Sunday, December 18, 2016

Fourth Advent Sunday

Fourth Advent is always the Sunday for our St. Andrew's Children's Pageant at the 11 a.m. service --

But here's my sermon from the 9 a.m., on Romans 1: 1-7:

Good morning and grace and peace on this Fourth Advent Sunday, the Sunday before Christmas Day.     As we noted a few weeks ago, Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the Church Calendar and a time of preparation and reflection about the character and quality of our Christian lives in the “in between time” between Christmas and Good Friday and Easter Sunday and the Day of Judgment when Christ shall come again to claim his people and to bring us into the fullness of his glorious Kingdom—a kingdom which we even now in this time are allowed to share in as a kind of anticipation and foreshadowing.  In this world that is passing away, as St. Paul says, but not “of” this world.  In our hearts and minds and lives, in our families and in our congregational life seeking to live “already” what is the “not yet” of the New Jerusalem.

I’ve found it helpful this year in my personal reflections and in my sermon preparation to see the four New Testament Epistle Lessons appointed for these Advent Sundays as clues or guides we might say to the living of an Advent life. 

The first week we had the reading from Romans 13 where Paul talked about the kind of conversion of life that comes in our Christian commitment.  In the power of the Cross and the Empty Tomb there is grace and mercy and forgiveness, opening our eyes and changing our hearts.  No longer treating God’s Law as a kind of authoritarian rule book, but instead being transformed so that we yearn for the grace and power to walk in a new way with Jesus.  Paul uses the image of a change of clothes.  “Let us cast off the works of darkness,” all the sinful thoughts, feelings, behaviors that separate us from God, “Let us cast off the works of darkness,” he says, and let us “put on the armor of light.”  Conversion, repentance, transformation.  Themes for week one of Advent.

The second week we had the reading from Romans 15, where Paul talked about how as we now have turned from darkness and are girded and protected by the light, we are to be encouraged and strengthened by God’s Word.  That Scripture would be for us not some obscure and distant foreign text, but instead something that is living and life-giving, that will fill us with hope and will call us into harmony and worship in fellowship with other Christians.  How as we put our roots down in the Word of God our hearts are opened in warm and generous hospitality and friendship, joy and peace.

Last week we left St. Paul and Romans for a moment and had a reading from St. James, in the fifth chapter.  Building on the foundation of the first two Sundays, here we read James share with his congregation very much a word about Advent, about  living in the “already but not yet” world we live in.  James wrote to a congregation in the midst of social and political turmoil, harsh persecution, and high anxiety.  Perhaps to get the full force of it we would think of these words not so much in our more settled context but how they would be heard today by Christians in Egypt after the cathedral bombing last week, by Christians in Syria or Iraq, with the knowledge that the soldiers of ISIS might knock on the door at any time.  In the midst of all that, James writes, “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.”  When a farmer has planted his field with seed he might stand back and look over the scene and actually not be able to see anything.  Just an empty field.  But his heart is content, because he knows that deep in the soil the seed is germinating and taking root.  You can’t see anything yet, but the crop is growing, the harvest will come.  So like the farmer, James says, be an Advent people, be a patient people.   Let anxiety go, and be filled instead with peace and joy and, again, the contentment that comes from sure knowledge of the good that God has in mind for those who come to him in Jesus’s name.  Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.”

Finally this morning we’re back in Romans, in the opening chapter, St. Paul writing the first words of his introduction  to a group of mature Christians whom he has not met, but whom he is hoping soon to visit and to live with and to share with in his apostolic and pastoral ministry.  I love the way Paul talks about his life and ministry here .  That he is a servant of Jesus, called to be an apostle, to serve the gospel, the good news, which was revealed in Scriptures and now has been revealed in its fullness in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  It is through Jesus, Paul says, that “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all nations . . . .”  This last Sunday of Advent might leave us with a word to reflect on about purpose, vocation, mission.  The “why” of the work of the first three Sundays.  What’s the point of following Jesus?  What are we supposed to accomplish?  That through our conversion of life, our repentance and our faith, that through the love and joy of our fellowship as it is rooted in God’s word, that through the amazing witness of the contentment and patience that we can find in ourselves as we are rooted in the deep soil ourselves of God’s grace and mercy, so God will then use us to call and gather others.  This might come in a very intentional way as we would speak or write or witness our faith, as we share with our children, our husbands and wives, our neighbors and co-workers, or perhaps as we are sent out into some wider venue of mission.  Or it might come simply that as we live Advent-shaped lives, the light of Christ will itself so shine from us that it will be less that we go out, but that others are drawn to hear the word for themselves, preaching sometimes with our lips but always with our lives, an invitation to what Paul here calls “the obedience of faith for the sake of his Name.”  On the Fourth Advent Sunday we perhaps pause over that prayer that we often say after communion, “and now, Father, send us out to do the work that you have prepared for us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses.”

So the pageant is happening at the 11 this morning, and the whole story begins to be told once again.  May it be all a season and a new year of blessing and peace.

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