Saturday, December 15, 2007

Year C, Advent 3 (sermon)

Advent, as we know, is a time of waiting. But every so often we need to stop and ask ourselves:

What are we waiting for?

The passage from Isaiah foretells a homecoming and a restoration, and as it echoes down the centuries to our ears, all the way to us listening this Sunday, it sheds various meanings. A way is being prepared for someone, it seems, but for whom, and what does it mean? To the people to whom the prophet originally spoke, it foretold the triumphant return of a remnant of the Exiles to promised land, to Israel. Centuries later, Christians recognized in it a prophesy about Christ’s coming; Jesus answered John’s disciples by citing many of its promises, ‘Go and tell your master, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, and lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear.”’ And after Christ’s resurrection, the early Church saw, as we still do today, an eschatological meaning in this passage—a meaning that stretches forward to Christ’s return.

This sort of double-vision, this plurality of meanings, colors so much of what Advent is. We are waiting for something—but what, exactly are we waiting for?

In one sense, what we are “waiting” for what has already happened—the birth of Jesus Christ. We are expectantly approaching Christmas day, when we celebrate the birth of our Savior—so that our waiting and watching actually looks backwards. And, of course, we are waiting for that time to be with our families, the holiday meals, the exchange of presents, and the little family traditions that go along with Christmas.

But if we leave it at that, we’ve missed out on half of Advent. Because, in another sense, we are “waiting” not just for something that has already happened, but for something yet to be. We are watching for the final culmination of all creation in the return of Christ. Jesus cautioned “anyone with ears to listen” that they must be on their guard, that they should live expectantly, on the lookout for the Day of the Lord. This sense of urgency, of edge-of-your-seat anticipation, kind of gradually fizzled out of the early Church as Christ’s second coming seemed longer in coming than anyone expected. But Jesus warned about exactly that—that no one would know the hour or the day. Still, it’s hard to keep up a kind of truly expectant, watching-for-the-Master’s-return kind of mindset when the sun keeps stubbornly rising and setting, day after day, on a relatively unchanged world. Despite the prophet’s beatific vision, and despite those whom Christ healed during his ministry in Galilee, there are still the blind, lame, and poor. People still need to make a living. “They work the fields, they give and are given in marriage.” Oh blah dee, oh blah dah, Life goes on.

Even John the Baptist, who had earlier in Matthew’s gospel recognized in Jesus one who ought to baptize him, not the other way around—Who saw in Jesus the one who would baptize with fire and the holy spirit, not with water—is now perhaps having doubts. Now, from his jail cell, he is sending disciples to ask Jesus point blank—“are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

It’s hard to live at a fever-pitch of expectancy. James advises his readers: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” Farmers can be patient about their crops, he reasons—so you be patient too. But James wants to make sure that his community doesn’t become complacent and lazy in their waiting—“Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near!” James wants us too live as if Jesus is just around the corner. That’s what Advent living looks like. I mean, If all we’re looking forward to is a nice Christmas dinner, and presents around the tree--- well, it gets pretty easy for us to get sloppy about Advent. But if Jesus is coming, if Jesus is right about to ring the door bell any moment—well, we all probably have some pretty serious housecleaning to do, and fast! James wants us to feel that urgency; he writes, “See the Judge is standing at the doors!”

Live like that, James counsels us. Live like that, Jesus tells anyone with an ear who’ll listen. Live like restoration and homecoming is really on its way, Isaiah tells us.

What are we waiting for?

Because Advent is about waiting and watching, but what we’re waiting for makes a world of difference.

If it’s just Christmas—even a thoroughly religious Christmas, with carols and prayers and church services before all the family time—then all we’re left at the end of it is a pile of wrapping paper, a few church bulletins, and the overfed feeling that we’ve had a little too much of Mom’s green-bean and French’s Onion casserole.

But if we’re truly waiting for Christ’s coming again, then we’re left with so much more: Hope. Expectancy. Something worth looking forward to. All promises that Isaiah, the James, and John, and all the prophets, gave us. And if we’re expecting that, we need to live like that is a real possibility, like it’s coming, and we wanna be get on board while the getting’s good.

To live like that is to live as an Advent people, a people who have faith and hope not just at one time of the year, but all the time. See, James reminds us, The Judge is standing at the door!

So, what are we waiting for?

Let’s straighten this place up!


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