A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015
Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
“Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down…”
Today is the beginning of the season of Advent, the season where we look for God to arrive among us, when we prepare for that baby to be born in that cattle shed and to transform us and the rest of the universe. Even though Thanksgiving Day is over, and Black Friday has passed, the church doesn’t immediately join with the rest of the world in big spending supercharged by holiday cheeriness. We take a moment—actually, a short season—and reflect: What does it mean that God is coming among us? What could it mean?
It is more than buying a bit of happiness at a dark time of the year. In the Anglican tradition, this is the time of year, more than at any other time, that we listen to the prophets. Today the prophet Jeremiah speaks: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” And Jesus speaks a prophecy: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the world will be shaken.”
We are seeing that—people are fainting from fear and foreboding—the powers of the heavens are shaken. We look at this world and there are signs that frighten everyone. Anger, hatred and fear breed fear, anger and hatred. People die, and yet more prepare to kill, to punish or to hate. These are signs, but how should we understand them? The temptation is to despair or to join in the fear and all the rest. But the Gospel says something different: “Stand up! Raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near!”
The Gospel of Jesus comes as a surprise—pretty much all the time. The temptation is to think like everyone else, which is to say, to default to looking for power and privilege. Those powers and privileges are real—to some they seem to be the powers of the heavens—but as the Son of Man appears, “the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” Christ did not surrender to the powers, but rather faced death, and brings us into the life of his Resurrection. The powers do their worst, but they are shaken. We have hope, not because of wishful thinking, but because of the presence of Christ’s love among us.
Jesus’ prophecy shifts gears, he tells a parable, “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” Life is there. Life is here, God’s love is here, we know it, we experience it. Every Sunday I offer the bread and wine, and up to the altar rail come those beautiful children. I know God’s love is here.
We live in a world where things happen, things that people do, that can tempt us to give up … to join with those who despair, to fail to respect ourselves. Jesus tells us to be on guard against that. “Do not let your hearts be weighed down,” by fear, or by self-destructive choices, or by buying into the anger and hate that are marketed by those powers of this world. If we’re not watchful, and expecting the Kingdom to appear, the worries of this world can block out the truth and distract us from the coming of the Kingdom of God.
This season is a season of celebration. We celebrate the coming of the Kingdom, we look for his coming. And when the Son of Man appears to judge the living and the dead, what do we see? Do we see a mighty king with sword in hand, leading a huge army with tanks and guns and fighter planes? No. We see a baby, born in the humblest circumstances to parents that nobody cared about. He is the sign of the judgment of the living and the dead—that fragile human life, the least and most vulnerable among us, that is God’s choice to live among us as one of us.
Last weekend, I participated in a presentation about the future of theological education at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion. Near the end of the presentation, the Dean of the Chapel at Morehouse College and the director of the Martin Luther King Center, Lawrence Edward Carter, Sr., got up to comment on the presentation. He spoke about personalism—an approach to theology that was influential when he was a doctoral student along with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He talked about how it meant that the essential thing is the importance of persons—respect for people, no matter who they are, for their dignity, their life, the possibility for them to have hope.
We had nearly newborn babies among us too on All Saints, when we baptized Demetrius and Amiyah. We affirmed our baptismal covenant and made promises to uphold them and their parents and godparents as they—and we—seek the life of Christ—a life of love, a life of hope, a life of respecting the dignity of every human person. We are with Demetrius and Amiyah as they wait for their first Christmas and listen to the prophets.
We live with them in hope, we wait for the coming of that baby who brings with us the courage to remain alert, to not let our hearts be weighed down, to celebrate with joy the coming of the Lord.
As St. Paul writes to the church at Thessalonika in our lesson this morning, he writes also to us: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.