What an interesting Gospel reading for today, the first Sunday in Advent. We’ve roasted our turkeys, we’ve listened to Christmas carols in the stores for a couple of months now, we lit the first of the Advent candles this morning. We just sang about the spirit of the watchers. So now we watch and wait for the birth of Jesus. That’s what Advent is all about. Isn’t it?
Advent is a season of the Church calendar that marks a three- to four-week period before Christmas. It is the beginning of the new year in the Western Church calendar. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus meaning “presence” or “arrival.”
The world has become darker (especially when we moved our clocks back a few weeks ago), and Advent looks toward the coming light. I suspect it’s no accident that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the “Light of the World,” just after the winter solstice when the light
begins its increase, when (as my dad loved to quote from poetry) each day lingers a little longer the western sun.
Today’s collect begins asking God to “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” So we await for Christ to come among us.
But if we look to the lectionary for this Sunday or the next two Sundays for any hint of Bethlehem or wise men or miraculous births, we’ll be a bit disappointed. Of course if we look to either the first or last Gospel written, Mark or John, we won’t find any story at all about the birth of Jesus. Those birth stories we have, in Matthew and Luke, were created a couple of decades after Mark’s Gospel came along, and the two offer quite different, if not conflicting, accounts about what might have happened.
For example, the Gospel that we’re reading for these four Advent Sundays, Matthew, begins with a genealogy to show Jesus’ heritage from Abraham to David down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and then tells of Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth without any reference to a journey to Bethlehem, just that after Jesus was born there, the Magi came to “the house” after their fateful visit to Herod in Jerusalem. Matthew makes no reference to a stable, manger, shepherds or donkeys.
Luke on the other hand provides no genealogy and instead focuses heavily not on Jesus but on John the Baptist as a foil to Jesus. The author goes to considerable length to explain the background and circumstances around John's birth before ever coming to the subject of Jesus. Mary is much more central to the story there than in Matthew with her visit to Elizabeth and her Magnificat. There’s a heavy focus on the naming of John before we’re ever told of Jesus’ birth.
Back in Matthew, I think the emphasis there on Jesus’ ancestry reflects the author’s desire to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's story. He highlights Jesus as the new David with his birthplace in Bethlehem and his links as a direct descendent through Joseph. Joseph hears from angels about Old Testament prophecies that are shown to be fulfilled in Jesus. The whole Matthew account is littered with references to the Old Testament, again highlighting Jesus’ Jewish roots. Finally, the Magi's role shows the importance of Jesus and his prominence as “King of the Jews.”
So why does the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent focus on Christ’s second coming? A second coming that we cannot anticipate the where or when of. As I read the lines about not knowing when Something’s Coming, I couldn’t get Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics out of my head from West Side Story:
There’s something’ due any day;
I will know right away
Soon as it shows
It may come cannonballin’
Down through the sky
Gleam in its eye
Bright as a rose!
So here on first day of the church’s new year, just when it feels there should be a little Good News about the coming of hope and peace and life this Advent, our friend Matthew strongly suggests that we are at risk. He says “…until the day Noah entered the ark, Noah’s neighbors knew nothing… until the flood came and swept them all away. So too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
For a post-9/11 world, his is a difficult passage for 21st century Americans. How can we make sense of it? How can we find good news in the prediction that “one will be taken and one will be left” when the Son of Man comes? How can we, who live in a culture of fear and regularly updated threat levels, hear Jesus’ words except through our fear?
You’ve probably heard of a series of books called Left Behind, where a “rapture” occurs. In this so-called “rapture,” Christians are suddenly taken away from the earth leaving their clothes behind. Both in Chapel Hill on the UNC campus and at Wesleyan down in
Connecticut, I’ve come across stagings of clothing “left behind.” They were probably placed there by some group of students making fun of the whole idea of the “Rapture” and “left behind,” a movement that sprang up in 1833 from an unusual Bible translation by John Nelson Darby. Most Christian churches don’t subscribe to rapture-oriented theological views, of course, but it’s out there.
