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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sermon from November 28, 2010; The First Sunday of Advent

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:1-11; Matthew 24:36-44
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen

You Know What Time It Is

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

My older sister is an orthodox Jew (which is a long and interesting story for another time), and she and a couple of her children visited us last summer. Their visit included a Sabbath. I didn’t know this before, but the way you know the Sabbath is over is when you can see at least three stars in the sky. My nephew Ezra was very eager for the end of Sabbath, and was waiting to see when the light would start to fade. We went out on the deck and watched. And we waited. He’d say, “Uncle Joseph, how many stars can you see?” Finally, I could see one. So we started to look – one, then there was a second over on the horizon. And a third above the house, with a fourth for good measure. Ezra delightedly ran back into the house saying, “Uncle Joseph says that the Sabbath is ended!” Now I never imagined I would have such authority. It was really a pleasure to see how my nieces and nephew observed the Sabbath so carefully and to be with them during that. But it was also really fun to see how much Ezra was waiting for the end. (It may have had something to do with a movie he and Peter were going to watch, which couldn’t be done during Sabbath.)

That image of waiting and watching the skies for what is to come has stuck with me. And it seems a good image for the beginning of Advent. We began our liturgy today singing, “For God alone I wait in silence.” Advent is a time of waiting more than any other season of the Church Year. Instead of waiting for nightfall, like my nephew, we focus on the opposite: we speak of waiting for the dawn. I love this imagery of Advent. Isaiah today sees this time, this dawn, coming, the day of the Lord, when all will come to the mountain of the Lord. There will be understanding in that dawn – all will walk in the paths of the Lord. And there will be peace in that dawn – weapons of war will be turned into tools for peace, swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. And so we are waiting for God’s morning to arrive. Advent is a time when we practice how we wait for this life, this restoration of the world.

It would be tempting to see all of this as in the future, as something to hope for, to dream for. It’s certainly the way many Christians seem to want to live. As if this future of God has nothing to do with our lives today. As if the promised peace and justice of the day of the Lord is something God will do, and only in the future. As if we long for the dawn, the coming of Christ’s light, and all we can do is long. And wait.

The thing is, our readings from God’s Word today have something different to say about that.

There’s a paradox in the Scriptures about this. Here it is: the day of the Lord is coming. Yes. And it is already here. Yes. Both are real. Both are true.

It’s virtually impossible to hear Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven and the day of the Lord and know whether he’s talking about the future or about now. I think that’s intentional. So while the full justice and peace of God will only be brought to fruition in the true dawn, the return of the Lord, there is this reality: that God’s rule and reign have already begun. That we are in the “time of the coming of the Lord” as much as waiting for it.

So our waiting is different than simply hoping for a future event. Different than simply waiting for God to do something. No, the life in Christ to which we are called in our baptism is a life of fruitful waiting, of working our ministry in the reign of God, of living as if it were already here.

Paul puts it this way: “You know what time it is, it’s the time to wake up from sleep.” There’s no point in waiting for the dawn, Paul says, because the “day is near.” So let’s live “as in the day,” he says. Let’s live as if the full day has already dawned, God’s full reign of peace, and justice, and self-giving love has already begun. Because it has.

Jesus’ warnings to stay awake have something to do with this, too – we stay awake because in many ways it’s already day. God has come to us in the flesh, to live with us, abide with us. We know God’s love fully through the Son. Even more, God has taken on the powers of death, and absorbed our worst hatred, and risen alive through it, inviting us to follow in love. In every way that matters, the victory is sure and real and now. It’s day, not night, right now. There only remains the working out of the fulfilling, which God will complete. But which we are asked to be a part of.

See, there’s this truth about God that we sometimes forget: God doesn’t seem to want to do things for us that we could do ourselves.

The healing of the world as the Scriptures speak of it always seems to involve God’s people. God will not magically fix everything. But through us will heal the world.

So Jesus became one of us to teach us that God’s plan from the beginning was that we love God and love each other. If people need to be fed, people will need to feed them. If wars need to be ended, people will need to end them. If justice and peace are to spread, people will need to spread them. God works through God’s children, filling us all with the Spirit to change the world.

It’s time we stopped looking at promises like Isaiah’s and saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all swords were made into plowshares?” It’s time we realized that we’re the ones holding the swords, and God will not force us to put them down. But God will give us the grace and strength to start putting down the swords and changing what they’re used for. To start making a difference in this broken world, to start being peacemakers, healers, signs of the coming kingdom.

My nephew knew there would be a clear time, a clear sign, that would be a signal. We don’t have such clarity on how long we’re to wait. But we do have time right now.

We never know how much. But if we’re alive today, we’ve got time. We’ve got time to reach out to that person next to us in the grocery store and be the light of Christ, the light of day. To call that neighbor who’s suffering or struggling and be the sound of Jesus’ voice. To offer ourselves in love to others as a sign not only of the One who rules our hearts and lives but also as a sign of the same One who loves all the peoples and creatures of this world.

And if we’re still alive today, we’ve got time to make swords into plowshares as well.

There’s time to be people of peace, people who live in such a way as makes for peace in our own personal lives, and in the life of our community, nation, and world. A way which leads to a world where all children have enough to eat, clothes to wear, shelter, and can live freely, be educated, and live healthy, productive lives.

There’s time to pray for God’s peace and for God’s justice, too. For our soldiers who lay down their lives trying to make peace in terrible situations. For relief workers and agencies around the world who lay their lives on the line trying to make peace in terrible situations. For our leaders, that they lead our culture and nation past our self-absorption and into a way of life that brings healing to all peoples.

There’s still time, so we can give what ELCA World Hunger Appeal calls “alternative” gifts this Christmas – Lutheran World Relief has good suggestions, too, and these gifts could make a huge difference – gifts of wells in arid lands, medicine in the midst of plague, education where people are starving to learn more, cows and sheep and pigs so people can live. The possibilities offered by these two groups alone are amazing and if we all took them upon ourselves could change the world.

If we’re still alive, there’s still time, so we can work for the peace Isaiah envisions. After all, though he sees this as future, he joins Paul and Jesus in the present, urging us: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” This is the vision Scripture has of God’s reign and rule in Jesus. It’s all there. And it’s all here, in us, in God’s people.

Let’s really learn what it means to wait in a truly Advent way this year. A way which involves doing the work of the day while we have time.

Jesus says that salvation is now, the time is now. So we’re always waiting, and it’s always coming to fruition at the same time. We live in both realities. It’s always Advent, God’s hope is always coming, all our lives, and that’s OK, because it’s also always here already. We live in both realities. And it’s time – it’s time for us to stop acting as if faith in God’s restoration means simply to wait and hope for God. God needs us to start right now. Because it turns out that we are part of this thing for which we wait. We are the three stars in the sky, we are part of God’s sign that help is on the way, healing is already happening, and justice and peace are not only hoped-for futures but possible presents. God be with us and give us the Spirit, that we might be God’s sign and God’s healing in this world.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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