Sermons

Collect for Advent 1 of a 7-Week Advent: Wisdom

Eternal God, your Word of wisdom goes forth and does not return empty: Grant us such knowledge and love of you that we may perceive your presence in all creation and every creature; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 – Psalm 127 – Hebrews 9:24-28 – Mark 12:38-44

Almost exactly one year ago, I warned the St. Paul’s community that I am Advent-obsessed, and today we are reaping the rewards. You can see from the colors, the wreath with its candles, and the Advent hymns that today we are observing the first Sunday in a seven-week Advent season. In doing so, we’ve joined a small but growing number of parishes – from many Christian denominations – who are going deeper, and journeying longer, into Advent. We are embarking on a journey of hope – and today I want to start us on that journey. Some of the way will be familiar, and some of it will come as a surprise, a challenge to our ways of thinking about and living our faith.

One of the earliest descriptions of Advent comes from the fifth century – in that account, Christians were called to fast and prepare for the feast of Christmas beginning on St. Martin’s Day, which is November 11 – today! So the practice of a longer Advent season is not unheard of, and it is an ancient one.

But it’s not just the length of the season that matters – really, it’s more about the intent, about where the journey is taking us. Or, to put it another way, it’s about the question, “What are we waiting for?” What are we waiting for during this season? Are we just waiting for December 25th, for one day of feasting and gift-giving, and that’s that? Are we just waiting for the baby to be born in Bethlehem, or is there something more to it?

Although the season of Advent has always culminated in the feast of Christmas – the primary goal or focus of Advent is meant to lead us well beyond the manger and the shepherds. Advent means “coming,” and we know that it is Christ who is coming, but how do we understand this arrival? Our liturgy shows us, week after week, and all year long we proclaim it: we believe in Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary, who is fully present to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Christ has lived and died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. It is all three of these comings to which Advent points, not just the first one. Somehow we lost the last one especially.

It’s hard to blame us for wanting to deflect attention from the “Christ will come again” part, because it has been so distorted by fundamentalists and those who keep trying to predict the day and hour. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how warped and unbiblical this perspective actually is – it reads the Bible in a way that completely deforms its original message and its meaning for us today.

But for Christ to come again as “judge” – how is this good news? Why should we reclaim it, during Advent and beyond? The act of judging, in our world, is fraught with peril and violence – people are judged and persecuted for who they are or are not; feelings of being judged by others creates alienation and isolation and pain. In our world, judgment is not necessarily justice, and it tears us apart from one another.

But in scripture, and in Christian teaching, when Christ comes as judge, it is always and only for one purpose: to end oppression and save the poor and the vulnerable. It brings restoration, not retribution. It is hope, not despair. And most importantly, it is Christ’s judgment, not ours. We have a habit of turning judgment on everyone except ourselves and assuming that Jesus shares our conclusions – that’s not what Christ’s coming as judge means.

Here’s the thing: our broken world need the judgment and restoration of God. Christ’s final coming is about that restoration, otherwise known as the Reign of God. This is what we are waiting for and seeking to be a part of – a new heaven and a new earth in which reconciliation and restoration come in all their fullness.

 This is why it is so important to remember we are not just waiting for the baby in Bethlehem – if that were true, we’d simply be going around the liturgical year over and over again and never going anywhere. What we are waiting for is not in the past – it is still ahead of us. We are waiting and looking for something that we can see now only dimly, as if in a mirror. We catch glimpses of it all the time, and it gives us great joy, but it is never complete.

Moments of forgiveness and reconciliation; the homeless given comfort and shelter; the hungry going home with groceries from the food pantry, or better yet, not needing to go to a food pantry at all; rivers running clean and clear of pollution; all these are glimpses of the Reign of God, of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. These are glimpses of the world as God desires it to be.

We catch those glimpses also in scripture: we discover that king David, the greatest ruler of Israel and ancestor of the Messiah despite his brokenness, is the great-grandson of an immigrant – Ruth, who is not an Israelite but a woman of Moab. We discover that there is room for the alien and the stranger, and that we are all one. We watch as Jesus, sitting in the temple courtyard, makes a judgment about society’s injustice, and we dream of a world in which poor widows will not have to sacrifice their last two coins to offer praise to God or for any other reason.

We are filled with hope that as we seek to participate in this reign of justice and peace, we will be made more like Christ. Our hope is not only for the world, but for ourselves, that God will change us, make us more just, more courageous, more loving, more wise.

And speaking of growing more wise – on this first Sunday of Advent we are called to ponder the coming Christ as Wisdom. Each Sunday and the days of the following week are centered on one of the “O Antiphons” – prayers to Messiah, the one who is to come, who ushers in the reign of God. You know these antiphons already, because they form the verses of “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”

The Christ who was and is and is to come, we celebrate this week as Wisdom from on high, revealing one source of our hope as that Wisdom which pervades all that is around and in us. The cosmos is ordered and nurtured by God; it reveals God to us. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, embodies that Wisdom as God’s self-communication, to the world, a message that is rooted in creation as good. And this Wisdom also permeates and belongs to us, if we are open to it:

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, who orderest all things mightily. To us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.

I invite you to pray with this the whole week – meditate on how it nourishes your hope. Where do you find God in creation, in the guidance of Wisdom? How is Jesus our Wisdom, our Word of hope? And where, in this world of hunger and shootings and racism and despair, do you see glimpses of Messiah ushering in a new heaven and a new earth? Our season of hope and expectation now begins.

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