First Sunday of Advent 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 30, 2014 (Advent I, Year B)

Imagine sitting in your living room one afternoon when you hear the doorbell ring. Strange since you weren’t expecting anyone but maybe it’s the UPS guy. ‘Tis the season after all. So you put down the book you were reading, get up, and open the door. There’s no one there and your mind briefly drifts back to the old neighborhood when you played “ding dong ditch” with your friends, ringing the neighbors’ doorbells and then running away as fast as your legs would carry you, laughing hysterically at your daring feat of mischief. You look up and down the street wondering if maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of a couple of kids dashing around the block.

109440025And then you look down and see it. It’s a simple white envelope sitting at your feet. You bend down to pick it up and notice there’s neither a return address nor a postage stamp. Curious, you walk back into the living room staring at it and sit back down in your favorite chair. You take one last glance at the envelope and run your finger across the only writing on it — your name written in black ink in handwriting you don’t recognize. Slowly you open it to reveal several pages of a handwritten letter bearing the same handwriting that’s on the front of the envelope.

It begins with the usual salutation “Dear…” and then your first name. You start reading. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Well, that’s quite an opening sentence. You are greeted not just in the name of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” but actually by God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Imagine that. God is addressing you — yes, you — offering grace and peace.

What if you read the epistles — which is just a fancy church word for “letter” — as if they truly were written to you. They are in a global sense, of course, and we know that intellectually. Even though they were originally written to early church communities in places like Corinth and Ephesus and Thessalonika to encourage and correct and inspire, they are also written to you and me. Not in general like junk mail addressed to “occupant” but specifically addressed to you. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And then the writer — who in this case turns out to be St. Paul, that tireless disciple who traveled the world spreading the message of Jesus — gives thanks for you. “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” Not because you’ve done anything heroic or went to church five weeks in a row or did something to earn God’s favor. Paul gives thanks for you simply because you are a child of God, doing the best you can to live a faithful life.

On the heels of Thanksgiving, where many of us spent time reflecting on the things we’re thankful for in our lives, God is thankful for you. And what an important message as we begin this season of hope and expectation. Because as we begin Advent and collectively await the coming of the Christ child in ways both familiar and new, it can be hard to reconcile the holy waiting with the seasonal frenzy.

It’s also tough to reconcile all that we need to get done with this gospel passage that talks about, quite startlingly, the end of the world. I mean, let’s be honest, of all our worries and fears that often manifest themselves around the holidays, the world ending before Christmas is not on the top of our list.

In Advent we wait for the arrival of the baby Jesus, yes. But we also wait for the return of the fully mature Christ to come among us as well. Just as it’s easy to sentimentalize baptism when we see a cute young baby, we can sentimentalize the coming of Christmas with our precious china nativity sets. All you have to do to get shaken out of this reverie is to listen to the powerful words of the baptismal rite with its references to renouncing satan or reflect upon the powerful words of this morning’s gospel passage with its apocalyptic imagery. Things aren’t always easy in life, even with a deep faith.

There are days when it does feel like the world is ending. Both the world at large and our own personal worlds. Jesus reminds us we know neither the day nor the hour when the inevitable crisis will arrive. Therefore he bids us to “keep alert” and to “keep awake.” And again, I encourage you to hear Jesus’ words as if they were being spoken directly to you. Imagine that he is looking into your eyes. Loving you completely as he speaks to you directly through the words of Scripture.

File%22-Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles%22_by_Valentin_de_BoulogneSo if these letters were written to you and Jesus’ words were spoken to you, how does this change things? Well, hopefully you’re better able to hear them. In the same way a message gets lost when it comes as a blanket e-mail versus someone telephoning and speaking to you directly you might better be able to hear and respond. The catch, or perhaps the miracle, is that Jesus isn’t speaking these words exclusively to you; and Paul isn’t writing only to you. These words are spoken and written to everyone sitting here this morning. They are spoken and written to Christians throughout the world. They are spoken and written to everyone who has come before us in the faith and everyone who will come after. And yet they are indeed spoken and written to you.

So we hear them both individually and collectively. We hear them personally and communally. The danger of only hearing them addressed to the group is that, like that blanket e-mail, we can ignore the message. And the danger of only hearing them addressed to us personally is that we can become judgmental, seeing Jesus as our “personal Lord and Savior.”

So as we move through Advent I encourage you to hear the words of Scripture in new ways. Maybe pick up an epistle and read it as though it were sent to you via certified mail. You have to sign for it, you can’t ignore it. And hear Jesus’ words as if he had picked up the phone and was speaking to you personally.

And then remember that the world doesn’t end on December 25th; it begins. Advent calendars aren’t a countdown to the end but a count-up to the beginning. The beginning of that new relationship with God which is always extended; the beginning of new ways of hearing God speak to you in your own life; the beginning of God’s reign of justice for all people. Which means we can end this sermon with the words with which Paul’s letter began: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

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