Matthew does have a rather end-time – or apocalyptic – orientation, dividing history into a present, evil age and a new age (or Realm of Heaven). The older age seems to be all about Satan and demons, about idolatry, sin, injustice, exploitation, violence, and death. The new age will be characterized by the complete rule of God and angels, by authentic worship, forgiveness, mutual support, health, and eternal life.
I think most of us tend to take this apocalyptic language as figurative and as tied to a first-century world view (when most of the population was illiterate) that doesn’t make much sense to us today. Nearly 2,000 years have passed without the Apocalypse, and we don’t anticipate some singular event that will instantly transform the world.
In the season of Advent we anticipate the arrival of the Messiah on two levels. First, we seek to place ourselves in the historical shoes of Israel as they waited for centuries for the arrival of the Messiah. When we sing songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with its lyrics about “ransoming captive Israel” who “mourns in lonely exile here” we are remembering our forebears as they awaited the arrival of God’s Anointed.
On the second level, we’re told to anticipate Christ’s Second Coming, what the New Testament writers like Matthew and Paul refer to as His parousia [pa-ra-see-ya or pare-rau-zi-a]; His “arrival.” That word, parousia, is actually the Greek word that gets translated to Adventus in Latin. So it’s the original word for Advent.
A problem with this Gospel lesson is that it calls for readiness without telling us how to get ready. What must we do? In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives two answers. First, the Parable of the Talents tells us to use our God-given resources for God’s benefit. Second, Jesus says that feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner are activities that will be credited to us as if we had done them for Christ.
This two-fold emphasis is consistent with Jesus’ answer to the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” You remember Jesus gave a two-fold answer:
He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. A second likewise is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
So my takeaway from today’s lesson is that we can prepare for Christ’s coming by (first) loving and serving God and (second) by loving and serving our neighbor.
I think the message is that simple and that universal.
So Happy New Year.
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
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Today we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Andrew. In the gospel, we hear the story of how four fisherfolk become followers of Jesus. Two of them are our guys; Andrew, who is working alongside his brother Simon, and James, who is working alongside his brother John. Jesus invites all of them into a new way of life, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
They immediately left their nets, their boats, their very way of life, all to follow this stranger who would turn the world upside down and right side up.
Within scripture, we see that following Jesus is an all or nothing experience for those first disciples. There was so much that needed to be done to help transform the world into a better place. The disciples’ work focused on spreading the good news of God’s love and compassion, healing the sick, and helping the establishment think about why they do things the way they do. Since there is so much of the story left between the lines of scripture, we are left to wonder, did these disciples ever take a rest or were they caught up in the go-go-going way of the movement?
We know a bit about go-go-going, don’t we? Nearly the entire congregation played a role to ensure the Mistletoe Mart & Craft Faire was a success yesterday. We have fun and enjoy the fellowship, but the primary reason for this event is because the funds raised sustain our outreach and mission. It ensures that we have the resources we need to live into programs, such as Whitney’s Pantry, Bread of Life, Cathedral in the Light, St. Andrew’s Guild, our Health Ministry, Emmaus Companions, Church World Service, and much more. We are trying to live into Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked, and to walk alongside those pushed to the margins of our society. We are trying to see the Christ within each and every person we encounter in the walls of this campus and beyond.
This work is constant. Then you mix in commitments to family and friends for the holidays, as well as to other organizations, and the go-go-going of our lives can feel a bit like a rollercoaster that’s gone off its tracks. Particularly for any of us who are inclined to understand our self worth by how much we do. We find we are in the middle of a one way ticket to burn out.
Yet the thing is, any relationship we have with another person is only as healthy as the least healthiest member in the relationship.** The same is true for our ministry teams. Any ministry team in the church is only as healthy as the least healthiest member of the team. Which means if we are setting ourselves up to be burnt out, we are setting up our relationships and ministry teams to struggle. This is not what God wants for us or for creation.
