A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 1, 2013 (Advent I)
Vigilance. The word literally comes from the idea of keeping vigil, of staying awake and alert in preparation for a particular event. There are times in our lives when we wait and watch for things beyond our control. Keeping vigil at a loved one’s death bed is a particularly profound way of being vigilant. We sit, we pray, we comfort one another, we remember, we touch, perhaps we play music or read, or sing, and we wait.
Keeping vigil can be hard work. In the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus prayed on the eve of his crucifixion, his disciples kept falling asleep while keeping watch. Their intentions were good yet, as Jesus memorably put it, “The flesh is willing but the spirit is weak.”
At the Easter Vigil, that dramatic liturgy that takes place on Easter Eve, we begin in darkness, read the stories of our faith by candlelight, and watch for the Risen Christ announced by the alleluias of the Easter Acclamation as we move from Lent to Easter, from crucifixion to resurrection, from death to life.
The theme of vigilance runs throughout our gospel reading this morning. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” And as we step into the season of Advent we’re reminded that we await two things — one we talk about all the time, the other, not so much. We await the First Coming of Christ, the Christmas event we call the Incarnation — God entering the world in human form as an infant in a manger. That’s what all the Christmas sales point toward I guess — the date we know, December 25th. But we also await the Second Coming of Christ when he will return to judge the world, something that doesn’t seem to do much to stimulate the economy — on a date we don’t know.
Some Christians dwell on the Second Coming to the exclusion of all else, while others ignore it almost entirely. We tend to fit into the latter category. We like to leave the Second Coming to evangelicals who believe in the so-called Rapture which, by the way, is neither Biblical nor ancient so you don’t have to worry too much about being “left behind.”
But fear is a big part of the stories of the Second Coming because it’s so often associated with judgment. And when we think of God’s judgment — which we try to avoid talking about at all costs — we usually picture an unforgiving God pointing out all the things we’ve done wrong in our lives. And if you’re human — and most of us are — that list is pretty long. But God’s judgment isn’t meant to frighten us into better behavior. Indeed self-judgment is often the harshest of all — we often judge ourselves without mercy and we certainly judge others in a less than forgiving manner.
The ancient Israelites experienced this balance between mercy and judgment in a particularly tangible way. As they wandered in the wilderness with Moses for forty years, they had a portable tabernacle that represented God’s presence in their midst. In the heart of the tabernacle, in what they called the Holy of Holies, was the ark of the covenant that contained their most sacred item — the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. On top of the ark was a lid that was referred to as the Mercy Seat and it represented the place where God was seated. Every year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of animals sacrificed for the atonement of the people’s sins on the Mercy Seat. This symbolized that God’s judgment of sins for violating God’s Law was covered by God’s mercy.
Now fortunately, we no longer sacrifice animals — we believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was the once-for-all atoning sacrifice, a sacrifice we make every week at this altar through praise and thanksgiving, not the slaughter of actual sacrificial lambs. So when we hear that Jesus will one day come again in glory to judge the world, we know that it will be a merciful judgment not a judgment of vindictiveness. As Jesus himself says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
The reality is that when it comes to judgment, many of us don’t think we’re worthy. And that can lead us to a place of crippling fear. The whole notion of being vigilant has become tinged with fear rather than hopeful expectation. So often the first thing we think about when it comes to vigilance is home security. To be vigilant is to engage in a certain pre-bedtime ritual. Setting the alarm, making sure the doors are double-locked, testing the motion sensor lights. We lock ourselves in to insure we’re protected from a perceived external threat — there may or may not be something out there but it’s safer not to take any chances.
The problem is that many of us end up with security systems around our hearts. We don’t want to show vulnerability, we want to be shielded from emotional pain, we lay on thick armor to protect us from anyone getting close enough to see our weaknesses, to prevent others from seeing our true selves, selves we’re not always too happy with, selves we fear will one day be harshly judged.
But God’s judgment is a forgiving, grace-filled, mercy-driven judgment. God alone holds justice and mercy in perfect balance. Mercy always follows judgment. So the Second Coming isn’t about fear but hope. Hope that Jesus will return to remove those chains from our hearts and set us free to love with reckless abandon, to experience deep abiding peace, to bring contentment to our souls.
I invite you to experience the four weeks of Advent as one continuous, month-long vigil. We begin in darkness, that time before Jesus entered the world. Throughout the season the light builds, as represented most tangibly by the candles on the Advent wreath. Until, as we mark Jesus’ birth on Christmas, the full light of Christ shines forth to banish the darkness. And in so doing our own fears are driven out as we keep watch and prepare our hearts to receive the Light of the World.
The prophet Isaiah, with whom we travel throughout this season of hope and expectation and who points the way for us throughout this Advent vigil, encourages us by saying “come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” And that’s precisely what we’re doing as a community and as individuals over the next four weeks as we keep vigil and await the God who is both fully present here and now and yet on the way to enter our hearts anew.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013