Advent I – Nov.
Paul Santmire, Watertown, MA
Texts: Is. 2:1-5, Ro. 13:11-14, Ps. 122, Mt.
Introduction: The season of Advent in North America is
all-too often swallowed up by the so-called “Christmas spirit.” Pastors know well the pressures from
congregational members to sing Christmas hymns as soon as possible. Never mind the fact that Christmas
decorations already have been up for sale in Home Depot since the end of
August. Why bother with Advent?
also know well that the biblical meanings of Christmas only make sense when
they’re interpreted in terms of the rich texts of Advent. Christmas, biblically interpreted, is
countercultural. The countercultural
pilgrimage of Advent prepares the way for such understandings. It’s not enough, in other words, for the
people of faith to realize that “Jesus is the reason for the Season” of Christmas. They need to understand that the biblical
Jesus stands over against every human season, both in judgment and in
promise. Advent, rightly preached and
enacted, will help the faithful claim that understanding as their own.
Karl Barth was
wont to talk about “the strange new world of the Bible.” What if the presiding Pastor were to say, in
introducing the themes of Advent: “You’re not going to ‘get’ our Advent texts, at
least not the way you might want to. I sometimes
have trouble understanding them myself.
Listen to them as if they were beamed here from some hitherto totally
unknown planet in some strange language. Advent texts refer to difficult ideas,
like ‘the end of the world,’ which some Christians think they know all about, but which in fact are obscure to the
point of being unintelligible. On the
other hand, what if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our
Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is urgently concerned to speak to you through
these very texts?”
Isaiah 2:1-5 is a kind of free-floating text, only
loosely related to its context. Likewise
for Micah 4:1-3, which is roughly identical with the text from Isaiah. The words we have in Is. 2:1-5 appear to
reflect a kind of communal affirmation of faith, analogous, in Christian
practice, to use of the Apostles Creed.
Why did that prophetic text have that kind of traditional place of honor
in the memories and celebrations of the ancient People of God? Its countercultural witness to a coming world
of universal peace seems to be almost too much to believe in a world of
constant warfare, with which the ancient People of God were well-acquainted.
Ps. 122 picks up many of the same themes of universal
peace, flowing from Jerusalem. Note the
play of words with the name of the city, shalom
or “peace.” In terms of the history
of religions, moreover, the city of Jerusalem for the Hebrew mind is a kind of
umbilical center of the cosmos, the place where heaven and earth, the Divine
and the mundane worlds are joined with unique intensity.
Romans 13:11-14 discloses the eschatological mind-set that
permeates the faith of the Apostle Paul, a mindset that is sometimes forgotten
as interpreters, especially Lutherans, focus on the Pauline theme of
justification by faith (Ro. 1:17). But
for Paul, the two are inseparable. The
Pauline vision comprehends the whole history of God with the creation, not just
the pro me of justifying faith.
Matthew 24:36-44 may be the single most difficult biblical text
to preach on in North America today.
Countless millions – including many members of mainline churches – have
read the many popular novels in the Left
Behind series, the idea being that the day is at hand when a few believers
will be “raptured” up to heaven by God, saving them from the total destruction
that God is allegedly about to wreak on the whole world. For New Testament faith, on the contrary, the
heavenly Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth (Rev. 21:2), leading to a
new heavens and a new earth. Jesus’ language here is figurative throughout,
not literal. It’s intended to shock the
hearer into a new way of hearing and understanding (cf. “Keep awake”), akin to
his puzzling reference to a camel going through the eye of a needle. (Luke
Sample Sermon: Let it Dawn on You Today
Text: “…It is the hour for you to awake from
sleep. For our salvation is nearer now
than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” (Ro.
St. Paul’s words to the early Christian
Church at Rome strike me with a certain terror.
Because I’m a night person.
Are you a morning person? Or are you a night person? If you’re a morning person, let me tell you
what it’s like to be a night person.
It’ll be good for your spiritual health.
If you’re a night person, like me, then I imagine you’ll be glad to
empathize with me, every step of the way.
First, and you morning people may find
this difficult to believe, it take a lot of energy to wake up.
My wife’s a morning person. It took her many years into our marriage to
realize that it didn’t make any sense for her to say anything of significance
to me first thing in the morning. You
know, she pops right up, and starts talking to me about my “honey-do”
list. And I respond obediently, “uh-huh,
uh-huh.” Two hours later she discovers
that I don’t have a bird of an idea what she said to me.
is like that. It takes a lot of
spiritual energy to wake up. So you’re a
smoker. You know that smoking’s a kind
of suicidal behavior. You know that the
Lord doesn’t want you to kill yourself.
You’re going to stop sometime, you know.
But it never really dawns on you that now’s the time to wake up.
So you’re a cheater, at times. Maybe it’s on your exams at school. Maybe it’s cutting corners at work. Maybe it’s on your spouse, real or
imagined. Maybe it’s on your income tax,
hugely or just in detail here or there.
You fill in the blank.
Mostly you don’t get caught. But the whole thing troubles you. What’s more, you know that once you get into
the habit of cheating one thing can lead to another. And that could be catastrophic for you or for
others. If you’re a surgeon, the sleep
you cheat on at night could lead you to amputate the wrong leg the next day or to
fall asleep at the wheel on a high speed family outing.
