Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
December 3, 2017; Advent1B: Isaiah 64:1-91; Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Welcome to the first Sunday of Advent. Here we are, at the beginning of a new year, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Advent is a funny time, a “hurry up and wait” time, a time of preparation for something that is coming and yet we know has already occurred. Christmas, after all, has already happened. Jesus has already come. Yet, even knowing this, we approach Advent each year with the same sense of excitement and anticipation, praying that this Christmas Christ will come again.
Consider the four candles of the Advent wreath. For some Christians, the candles represent hope, joy, peace, and love or other virtues. Others simply see them as symbols of the gradual increase of light leading up to Christmas. (It is not by accident that early Christians placed Christmas just after the solstice, when the light in the world begins to increase.) One could say that the candles of the Advent wreath represent four thousand years of human waiting for both the first coming of the Messiah and the second. The ancient mystical readings and hymns of Advent proclaim a Christ who will come not as a child in a manger but as what the Bible calls the judge of the nations (see Isaiah 66, Joel 33, Psalm 110, 1 Corinthians 6 for starters), a judge particularly focused on how we cared for the poor and this planet given into our care. The Bible doesn’t tell us when Jesus will come again. It simply says that he will, and warn us to get ready. This baby is making a list and checking it twice… and it doesn’t look so good.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not very comfortable with the Jesus of judgment. I spend a significant amount of my time telling people that God loves them, that this church is a guilt free zone, and that Jesus is all about forgiveness, new beginnings, and fresh starts. While this is true, a quick look at the news shows that a little judgment might be deserved. Reading the headlines, it feels like Isaiah was right and that God is hidden and is far away. I am not just worried about the judgment of God. I am worried about the judgment of our children and grandchildren. I don’t know about the other men in this room, but the continual cascade of accusations about misconduct has made me think back over my life and my career and ask how often I have accidentally given the wrong signals, hugged someone who didn’t want to be hugged, or said or did something that seemed inappropriate. The caving in of congress made me ask how often I have made decisions based on greed rather than need and feeling poor rather than serving the poor. The boggling hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians asks me how often I have talked about God’s love and generosity and yet lived as if it those things didn’t exist. Like today’s newspaper, today’s readings reflect realities of ourselves we would rather not see. There are rough places that need some smoothing out, mountains of problems that need some lowering down, wildernesses that need a highway built so God can come through. A friend of mine once said, “God does accept you just as you are, but God doesn’t want you to stay that way.” The Good News is that change can happen and that nothing is impossible for God. (Luke 1:37) Because of God’s love in Jesus Christ, grace and forgiveness and fresh starts are real things that can be ours. The word “repentance” (metanoia in Greek) shares the same root as “metamorphosis.” It means turning things around Isaiah said: “You, O Lord, are the potter and we are the clay, the work of your hand . . .” If we can let God remold us and fashion us, if we can let God truly prepare us for Christmas, we will discover that truth not just of John 3:16 but John 3:17 – that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world – yes, the world – might be saved through him.
Repentance and reconciliation are churchy words that describe what happens when we allow God the potter to reshape the clay of our lives. This morning, I’d like to suggest three things to try during Advent to help this along. The first is prayer. Prayer, whether in times of silence, in the reading of the daily office, in prayers at meals or bedtimes, or just on our own with God, is sadly lacking in most of our lives. Silence is a rare thing in our lives. Silence reminds us that it’s hard to listen to God if we’re always talking. Try to break the habit of turning on the radio the moment you get in a car, the TV when you get home, or checking your phone the second you have some free time. Try lighting of an Advent candle at dinner, taking a few minutes of quiet in the early morning or evening, or opening the prayer book and using the devotions within it. Be intentional. Set a time aside each day. Read the prayer list published each week in the bulletin. If someone’s name tugs at your heart during your prayers, be sure to follow up by sending that person a card or giving them a call. If your prayers compel you to do something, give it a try. Make prayer a habit in Advent this year and you will find yourself prepared for Christmas in a whole new way.
The second part of allowing God to reshape us comes through the reading of and study scripture. Though as we read and listen to the Bible in church, most of us don’t spend all that much time reading it at home. As a result, most of us tend to process things and think emotionally rather than looking first at what the scriptures actually say. Today we begin a new cycle in our lectionary readings for Sunday morning, which is known as Year B. Year B represents a yearlong series of readings that bring us through the gospel of Mark. (All of these, are on line at www.lectionarypage.net.) Mark is the shortest and most accessible of the gospels. Why not make reading the Gospel of Mark a pre-Christmas present to yourself? Open your mind and give yourself permission to rediscover the text. The words haven’t changed since you were in Sunday school . . . but you have! If something stands out to you, come in and chat about it, do some research in a commentary or just google the passage and see what some other people might think. You will be amazed at what you will discover. Dwell in the word in Advent and you will not just learn something new, you will also experience something different when the Word made flesh comes at Christmas and dwells in you.
The third part of allowing God to be the potter and us to be the clay comes from worship and that communion and community we call church. Many churches have followed the example of department stores and are already celebrating Christmas. The great Anglican and Episcopal tradition of going through Advent first forces us to slow down and reflect upon the way. I encourage you to use these next couple of weeks as an opportunity to experience what it means to worship a little differently. If you have never been to a weekday service on Tuesdays or Taizé on Wednesday nights… if you have never tried a 7:30 or 5:15, never been to Evensong, never worshiped without staring at a prayer book or a program, never tried standing instead of kneeling or kneeling instead of standing, never been part of a class or a group, Advent is a time to do that. Make worship an intentional part of your life and you will find God shaping you, molding you, and placing you right next to the manger itself.
Today we begin Liturgical year B, working our way through the Gospel of Mark. Marked by the urgency of Advent, Mark’s gospel is short and to the point. Mark doesn’t spend time sentimentally singing Christmas carols. Mark doesn’t begin with a baby in a manger but instead starts right away with the words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Today, with Mark, we begin a journey: a journey of discovery of who Jesus is and who we are – or can be – as a result. God is the potter and we are the clay. We and are world may be in a difficult place but God is here to mold us into something new. It is Advent. It is time to light candles and push the darkness away. It is time to prepare for Christmas.