Sermon delivered on the second Sunday of Advent A, December 8, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you would like to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s readings provide us as Christians with ample food for prayerful thought and reflection during this season of Advent and that is what I want us to look at briefly this morning. Specifically, why should we take seriously Paul’s prayer for us to be people filled with all joy and peace in believing so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit?
As Fr. Philip reminded us last week, Advent, which has its root in the Greek word parousia (to arrive or be actively present), is an appropriate time for us to stop and take stock of that for which we hope. Advent is a time of anticipation when we prepare for our Lord Jesus to return in great power and glory to consummate his victory won on the cross over the powers and principalities and their dark and evil reign by bringing in God’s promised new creation. As Christians, we believe that we live in the end times between Jesus’ first and second comings.
We see some of these wonderful promises of God’s new creation in all our lessons this morning, but especially in our OT and psalm lessons. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a day when all the disordered things of the natural world will be restored to their proper order. The wolf will live with the lamb and humans will no longer have to fear dangerous animals like poisonous snakes, lions, and bears because they will no longer hurt or destroy. This will happen because the entire earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (cf. Isaiah 65.17-25; Romans 8.18-25). And how do the waters cover the sea? The waters are the sea! In other words, humans and the rest of God’s creation will be living directly in God’s presence in the promised new heavens and earth! What a magnificent hope and prospect for those who love God!
“That’s all well and good, Fr. Maney,” you say, “but dude, get back on your meds so that you can get a grip on reality. None of these promises have come true. Look around you. Last time we checked, wolves like to live with lambs so they can eat them and there is no way we’re going to stick our hand into a nest of rattlesnakes. Only a lunatic would do that. And what about the massive injustice in this world, not to mention all the evil and suffering we must endure? Just look at the length of our intercessory list and some of the heartbreaking things that are afflicting individuals and families. We haven’t seen much evidence of God’s promises being fulfilled.”
And there is the rub, isn’t it? Sometimes (often times?) we find it hard to believe in God’s promises that we read about today precisely because they have not come about, at least on the scale we might hope for. Nature is still disordered. Injustice, suffering, and evil are rampant, and God is apparently nowhere to be seen. This is the challenge that confronts us as Christians and especially so during this season of Advent with its promises of hope and anticipation. It is hard for us, precisely because we live in the last times when all the promises of God have begun to break through in his good but fallen world but have not yet reached their full conclusion. Put another way, because we haven’t seen how God’s history is going to turn out, we do not have the benefit of 20-20 hindsight like we do with other stories of the Bible. So we have to live by faith and that is not always an easy thing to do.
That is why Paul exhorts us to keep our nose in the Scriptures because in them we find the story of God’s eternal plan to rescue his good but fallen world from the ravages of human sin and the evil and death it has unleashed, mysterious and ambiguous as that plan can seem to us at times. As all our lessons indicate, at the heart of God’s rescue plan is his call to his people Israel, beginning with God blessing the patriarch Abraham and his descendants so that they could be a blessing to others, i.e., so that Israel could bring God’s good and righteous rule with its healing love to all the nations (Genesis 12.1-3), and consummating with the coming of Jesus the Messiah, God embodied fully as a human being.
As both Isaiah and John the Baptist emphasize, when God’s kingdom (i.e., God’s reign) comes fully on earth as it is in heaven, God’s perfect justice, wisdom, and righteousness will be fully implemented so that all evil and those whose lives are patterned so as to propagate that evil, will be swept away. This will be the Messiah’s doing and judgment, not ours, and that is why Advent is also a time for sober reflection on how we are conducting our lives and who or what we are patterning them after. Is the way we live our lives helping King Jesus to bring in the Father’s kingdom on earth as in heaven or impeding it? You see, God in his marvelous wisdom and grace calls us as Jesus’ followers to be part of his kingdom building project so that he can use us to bring his healing love to others who do not know Jesus or follow him. That is what we are being saved for, not so that we get to go to heaven when we die!
And if we doubt that the way we live our lives is important to God, we need look no further than the interchange between John and the religious leaders of his day. John calls them a brood of vipers precisely because the way they had fashioned their lives prevented God’s love from flooding out into the nations. The religious leaders of John’s day (and sadly some from our own) saw their nation Israel as being privileged and superior to the other nations because God had only called Israel to be his people. So instead of acting in ways that would expose gentiles (i.e., the nations) to the righteous and healing ways of God’s kingdom as they had been called to do through Abraham, they were all about exclusion and outright condemnation, and John would have no part of that. Likewise for us as Christians today.