I’d like to share a story I recently came across which invites Andrew, James, and all followers of Jesus to slow down a bit.
We are invited to ensure we have put on our own oxygen mask, before we seek to help others.
A hearty and healthy pause as we seek to go-go-go the way of love.
Jesus’ Day Off by Nicholas Allan (if you listen to the sermon, the story is read in the audio).
What happened when Jesus took time for rest and renewal? (This is not rhetorical)
We know that Jesus routinely withdrew from the crowd to go and ensure his own well was full. It was the only way to sustain his life and work.
During this next week, which I know will surely be chaotic for some--how might each of us slow down and rest? Jesus found that fruits grew during his time of rest, because sometimes we only need to let things be for a bit. What might blossom if we were to try such a radical idea as rest? Amen.
**This idea that we are only ever as healthy as the least healthy member in a relationship originated for me from the writing of Rob and Kristen Bell's, The Zimzum of Love: A new way of understanding marriage.
Rev. Deacon Ann Wood
May we have faith in the promises of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There’s an old World War II saying in Britain that was popular during the time when bombs were raining down on England and it was also used for many years in the post-war period when food and other commodities were scarce – it went: “it’s bein’ so cheerful as keeps me goin’”. It was said with tongue in cheek, of course. Initially, the gospel passage, with its predictions of doom, gloom and disasters, brought it to mind for me. The passage didn’t leave me feeling exactly cheerful – did it you? If I’m not careful, I find it easy to get sucked into news stories of doom and gloom, even to get depressed by our current political and worldly upheavals. Jesus’ listeners were told to expect the worst - earthquakes and famines, wars and insurrections, hatred and betrayals. Jesus touches on many things that could possibly go wrong – natural disasters, political disasters, social disruption and personal betrayal. That’s what I hear so strongly on first reading this piece – BUT, on delving into the passage a little more closely, I discover that, in spite of all the doom and gloom, there’s hope. There are promises that Jesus makes, that assure us we’ll not be left alone to cope with disasters. He encourages us to persevere through difficult times. He says that we’ll be rewarded for doing so with a deeper understanding of Him and the life he offers and that we’re loved more than we could ever imagine. That sense of hope and God’s love for us is the take-home message from this reading. God is victorious over all evil things and we, with God’s help, can be too.
This gospel passage was Jesus’ final public discourse. It follows right after his comparisons between the rich folk in the Temple dropping their offerings in the collection plate – offerings they wouldn’t miss -and the poor widow who gave her all. The Temple was a popular gathering place and a magnificent building. It was so revered that it was customary to swear by the Temple; speaking against it could be considered blasphemy. It had become an idol and it was a symbol of beauty, stability and permanence. Imagine, then, the incredulity that Jesus faced from his listeners, when he predicted that their precious Temple would be demolished, that every stone in the building would end up in a heap of rubble. In a time of peace, this was unbelievable. Naturally, people wanted to know when this was likely to occur and what signs there might be to warn them of this impending catastrophe. Jesus continued his discourse by predicting the coming of false messiahs, who would try to lead them astray, along with the previously mentioned disasters.
Historically, there’s evidence that all of Jesus’ predictions occurred and that they first happened before the fall of Jerusalem. Jerusalem fell in 70 CE, only 7 years after the Temple’s completion. The city fell to the Romans, the Temple was set on fire, the gold mortar between the huge stones melted, they collapsed and it became a desolate ruin. Jesus promised that anyone who believed the signs and escaped would be saved. Some historians have indicated that in the terrible fall of Jerusalem, no followers of Jesus lost their lives. Jesus’ warnings were also protections. Historically, there’s also evidence of false prophets claiming to be the messiah and plenty of evidence of persecutions – the persecution especially of Jesus’ followers. “They will lay hands on you and persecute you”, Jesus said. Their stories are recorded in the Bible. John the Baptizer was the first witness to the gospel to be imprisoned; Peter, John and Stephen were hauled before the Sanhedrin, James before Herod Agrippa and Paul before Gallio. All were persecuted and imprisoned. Their persecution, however, Jesus said, would give them an opportunity to testify about him, which we’re told they did.
