s another three weeks before the solstice trims our shortest day of the year. Much of Advent will be spent feeling time running through our fingers like sand, facing the temptation to see our hourglass half empty, not half full.

“Now in the time of this mortal life…”

“Now when these things begin to take place…" There’s that Advent word again, Now. The way St. Luke records it, Jesus teaches his disciples to read the signs of the times so they’ll be alert to all they mean, on guard so as not to be caught unexpectedly, as in a trap, ignorant and unknowing.

Our Lord’s parable of the fig tree seems not to fit now, our winterizing season, for he asks the twelve to imagine leaves sprouting on that fig tree. Last weekend in balmy Cambridge, not far from Harvard Yard, I saw bearded iris in full bloom, encircling one of those signs that threaten the unmitigated wrath of God upon anyone who might consider parking there. “Park here by permit only; all others shall be sent into outer darkness.” I wondered by whose permit that iris was daring to bloom.

The righteous branch of David mentioned today by the prophet Jeremiah had to be caused to spring up. It wasn’t expected in the natural order of things that God would send a Messiah capable of bestowing righteousness on earth, that is, making-right all the horrific injustices of the human race and making-whole all the damaged integrity of planet earth.

Such is the mission of the Messiah who speaks to us out of Luke’s Gospel this morning. He catalogues all the dismal signs of a deterioriating creation, a shaken heaven, a crumbling earth, a rising sea—all signs of distress causing the human race to “faint from fear and foreboding”.

But he himself causes courage. The natural order of things is for people to duck, when threatened by danger. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And within verses, again, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down,” don’t numb your senses with drugs and drink, don’t fill your mind with worries of this life. The only way to survive the inescapable with your souls still intact is to stand in the strength of prayer.

Politicians will govern badly and ineptly. Chronic tribal grudges will keep poisoning the well of human community. Our creaturely state will always be vulnerable to pandemics. Lack of compassion and imagination and courage will keep turning expendable people into casualties. Greed will consume the greatest of societies. Wisdom will inspire vision by morning light, but by 4:30 in the afternoon of the human race, fears will loom large and cowards win the night.

The evening news has always been sobering, troubling. No wonder the Church, in her bedtime prayers of Compline, prays, “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…” and “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness…”

Our times are in the hands of God, every moment of now in the keeping of the Christ of God and in the shaping of the Spirit of God. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Advent is the Church’s short season of preparing for wonder, preparing for birth, recognizing God causing the birth of a Messiah who bestows righteousness on earth, the special agent of God whose mission is making-right the horrific injustices of the human race and making-whole the damaged integrity of the planet.

Advent is the Church’s short season of preparing to receive the greatest of gifts. Remember, this Messiah bestows righteousness. What gift could exceed or even hold a candle to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that puts us in right relationship with God and with one another, through the working of the Holy Spirit?

Wednesday, I sat with a young family preparing for a baptism. Always, the curriculum for conversation in that setting is the Book of Common Prayer’s definition of grace: “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” In Jesus our Messiah, God bestows righteousness.

Thursday, the two dozen of us gathered for eucharist here on Thanksgiving Day heard St. Matthew’s report of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, ending with his exhortation, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the worldly ones who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

How do you strive for a righteousness that is given?

There is the Advent question, and it presents the work of Advent: to prepare to receive this gift above all gifts.

As we recognized in our collect, this gift, Jesus, comes to us in great humility. We could miss this gift, looking for something more spectacular, more satisfying to our taste buds or our flair for fashion.

The desire which this gift, Jesus, corresponds to is a passion for justice and healing and peace, for his mission is making-right the ancient wrongs of earth and making-whole the fabric and firmament of this fractured world.

This too is the work of Advent, to strive for these things. And, alongside them, take the measure of all else that we could spend our all on in the twenty-five days ahead, and find it all wanting, missing the reason for the season.

I’ll remind you, and then I hope you’ll keep reminding me, that Advent’s fullness will not be measured by the number of days left. It will be found in every now that is not missed in the rush to then.