There is real hope in all this, of course, because it is God who acts on our behalf through Jesus his Messiah to bring about his righteous rule and justice so that God’s curse on Adam and Eve’s sin can be reversed and evil decisively defeated so that God’s good world will once again be fully restored to its original goodness. We believe God has done this primarily through the death and resurrection of Jesus and that this healing and redemptive work will be fully consummated when Jesus returns in great power and glory at the parousia. It is therefore important for us to note the positive dimension of God’s justice and accompanying judgment in all this. The only ones who have to fear God’s terrible judgment and wrath are evildoers who steadfastly reject God’s gracious gift offered to everyone in Jesus and refuse to pattern their lives after God’s righteous, good, and just rule.
Here too we can find hope for all that afflicts us, even when our prayers apparently go unanswered. The God who became embodied in Jesus to suffer and die for us so that we could live with him forever in his kingdom starting right now is hardly an indifferent or distant God. To be sure, unanswered prayer to relieve human suffering is a great enigma and can be deeply vexing and puzzling. But the death and resurrection of Jesus stand as an eternal testimony to the love, faithfulness, and nearness of God for his broken world and creatures, irrespective of our ability to understand fully how this can be.
But how can we believe these promises? Because as Paul reminds us, we are to take real encouragement from Scriptures and Scriptures tell us how God consistently works for the welfare and benefit of his people, even when we refuse to cooperate with him. For example, the gracious words we read from Isaiah were written at a time when the dominant world power of Isaiah’s day, Assyria, was threatening to overrun Judah. This, of course, made the leaders and people of Judah very afraid. But instead of turning to the God of power, the God who had delivered his people from their slavery in Egypt and brought them to the promised land, they turned to their former oppressors in Egypt for help. So here we see God appealing to his people to turn to him for help by letting them in on the promises he has in store for them. And while this particular passage does not contain a reference to God’s mighty deliverance of his people in the Exodus, if we read further on in Isaiah, we see God reminding his people that he is a God who has a track record of delivering them and therefore they can have confidence to trust in his promises.
There are many other stories in the Bible about God’s rescuing his people, not to mention stories of God continuing to rescue his people today. But if we do not know these stories, or if we do not tell each other about our own personal stories and experiences, we remain ignorant of how God acts to rescue us and are prone to fall into despair, not to mention disbelief over God’s ability to deliver on his promises. This is why it is critically important for us to use this season of Advent to focus on God’s promises and why they are trustworthy so that we can have real hope, even in the midst of all the chaos in the world and our lives.
So what do we do with these lessons besides learn to keep our nose in Scripture? First, we must take John the Baptist’s exhortation for us to repent seriously. To repent means to turn away from something and turn toward something else. But hear me carefully. When we speak of repentance, we need to keep in mind God’s big picture of his kingdom coming in full. We should examine ourselves to see what is in us that prevents us from bringing God’s healing love and light to the world so that Jesus can use us to help build on the foundation he laid for the kingdom through his death and resurrection. What are we doing/thinking/saying that is at odds with Jesus, our example? What are we doing that prevents us from denying our selfish desires and taking up our cross so that we can follow him? For example, if we are not keeping our nose in Scripture because we are “too busy,” this might be a good place to start repenting of the way we use our time! But the good news about this business of repenting using the criterion of bringing in the kingdom is that almost everybody in our little congregation is focused on kingdom building. Just yesterday, for example, some of us helped take care of a widow in our family by helping her get moved into her new digs. In doing so, irrespective of whether we can see it, the kingdom comes because Jesus is Lord.
This brings us to our second major lesson, this time from Paul. We are to have confidence in the Lord’s promises to bring his kingdom in full on earth by the very fact that our little congregation exists and loves each other the way we do. Mysterious and puzzling as this may seem to us, as Paul reminds us, when members of Jesus’ body, the Church, behave in ways that imitate Jesus in his suffering love, it is proof positive that Jesus is alive and well and God’s promises are true. Don’t ask me to explain how this works because I cannot. Just believe it with all your mind and heart and you will see for yourself that it is true. As Paul reminds us, when we keep ourselves firmly rooted in Scripture so that we do believe God is good to his word, we will most certainly have the abundant hope in the power of the Spirit he talked about because we know first-hand that we have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.