Then came Jesus’ first promise: “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict”. In other words, God will speak through them, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit will be with them to help and guide them. Promise #2: He will not leave them to fend for themselves. They could rely on Him for help and guidance. In spite of all this hatred and betrayal – promise #3 - by their endurance in bearing these trials and by trusting his promises, Jesus says that, from an eternal perspective “not a hair of your head shall be lost”. A life of faith is not an exemption from adversity, but a reliance on the promise of God to bear witness to that adversity, to be with us in the adversity and to be saved for eternal life through the grace and love of our God.
How might we look at the passage in today’s terms? We’re certainly experiencing earthquakes, famines, wars, insurrections and hatred. One might be tempted to think that we’re gearing up towards Jesus’ Second Coming, but, apparently, people in many past generations have also thought that they were living in the end times. Time will tell of course. Jesus, in his discourse, tells us not to worry about wars and insurrections, that they will occur and that the end won’t follow immediately. The promises he made back then to his listeners, also apply to us today. Jesus was honest in his discourse – this type of honesty is what to expect if you follow him. He could foresee signs that others couldn’t. It’s only when we see things through the eyes of God that we see them clearly. We might do that through prayer and meditation – ours, as well as that of others. Jesus also spoke of a safety that’s beyond earthly threats. Those who walk with Christ may lose their life, but never their courage and ability to endure trials and hardships.
In more recent times, in addition to the experiences of the disciples in the past, I’m reminded of someone like Nelson Mandela. He endured 27 years in prison, much of it in a damp concrete cell 8’x 7’ in dimensions, which contributed to his suffering from tuberculosis. Sometimes he was locked in solitary confinement, and for a long time, was permitted only one visit and one letter every 6 months. His wife was rarely allowed to see him and he was unable to attend the funerals of his mother and first-born son. He attended Christian services on Sundays and also studied Islam. He never gave up hope and eventually, after his release from prison, led the African National Congress to victory in an election for both blacks and whites. He became the first black President in South Africa. The first thing he did as President, was to forgive his tormenters; secondly, he incorporated them into his government. He introduced measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty and expand healthcare services, creating the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which focuses on combating poverty and HIV/AIDS. God was with him and guiding him during his times of trial and adversity. God was with him when he came to power.
Closer to home, I think of my son-in-law, Bill. Bill served as a Senior Pastor in a non-denominational/Baptist church for a number of years, until a segment of the leadership decided that they didn’t like the changes he was suggesting that would, in Bill’s opinion, lead the church forward. They made it clear to him that it was time for him to move on. He was subject to derision and forced to step down. With two children in college and a third in his final years in high school, one might imagine the financial hardship and uncertainties of not having a job or an income. In order to be employable in a Presbyterian church, the church he originally trained in, he needed to re-educate himself and submit to the ordination process of that church. God has been with him and his wife and family during these trials and adversities. He has never lost faith in God’s goodness and he’s now coming out of the dark tunnel into the light of leading a new parish and looking forward to an upcoming ordination. Adversity has strengthened him and his faith.
I can remember times in my own life when this has been true. It may have been a sense or inner knowledge that God is with me or God may have been present through a friend or stranger who came into my life at just the right time. God loves and cares for each one of us more than we can ever imagine or comprehend, so, if you’re going through a particularly difficult time, know that Jesus was there before you and will continue to be there with you now. His is the victory over all evil. Look for the grace and unexpected blessings even in a time of hardship, pain or tragedy. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls” Jesus says, and, who knows, perhaps by doing so, we’ll be able to reiterate that old World War II saying that “it’s bein’ so cheerful as keeps me goin’” without having tongue in cheek! Amen.
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