Sermons That Work

Preoccupied, Advent 1 (C) – 2006

December 03, 2006

Advent, this season on which we embark today, these few short weeks of repentance, preparation, and expectation, begins with a picture of the end of the world. Jesus, already well aware of the likelihood of his own demise, is preaching prophetically about the destruction of the world people knew. And indeed, just a short 40 years later, in about 70 A.D., the Romans put down the last Jewish uprising, destroyed the temple, and the world for many ended. The Temple was the center of the world for Jews, who still mourn its loss.

Jesus’ prophetic words give us a chill down the spine as we hear them today. There has been a lot of “distress among nations” for some time now, and people do “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.€ Trying to explain this passage as fixed in time is not a helpful exercise. In our context today it is just as relevant.

Sometimes you have to say things in a prophetic way to get people’s attention. Sometimes you have to tell people the awful truth: that things are a mess and we are all somehow responsible for it. Sometimes you have to say disturbing things to get people agitated enough to change their behavior.

Not long ago a couple went to a church, a large and prosperous one, for the first time. As they walked down a corridor they smiled at a number of people, but no one greeted them. Everyone was preoccupied with herding the choir and acolytes, getting business attended to about the coming bazaar, and depositing their children in Sunday school. As they entered the church, an usher in the back handed them a bulletin while engaged in earnest conversation with someone else, his face turned away from them. Afterward, the couple agreed the congregation was too preoccupied to engage in the simple act of hospitality.

And so are we, too preoccupied. Eugene Peterson translates part of this passage from Luke today, “Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping” (Luke 21:34). A season of preparation and expectation should permeate all that we do, from expecting and welcoming visitors, to focusing on what’s really important: our relationship with God and the Messiah who is to come.

So, are there any tools offered in this Sunday’s readings, any hope we can grasp, any piece of advice we can take home and dwell upon? Let’s start with the collect, today’s opening prayer in the liturgy. “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

This is a gracious prayer in which we ask God to give us what we most need: abiding grace. We can’t do it ourselves. A wise bishop one said, “People fix problems, God redeems messes!” So our first request is to have the grace to set aside darkness and think of ourselves clothed with the armor of light.

Let’s play that scene from the church again: It’s Sunday morning. A couple arrives for the first time and they are greeted at the door by someone who says, “Welcome. May I sit with you this morning?” After Church, they are taken to the coffee hour and introduced to the clergy, and others. It’s all about them, and suddenly they’re not strangers, but part of a new community of welcome and light instead of the preoccupied one above.

In Jeremiah, we get a short and pithy message: “God keeps his promises.” Nobody has to wonder about that. Jeremiah had to tell his wealthy friends and others that things weren’t right between them and God. But he also got to say that God was going to do something about that, even if they weren’t. He was going to re-establish righteousness, a right relationship between God and God’s people. In this brief passage one has the feeling it’s a done deal, so you might as well enjoy the show! The passage also proclaims God’s intention of justice and righteousness in the land – a hope that has sustained faithful people through many faithless times, and continues to do so. God redeems messes.

In the passage from I Thessalonians the writer prays that the people who are the beloved believers will be blameless before God at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all the saints. And it all comes out of the boundless love that they share with one another. They have imitated Christ, and their reward will be Christ’s sustaining love forever.

So, we have the tools of grace, faith (promises kept), and our capacity to imitate Christ to use in our Advent journey. We can still shop, maybe even go to a party or two, but they’re not the main thing. The main thing is that even when the news is bad, and it’s not very good right now, even when terrible things are happening and we get them flashed live into our homes, they are not God’s message. God’s message is a response. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

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Christopher Sikkema


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