Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sermon: 1 Advent 2008

Sermon: 1 Advent (30 Nov 2008)
(Isaiah 64:1-9/Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19/1 Corinthians 1:3-9/Mark 13:24-37)
Advent: Stories and Lessons

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

St. Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons and vigorous apologist for the faith, was only once removed from the apostle John: Irenaeus was mentored by John’s disciple, Polycarp, whose own faith was crowned with martyrdom. What Irenaeus has to say about the apostles, then, has about it the mantle of authenticity, the ring of truth.

So, recently I read with interest one of Irenaeus’ few surviving works: On The Apostolic Preaching. I’m not certain what I expected to find there: a theology of preaching, an apostolic how-to manual on sermon construction and delivery, transcriptions of great sermons by St. John? What I did find there was the story. Starting with creation, Irenaeus tells the story: the rebellion of man and the introduction of sin and death into creation; the calling of a man, Abram, and the creation of a people, the Jews, through whom God would redeem and restore creation; the making of covenants and the giving of Law. Irenaeus tells the story of judges, kings, and prophets; of a kingdom lost and restored; and of Jesus – first and foremost of Jesus, the fulfillment of the story.

What has this to do with the apostolic preaching? This is more creed than sermon, more catechesis than oration. And yet, it is the apostolic preaching – the content, the essence of the apostolic proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When they preached, the apostles told the story; Acts makes that clear – Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul. The early evangelists told the story of what God had promised through Israel to the world, and of how God had fulfilled those very promises in Jesus of Nazareth: born of a virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised to new and everlasting life through the power of God, ascended to glory at the right hand of God Almighty, and coming again to judge the living and the dead. Apostolic preaching, Irenaeus reminds us, is the telling of the story – the telling of this particular story and no other.

So it is that the church today – the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic church – continues to tell the story. Our scriptures tell the story. Our hymns tell the story. Our prayers – most fully our Eucharistic Prayers – tell the story. And – please, God – our lives tell the story.

We tell the story in time: in daily and weekly and yearly cycles. We rise in the morning and it is the dawn of creation. We pass our waking hours in toil, earning our bread from thorn-infested ground, sure sign of the fall. We live and laugh and love and sin. And each night we lay ourselves down to die, confessing our sins, committing ourselves into God’s keeping, and hoping for resurrection in the morning, for new life in Jesus Christ – the story told in a day.
For six days each week we remember the old creation, pronounced good and very good by God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and ruined by our father Adam and our mother Eve and by every one of their descendants since – everyone save one. On the seventh day, which is for us the first day of the week, we celebrate new creation, the restoration of all things through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the new Adam in whom and through whom the curse of sin and death is destroyed, in whom and through whom all things are made new and pronounced once again good and very good – the story told in a week. Week after week, season upon season, we celebrate the feasts and keep the fasts of the church: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost and back around again – the story told in a year. Days make weeks, weeks make seasons, seasons make years, and years make lives: our lives tell the story in time.

We tell the story, in part, because it forms us: it tells us from whence we’ve come, who we are, and where we’re headed. There are other stories, of course, and all of us are storied people – no exceptions. There is no truly self-made man or woman; each of us is the product of a culture and therefore the product of the culture’s stories. We believe this story, and so we tell it again and again. We believe it is true. We believe that it is life giving. We believe that it gives order and meaning and direction to the smaller stories of our lives.

A story is always on the move, always going somewhere. It not only has characters; it has plot – purposeful movement toward its climax. But, there is always some danger of getting stuck in a story, of refusing to let the story carry you along. If you know where to look, you see evidence of this in the church. There is the man who has reduced the faith to keeping the rules, who seeks to establish his own righteousness by strict obedience to the “law of God” – a harsh, rigid, fearful man. Such a man is stuck on Mt. Sinai, stuck in the wilderness, stuck with the Pharisees. He has not let the story carry him along to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. There is the woman who keeps Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem, who is so captivated by the gentleness of the holy infant, meek and mild, that she refuses to move with Jesus to the cross and beyond. Life is always Christmas and never Good Friday; worse still, never Easter. There are groups – like the Corinthian Christians to whom Paul wrote – who get stuck in Pentecost, constantly demanding charismatic proof of God’s presence, and who never move on to love, the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts. And, perhaps worst of all, there are Christians who become mired in the Ascension, who see Jesus as absent and so very distant, who have lost all hope of his return.

