First Sunday in Advent – Matthew 24:36-44
St. Paul Catholic Community, Denver CO
27 November 2016
My beloved sisters and brothers in Christ: grace, mercy and peace be with you from our God who is love, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m so grateful to be with you on this First Sunday in Advent. I want to thank Father Don for welcoming me into the pulpit tonight. I also want to express my profound gratitude to him and to all of you in the Catholic congregation here at St Paul for the way in which you have accompanied your Lutheran brothers and sisters during these last months, for your continued engagement during this time of pastoral transition. I know that the relationship shared here is unique and precious, and while we don’t quite know what it will look like down the road, we trust in God’s faithfulness and in the Spirit’s guidance.
I, for one, take heart in recent events, especially in the participation of Pope Francis in last month’s Reformation Day worship with leaders of the Lutheran World Federation in Lund, Sweden. I was just in Geneva Switzerland at our LWF offices a little over a week ago for a consultation on mission, and I can tell you that it was still very much on everyone’s mind. For so many of us within the Lutheran Communion, it’s our fervent hope and prayer that this 500th commemoration of the Reformation becomes a moment when we not only identify and discuss the importance of our growing unity as Christ’s Church, but that we take the next concrete steps in realizing that unity. May it be so.
I want to share with you that this time of transition here at St Paul comes just as we in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have completed a strategic planning process that names our shared sense of mission in this way: together we proclaim and embody God’s unconditional love for the sake of the world. Our plan goes on to name four ways in which we hope to live out that mission: by claiming our gifts, by connecting in ministry and witness, by equipping all leaders, by accompany one another into God’s future. At the end of the day, it’s about living and serving as Christ’s Church, better together: better together, yes, as fellow members of the ELCA, but better together ecumenically, better together with our neighbors of other faiths, better together with the communities we serve. I thought it might be helpful for you to know this.
So here we are at the beginning of Advent. I don’t know about you, but for me Advent comes just in the nick of time. I say that not because Advent is the start of the church year and at the new year we look for a chance to reboot and regroup. No, for me Advent is welcome because it is our invitation to face uncertainty with wakeful faith. To face uncertainty with wakeful faith. Advent calls us to stand on the cusp of the unknown, to be positioned at the edge of uncertainty, and to welcome whatever comes with faith awakened by our experience of God’s loving and abiding presence in this very moment.
If there was ever a moment when we were already positioned on the edge of uncertainty, when we were already standing on the cusp of the unknown, it’s now. There’s the palpable sense of uncertainty in our nation right now, none of us knowing what the future holds. In this uncharted territory some are excited, but many others are filled with anxiety.
We’re positioned on the edge of uncertainty in our world as well, never sure what the next news update will bring. Will it bring unexpected political turmoil, another terrorist attack? Will it bring earthquakes or uprisings, financial instability or perhaps news about the impact our quickly warming planet is having on all of life?
To make matters more complicated, we face uncertainty in our church, specifically in congregations like this one: a change in pastoral leadership, questions about sustainability, all the unknowns that surface when we ask ourselves about our future in a society that seems to care less and less about what we have to offer.
And of course there is the uncertainty of our own lives. Some of us face illness, our own or that of a loved one. Some of us are in a time of transition with our jobs or in our relationships. Some of us are simply asking the question about what life is all about in this particular chapter, not sure how to navigate it.
You see what I mean? Advent could not come at a better time, because Advent is our invitation to face all uncertainty with wakeful faith.
Our readings today give us insight into this wakeful faith. The prophet Isaiah awakens us to a faith lived in the light of the Lord, a faith shaped by a vision of God’s promise for us and for this world. It’s a vision that shows us not just what God intends but what God is actively bringing about – God is actively brining about a world in which divisions are overcome, a world in which swords become plowshares. God is bringing about a world in which that which draws us together supersedes any force that can separate us from one another.
Now I know that’s not always self-evident. When we look around, the contrary seems to be true – our divisions and separations seem greater than ever, our differences too great to bridge. War, not peace, seems to rule of the day. But that, my beloved, is the view from the shadows of this world, not the light.
Wakeful faith is faith that walks in the light, a light not of our own making but the light of the Lord, the light of the One who is the source of all light. And that light can be trusted, especially when we ourselves are still caught in the shadows.
The Apostle Paul gets that. His words to the people in Rome speak to all of us trapped in the shadows: you know what time it is, it’s the moment for you to wake from sleep – to step out of the shadows and into light. Salvation is nearer to us now than ever – the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us … put on the armor of light … let us … put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do you see what this means? Wakeful faith, faith draws us from the shadows to walk in the light, is baptismal faith. We don’t have to go searching for it; it’s already ours. In the waters of the font we are already clothed with Christ’s own light and love and hope. That’s what we bring to all the uncertainty that lies before us. We are Christ’s own people, his Body in the world, wounded yes, but alive; broken yet blessed, fully equipped to proclaim and embody God’s unconditional love for the sake of the world. Wakeful faith is already ours – not in some promised future, but right here, right now.
Which is where we tend to get hung up. You see whenever there is a choice between living in some imagined future or living this present moment, we tend to opt for the imagined future. It’s a very subtle but consistent trick of what Paul calls the flesh, but which today we rightly called the ego. Listen to Paul’s warning this way: Make no provisions for the ego, to gratify its desires.
You see, what the ego desires is to keep you from this present moment – to keep you sidelined in the shadows of anxiety over a future filled with all those unknowns. And if that doesn’t work the ego will keep you engaged in future uncertainty by dangling a carrot that’s always just out of reach assuring you “the best is yet to come.” The desire of your ego is to do anything to keep you from this present moment because the ego knows that it’s only in this present moment that you can truly experience God. Only in this present moment can you be truly awake.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus talks about keeping awake. Keeping awake means facing the uncertainties to come by showing up in this moment, experiencing the fullness of God’s promise and presence right here, right now. That’s what allows us to know that whatever may come, it will be OK, because it’s OK right now. It’s OK now because God is present, not in some far-off looking-down-at-me sort of way, but God is present by being embedded in my very experience – incarnate – regardless of how ordinary or mundane or difficult my experience may seem to be.
And so whether I am eating or drinking, marrying or giving in marriage as in the days of Noah, this is not some distraction: this is where God shows up. Whether I’m working in the field or grinding meal together with another, this is not some mere task; this is my vehicle for experiencing God’s faithful presence in my life. When every moment IS a connection to the God in whose light and love I live, I can’t help but be awake, can’t help but be attentive to anything that would rob me of that experience.
It’s no coincidence that in times when we are tempted to step back into the shadows, tempted to fall asleep, tempted to succumb to the ego’s desire to dwell in an imagined future, we have placed before us a very simple, ordinary meal made of grain from the field and fruit of the vine, a meal in which we experience the here-and-now presence of a Lord who grants us wakeful faith. As we touch and taste yet again the abiding presence of the One who feeds us with his very life, we become once more what we already are: God’s Advent people, able to face every uncertainty in faith, in hope, in love – clothed in the light of Christ himself.
So welcome to Advent, dear people. Just in the nick of time, don’t you think?
Thanks be to God.