Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the (western) Christian year, and it was also my first opportunity to perform a baptism. It was a wonderful event made even more special because the baby is the child of some good friends of ours. Advent is a curious season in that we tend to think of it as “Christmas” when in fact Christmas and Epiphany do not begin until, well, Christmas. Advent is the time of expectation for the second coming of Jesus, not his first. I won’t go on more here, because that is the point of the sermon, but the challenge as I saw it was to do justice to our readings and the season while also celebrating the baptism of this child. I leave it up to you do decide how successful I was.
First Sunday of Advent
Year B, RCL
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Baptism of AEC
This morning is the first Sunday of Advent. To many of us it means we have finished off (hopefully) the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers, put up our Christmas tree and decorations, and opened upon the Advent calendar, getting ready to watch Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem. “Advent” means to arrive or come and we can be forgiven for believing that it refers solely to the birth of Jesus the long-awaited Messiah. In fact, this season of waiting and expectation, as our collect suggests, is not only a time when we remember Jesus’ birth on earth, but it is also a time of reflection and preparation for his coming again in the last days. This season is very much like Lent, a time when we are to be in penitential prayer, aware of our sins and Christ’s forgiveness and of God’s promise to bring his justice and judgment to this world when Christ returns again.
So we have our readings from Isaiah and Mark, readings very similar to those from Amos and Matthew when I last preached three weeks ago. Isaiah calls out to God to remember his people and bring judgment upon their enemies.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
Isaiah confesses that the community of faith has sinned, but asks God to remember his people. At the time of this prophecy Israel is living in exile, a community far from their homeland with the Temple of the Lord nothing but a forgotten pile of rubble. The prophet knows that Israel has sinned and that many no longer believe in the Lord and yet he affirms the faith of his people and calls upon God to remember them.
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
We too are a people living in exile, waiting for Christ to return and fulfill his promises. Granted, this is a very comfortable exile. Even in these financially difficult times I saw a lot of wide screen LCD TVs moving out of Walmart and BestBuy this weekend. Most of us in this congregation are well-fed and have warm homes and well-paying jobs. But comfort like suffering can equally drive us away from God. Jesus has been a long time in his return and to suggest that complacency can and has set in would be an understatement. It is to this that Jesus speaks in our Gospel today.
But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.
How are we going to spend this time in between the first advent of Jesus and his second? There are many of late who spend their time, in direct contradiction to Jesus’ assurance that no one will know the day or hour, trying to determine exactly when he will return. The books and movies of the Left Behind series are a testament to that. While poking around the internet on this topic I came across a blog entitled “The Time of the End: 2008 – 2012,1 Research into Bible Prophecy revealing the chronology of the ‘last days’.” Brilliant. Very committed Christians, I have no reason to doubt their faith, spending their energy and time trying to divine something that Jesus himself told us was unknowable. This is particularly egregious because Jesus goes on to tell us what we should be doing in this time.
“It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake!” Each of us has our own tasks and skills that we have been called to do and we are to set about them with all industry, honesty, and integrity. Elsewhere Jesus tells us, beyond the specifics of our vocation, that the work of a follower of Christ is to love one another, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and to be people of prayer. This time in between should be filled with our devotion to Christ so that his presence suffuses all that we do and are. How we engage with our coworkers, our families, even those crazy drivers on the road and people fighting in stores for the latest Wii game, should be transformed by Christ’s love in us. This is how we are to spend our time in exile, our time waiting for the master to return.
As we enter into this advent season we need remember that it is a time of preparation, not just with the bright lights and decorations of our homes, but of our souls.
This morning we will welcome into our household of faith AEC through the sacrament of baptism. It is a wonderful gift that the Cs are giving to all of us, as we are reminded through her arrival of the arrival of Jesus, as baby and savior. Anyone who has had a child will remember the preparation that goes into the months before birth. There are doctor visits, decorating of rooms, baby showers, and prayer, lots of prayer.
The reason for the prayer is because it is a wonderful and fearful thing when a new life is born into this world. The prophets often describe the coming day of God’s judgment by saying that all creation will groan as a woman in labor. Men, we will never know this pain, although Carol Burnett once told us how we could approximate it, “Take your bottom lip,” she said, “pull it as far away from your face as you can, and now pull it over your head.” The reality is that women often die in childbirth. It is less common today in our part of the world, but the only times that women are described as crying out in pain in childbirth in the Bible, as opposed to the prophetic pronouncements, the mothers die giving birth to their child. There is so much joy, so much hope, and promise and yet even with the easiest of labors the mother will be in great pain.
When Christ comes again the world will be wracked with pain and suffering but with it will come new life. Jesus warns us again and again that there will be wars, famine, persecution, and suffering. Just before today’s reading in Mark Jesus warns his disciples that in the last days
Mark 13:12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Yet we know that through all that suffering comes new life! Though the sun be darkened the light of Christ is coming that will outshine the sun and the moon combined! Every parent knows that moment when you realize that this precious little new life that you are bringing into the world will, in fact, destroy your old world, bringing discomfort, diapers, bills, worry, fear, and doubt. Oh but it is such joy! Such hope and life!
In this advent season let us be aware of the suffering, our own and those of others, but do not be overwhelmed by it. Remember the joy that is to come and let us keep at our tasks, caring for others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and preparing our hearts to receive not only the baby Jesus but also our risen savior who returns to bring us life immortal.
Baptism of AEC