There is always some danger of getting stuck in a story, of refusing to let the story carry you along. That is one reason the church tells the story – the whole story – each year, time and again. Mother Church refuses to let her children get stuck; the worship of the church forces you along in the story, sometimes against your will, sometimes kicking and screaming, but moving nonetheless.

Today, the church begins the story anew with Advent. It is a chapter of characters: the great epic prophet Isaiah, the elderly and dubious priest Zechariah, his barren wife Elizabeth, and their seriously odd son John, the forerunner and herald of Jesus. Characters, yes, but there is plot, too; in the story, the chapter we call Advent takes us somewhere. Advent always looks beyond itself toward the coming of God Almighty.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence (Is 64:1-2, NRSV)!

This is the Advent for which Isaiah longs: God’s return to a desolate Israel, to an exiled people; God’s return to deliver and vindicate his chosen people and to judge the nations. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” And yet Isaiah’s advent longing is filled with trepidation: Israel, too, is filled with iniquity and, like the nations, deserves God’s judgment. So, while Isaiah calls upon God to tear open the heavens and come down, he does so with a plea for mercy:

8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider, we are all your people (Is 64:8-9, NRSV).

This is Isaiah’s advent lesson to us today: any invocation of God – every invocation of God – must also be a plea for mercy:

Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One:
Have Mercy upon us.

“For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us,” we pray: and well we should.

We listen to Isaiah and learn his advent lesson, but the story moves on and we are swept along with it; there are other advents.

It is Holy Week as Jesus and his disciples exit the temple.

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished (Mark 13:1-4, NRSV)?’

This is the advent that brought tears to Jesus eyes as he approached Jerusalem – an advent of immanent judgment and destruction.

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God (Luke 19:41-44).’

What can one do in the face of such an advent? Simply this: be ready. Be found faithfully about the Master’s work when the Master returns.

33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake (Mark 13:33-37).’

This is Jesus’ advent message to us today: keep awake, keep alert, watch, work. Then you will be among the elect gathered by the angels from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

We listen to Jesus and learn his advent lesson, but the story moves on again and we are swept along with it; there is yet another advent.

“Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” our brother Paul writes to the church in Corinth. Unruly, undisciplined, outrageous, but enthusiastic and faithful: Corinth was the worst the church had to offer, and the best. And Paul gives thanks for them always, for the grace of God given them in Jesus Christ.

5[For] in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:5-7, NRSV).

This is advent future – the advent yet to come – the revealing, the apocalypse, of our Lord Jesus Christ. More than any other, this is the advent chapter of the story in which we live. Isaiah caught us up in the story and Jesus swept us along. Paul incorporates us and gives us our script as we wait for the final revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ. And what is Paul’s advent lesson for us?

8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 1:8-9, NRSV).

Paul’s advent lesson is a promise to us and to all who believe: The God who called us into the fellowship of his Son is faithful and will preserve us, strengthen us, and present us blameless on that great day of the Lord’s appearing – on the great day of that final advent when the dead in Christ shall rise and we shall all be forever with the Lord. What, beyond this, the story holds, no eye has seen, no tongue can tell, no heart can imagine.

So, let us once again enter the great story this Advent season – a story of longing and repentance, a story of waiting and watching and working, a story of promise.

Let us pray.

Faithful God,your promises stand unshaken through all generations:Renew us in hope, that we may be awake and alert,ever watching for the glorious return of Jesus Christ, our judge and savior,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God, now and forever. Amen.


Desert Pilgrim said...

Wonderful article. Isaiah 64;1,2, a verse that frequently resonates for me as a prayer. I am a close friend of Fr. Rob Lyons, and am enjoying your blog. Added you as a link on mine.

Mark Hollingsworth said...

Great sermon. I especially like your thought, and it's true, that we sometimes get stuck in the story and never move on to the place that God intends for us to end up.

John Roop said...

I thank each of you for the good words of encouragement.

Peace of Christ,