Then there’s voting, in particular, and
political action, more generally. If
press reports are to be believed, a majority of the U.S. electorate is now
disgusted by the tenor and even the substance of our recent elections. You may well be tempted to throw in the towel
of politics, as if nothing political matters any more. But the truth of the matter is that
everything political matters today, perhaps more than ever. What about the biblical vision of a just
peace for all peoples and indeed for the whole creation?! You heard it again in our readings today. But if many Christians let themselves go
groggy or even fall asleep on the political superhighways of our society,
what’s to become of the promise of peace on earth, good will to all?
That’s why we night people need alarms.
Sometimes I set two alarms, one on the bed table, one across the
room. Because I don’t trust myself. I’m likely to turn off the alarm next to me,
roll over, and go back to sleep. Now as
a bona fide night person, I hate
those alarm clocks. But all the more so,
I know how much I need them.
Did you ever think that God is setting off
dozens of alarms all around you?
Everybody these days is “in” to
spirituality. Go to your local big box
book store and you’ll find dozens and dozens of books on spirituality. So you stand there, like a deer at night
staring at the headlights, wondering how you can possibly read enough of those
books to be the kind of spiritual person you want to be.
In the meantime, God is setting off alarms all over the place. Your physician tells you that you’d better
quit smoking or you’re going to have a heart attack by the time you’re
fifty. Your teacher at school quietly
takes you aside and tells you that moral integrity is more important than
straight A’s, so you might consider writing your own papers and not getting
them on line. Your secretary tells you
that she’s leaving, because the environment you wink at in your office is so
abusive that she can’t take it anymore.
Then your Pastor tells you that, notwithstanding all the toxicity of the
last election, Jesus calls you to get back into the political struggle in
behalf of the poor and the oppressed and indeed the whole Earth, that Jesus
wants you to plunge in, not drop out.
Some people wonder where God is in their lives. If that’s you, you could start by listening
to all the alarms that’re going off all around you, every day. “It is the hour for you to awake from sleep,”
But I can assure you. There is
hope, even for bona fide night people
Let me tell you what characteristically
happens to me on Sunday mornings. Both
my alarms go off. During the dark winter
mornings that we have in Advent, I stumble around in the twilight to get
ready. I rummage through the paper to
see what happened the day before. I say
a quick prayer. I gulp down some coffee. And off I go.
Now and again, it happens. I’m driving along West Market Street heading
downtown, in the twilight. And then I
happen to see the first rays of the sun.
On occasion, this is my vision.
At the top of the last hill down into the city, I look across the way
and I see the sun coming up, right behind
this church! What a marvelous sight!
Did it ever dawn on you? Did it ever dawn on you that if you were at
the right place, at the right time, you could see that this world of sin and
death and disappointment and political toxicity is in fact God’s world, where
God’s struggling to overcome all the darkness?
Did it ever dawn on you that this commonplace society of sinners here on
Sunday mornings who are struggling to believe in the midst of the darkness of
this world: that here’s a reliable place
for you to see the Light of God?
That’s the way it’s been for me all my
life. However much I’ve stumbled around
in the darkness, the Light of Christ has already been there for me, beginning
with the mysteries and the ministries of the Church of Christ. That doesn’t mean that the darkness is going
to go away. That means that you have seen the Light, baby. Actually, in the person of a baby. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself –
because this is Advent, when what I need to be working on first and foremost is
waking up, not figuring out how to hold an infant in my arms.
Let me tell you a story. Happens to be a true story.
When I first started preaching and
teaching about God’s love for the whole creation, not just humans, I felt very
much alone. In those days, back in the early
nineteen-sixties, most of the Church’s preachers and teachers had other axes to
grind. Only a very few, like the great
Lutheran theologian of nature, Joseph Sittler, even cared about such things. Meanwhile, a few of us were indeed convinced
that God so loved the world that God
gave the Beloved, God’s only Son, so that the
world might be saved through Him.
Similar developments were unfolding in a
number of Christian churches. By now the
spiritual vision of God loving the whole world – every creature! – has taken
over the hearts and minds of Christians throughout the world. Pope Francis’ justly celebrated encyclical Laudato Si, is the most visible of these
developments, but only one among many.
In Lutheran circles, a growing grassroots
ecojustice network, Lutherans Restoring Creation, is being used by God to
transform Lutheran minds and hearts throughout our church. A new generation of Lutheran theologians, too,
dedicated to Earth ministry and to the poor of the Earth, is now calling on our
congregations to participate in a new Eco-Reformation
– the title of their recently published theological manifesto, which will
hopefully inspire new conversations and new commitments in celebration of the
500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
Once upon a time, when I was working
through my days of depressed theological slumber about these theology and
ecology matters, I never could have anticipated what has happed in our churches
in the current generation. But now it’s
dawned on me! God has not forsaken his
churches! I just had to wake up and
see! I also had to wait – but that’s another Advent theme for another day.
It’s not easy being a night person, as I
say. Sometime it takes a long time to
wake up and see the light! But I can
tell you, on the basis of my own experience, that sometimes, when you do get
around to waking up, after you’ve heard the alarms, the experience of the
dawning Light can be remarkable, even overwhelming, right in the midst of the
darkness of this world of sin and death.
Hear this Word of the Lord, therefore. Let it dawn on you this day: “…It is the hour for you to awake from
sleep. For our salvation is nearer now
than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” Amen.