Romans 13: 11-14
Good morning to all this Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, as we've finally had our first real taste of the winter. And especially after that football game on Thursday night. Ice melter in a tub on the front porch and snow shovel retrieved from the garage, and here we go. A long winter ahead, though perhaps still something to look forward to in the direction of the Stanley Cup, and with tickets on sale this week for the home opener against the Chicago Cubs on Monday, March 31.
And with all that, radio and t.v. and newspaper filled with Christmas shopping ads, and it is time once again to say “Happy New Year!” Still a few weeks until we hear Guy Lombardo playing Auld Lang Syne at that When Harry Met Sally holiday party, but this is the Sunday morning, now, today, when the Church Calendar resets. Back again at the beginning. Echoes of T.S. Eliot—from the fifth section of his poem “Little Gidding,” in the Four Quartets. Some of my favorite 20th century poetry. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Advent Sunday, the beginning of the journey, the old familiar road, from every corner of our world and of our lives to run on in these weeks through the Bethlehem Hills, in the dark night, with the choirs of angels singing to the shepherds, and on then from there week after week. All the way to Jerusalem and the Cross. Good Friday, April 18. Through all the snows of winter. It will be here before we know it.
There’s a Facebook Group called “the Advent Conspiracy.” I’m not always totally in synch with their postings, but the basic idea is to be a reminder that for Christians these Advent weeks are more than just a season for shopping and holiday parties and excitement about festive gatherings. Not that we don’t do those things. I hope you’re all planning to drop in at our Open House next Sunday afternoon! But subversive. Countercultural. Their catchphrase is, "Slow down. Quiet. It's Advent."
In and with it all, a time for bigger thoughts, deeper thoughts, longer thoughts. As we hear when our families light the candles on the Advent Wreath each week, as Joan and Maeve and Ian did for us this morning. There are various themes associated with each Advent Candle. Prophets and Shepherds, Mary and the Angels, and so on. But when you drill down into the history of the season you find that the four weeks were associated in the classical preaching tradition with the Four Last Things: Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Serious business, and I guess not always perfectly aligned with visions of sugarplums and holiday cheer or being the life of the party. Slow down. Quiet.
For the last five hundred years Anglicans and Episcopalians have prayed this Collect for Advent Sunday, composed back in the middle of the 16th century by Archbishop Cranmer. To my mind, and I've said this before, the highest and most beautiful literary prayer of our tradition, perhaps of any Christian tradition, weaving these Biblical phrases into a tapestry. Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light. What we might call the foundation of all New Year Resolutions. As to follow the old hymn, “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.” Repentance. Renewal. Transformation. Standing at the foot of the Cross. Joining our hearts and minds to know and to receive this gift: his victory over death and the grave. That in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.
I’m only preaching two Sundays of Advent this year. Next week my and our good friend, the Very Rev. John Park will be our preacher. He has just this past summer retired from the mission field and his ministry as Dean of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, in Lima, Peru, and he and Susan settling in now with life here in Pittsburgh, where Susan is continuing mission work as a stateside coordinator of short term mission trips. The Sunday after that, December 15, we’ll have that great moment of this season and the Children’s Pageant of Christmas. But this morning and again on the Fourth and last Sunday of Advent I want to pause over two readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Because Advent is at its heart a season about lifestyle. About how we live as Christian people "in the meantime." In a season of waiting. This long season between the night in Bethlehem and the bright morning of his return in his glorious majesty, as the collect says. How we live in the meantime. Allowing his gift to become incarnate in our lives. Allowing our lives to be signs in the world of the goodness of new life in him.
This morning, Romans chapter 13, verses 13 and 14, just after the line in verse 12 that Archbishop Cranmer uses in the Collect, “works of darkness, armor of light.” Paul goes on, “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
And so to talk about an “Advent Conspiracy.” This whole section of Romans beginning at the start of Chapter 12 with Paul, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” And then, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
At the beginning of Chapter 49 of the Rule for Monasteries St. Benedict says that "the life of the monk ought to have about it the character of a Lenten observance." There is something true in that I think for all of us as Christian people, not just monks. But to see this morning something true about that in terms of Advent. Not just four weeks as we roll into winter and shop for the holidays, but as a reminder of what life is really all about. How we all should live, 24/7/365, all the time.
This isn't about imposing on ourselves, or judging others by, some metric of puritanical austerity. It’s not about calling the morality police. But it is about sobering up. You should pardon the expression. Waking up. A hard thing to do in a culture of distraction and denial. About unplugging from the anesthesia. If you recall the film a few years ago, “The Matrix,” a sense of this there. As though if we just consumed more things we would be satisfied. Living in this unreal daydream of a narcotic existence. More money will solve my problems. The next shiny toy. The next new relationship. If my side wins the next election. Always just needing a little bit more. Pretending that we can live as if there will be no tomorrow. No accounting, no bottom line. To get “Adventy” about it: no death and judgment. No heaven and hell.
Instead. Opening our eyes and ears and our minds and our hearts. Our whole selves. Not pouring more fuel onto the fire. We know when we’re doing that. Bonfire of the vanities. Whether it makes a big splash in the wide world or is something that only we know in the secret of our heart. But waiting for him. Awake. Trusting in him. Living in a wholesome present moment. Awake. In a spirit of peace and generosity, honesty, restraint, and forgiveness. Quietly, and in moderation. Awake.
Advent Sunday. The door opens. The road extends before us again all the way from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. A fresh start. A new beginning. Here it is this morning: the stable, the creche. If we've ever thought that what we wanted and needed was a chance to start again. “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Again, Advent blessings, and with encouragement for us all in the New Year ahead.