Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12
Advent blessings to all again this morning, as we roll on now into December and in so many different ways in so many different parts of our lives involved in a season of preparation. Getting ready for the holidays. Getting ready for the new year. Preparing our homes—as Susy and I have been puttering around for our Open House this afternoon (and I hope you all have that on your calendars!). Cleaning, decorating, cooking, gift-buying. Planning. Watching with the children of our lives as they hear the stories in fresh ways, with all the wonder and excitement that comes with it. That’s always the best part.
And as we enter into the pattern of the season as well, that process in us that sometimes gets caught up in the activity of “New Year Resolutions.” Whether we do that formally or informally. It’s been a whole year since last Christmas, which is in so many ways so hard to believe. Seems sometimes like 15 minutes, other times like a decade. Thinking of all the events, changes, accomplishments, losses. Joys and sorrows. Births and deaths. Victories and failures. Thinking of who we are becoming in the big picture of our lives. Growing in some ways, and perhaps not so much, in other ways. Moving in multiple directions at the same time. And aware of the places where we may be stuck. And where we’ve lost ground. Wondering how we did with those New Year 2010 Resolutions, if we can even remember them.
There are lots of ways to approach Advent as a season of the new Church Year. The lectionary gives us this wonderful series of messianic readings from Isaiah, a sequence from Paul to the Romans, and in the gospel two Sundays of John the Baptist and then this year Matthew’s story of Joseph’s dream, wherein the angel tells him of Mary’s pregnancy and instructs him to marry her. As our Church School families light the candles on the Wreath and the kids rehearse the pageant, once again we hear about characters of the Christmas story: prophets and shepherds and angels. Which is sort of how the little Bible-themed Advent Calendars work.
In earlier times the four Advent Sundays were associated with what were called the “Four Last Things.” Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell.” Certainly an attractive sermon series for the season! Just the thing to get everybody into the mood for the coming festivities . . . . We smile at that, perhaps. But it’s not because we don’t want to take things seriously. It’s easy for this season to be all about superficiality. Superficial things and activities and relationships. But I think we yearn for what is deeper. For clearer messages, for a truth that will last, something that really means something.
It wasn’t Christmas when Paul wrote to the Romans. That concept wouldn’t have made any sense to him or them at all. But as we listen to this—what is arguably the single greatest work of St. Paul and perhaps the most important essay and exploration of Christian theology ever written—we hear implied in Paul’s audience, as it were, so many of the same issues that we wrestle with in our lives. Concerns about the larger meaning of life, about how we do the right thing in a culture of moral ambiguity that seems in many ways alien, strange. About how to deal with relationships that don’t work. About conflict and disagreement and anxiety. All what we might call the “pastoral context” for the letter.
There are of course libraries of books written about what Paul does in these sixteen short chapters. It is in reflection on Romans that St. Augustine of Hippo begins to formulate a theology and spirituality that in many ways lies at the very heart of our western theological tradition. It is in reflection on Romans that Luther begins his great work of Reformation, and a couple of hundred years later that inspires John Wesley in his conversion experience at the Aldersgate Meeting to his ministry of renewal in the Church of England. In the early 20th Century Karl Barth, the Swiss Reformed theologian who really framed and frames the theological conversation for us even today, who Pope Pius XII said was the greatest Christian thinker since Thomas Aquinas, re-energized modern theology with his Commentary on Romans.
To say that “the God who is revealed in the cross of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to ally God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions.” 90 years later Barth is still the at the center of just about every theological movement and discussion in one way or another. And all that just to say that to be coming again to Romans in these first Sundays of the new Church Year is to come to an important place, at the heart and center of Christian life and identity.
In any event, the reading from Romans 15 this morning certainly has an Advent feel, especially in its quotation of the messianic material from Isaiah. Echoing in the context of the life of the early Christian family the ancient word of hope about God’s action to restore and renew his Covenant, this time not simply with the Chosen People of Israel, but through them to bless and restore relationship with all the human family. Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles . . . in him the Gentiles shall hope.
In all of this, on this Second Advent Sunday, I would just like to highlight two sentences, actually three verses--5, 6, and 7. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s sentence number one. Then, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Probably these are sentences that Augustine or Luther or Wesley or Barth would have highlighted in their deep encounters with Romans. But I think this stands out for me in some ways because I continue to be dismayed, and have been thinking about this a good deal lately, by the ways in which division, separation, exclusion, and hostility have infected not simply the world, not simply the nation and the body politic, but communities, neighbors, families. And also the Church. Environmental biologists will talk about how a particular area may become a “toxic environment,” and that phrase seems to describe things in a lot of different contexts. Not for the first time, of course, and perhaps it’s even true to say that it has been true pretty much at all times. The human condition. But it would be dangerous if that led us into complacency. There is an urgency in Paul’s words here that would have a sharp enough point to penetrate our thick skins and get through to our thick skulls.
That what we as Christians need to be about, if we aren’t just going to be about the superficial things—what we need to be about, and perhaps in our “New Year’s Resolutions” this Advent and in the year ahead, is to share in the work of glorifying God not simply with our lips but in our lives—our lives individually, and our lives together as a community. Family. Neighborhood. Nation. And Church. Parish, diocese, all the interweaving relationships.
Our friends of Presbyterian background will remember that wonderful phrase at the beginning of the Westminster Catechism. The Chief End of Man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. And that includes what we do in these wonderful services of worship, but it goes beyond as well into the character of our lives. About welcoming, forgiving, healing, renewing—about being ourselves the visible evidence of what Christ accomplished at the Cross. Which is what we would be called to think about as we think about how to be Christian people.
How to be a Church. How to be ourselves like the Manger in the Stable, the place where people would come to see Jesus. Signs of grace, generosity, true affection. Called to make peace, even in the places and even with the people who are difficult for us. As Isaiah says, “the wolf shall live with the lamb.”
It would be a prayer of Advent, our prayer, and of Christmas, Incarnation and Atonement, the sacramental mysteries of the Manger and the Cross. Jesus born in us and giving himself in us and through us, as we await his return. That we would find a way in our lives and in our communities not to entertain and scandalize the world with our conflicts and controversies, but to astonish with our love.