This was my sermon for Grace Anglican Church on 30 November 2014 (Advent 1).
Today is the first day of Advent. Advent is to Christmas like Lent is to Easter – they’re solemn times of self-reflection, there’s a heightened penitential feel to our worship and corporate life, and they both lead to a great celebration of one of the most joyful events in all of history. This year, Advent was preceded by a significant moment in current events: the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri, delivered their verdict, and the public responded. No matter how you look at it, what happened in Ferguson is cause for solemnity, self-reflection, and penitence.
Some say this is the latest example of racism in America at its worst. Race relations certainly play a role here. Some say the protests that became riots only made things worse. Certainly that is also true. Black or white, in favor of the ruling or against, we cannot be quick to judge, not knowing all the details and people involved. What we can do is examine ourselves for our own sinful tendencies. Did we look at the case and quietly say to ourselves “that black kid sure looked suspicious, he obviously got what was coming to him”? Or did we see “yet another example of white police brutality against men of color”? Events like this, as does the spirit of Advent, gives us opportunities to lay bare the hidden attitudes of our hearts, call out the sins that we find, and lay them at the foot of the Cross where Christ can take them away and replace them with his righteous virtues, crowned with faith and hope and love.
Let’s give this a different picture. Imagine, if you would, two siblings in an argument. My sister and I usually got along famously, but we had our moments. Now and then, when our parents weren’t around, we might get into an argument about something. But what happens when we hear our parents arriving home? Quick, stop arguing! Look happy! Put the dropped toys back on the shelf! Make it look like we were playing with Legos or something! Granted, there’s an element of deception going on there, but there was also an element of reconciliation. Faced with judgment on the way, we shaped up and scrambled to get ready so we wouldn’t get lectured during dinner, but could instead have a painless family meal together.
This is kind of what Advent is all about. Jesus will return, so we need to stop our fighting and get our act together. There are two aspects of this preparation that I want to share today: first in our attitude, and second in our lifestyle. We find these themes particularly in Romans 13:11-12…. “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Our attitude is described first: know the time, know that the hour has come. Our lifestyle is described second: cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let’s look at these both in turn.
Attitude = Active Anticipation = “looking East”
For those of you who like alliteration, we’ve got a real winner here today: go after the Advent attitude of active anticipation. This attitude of active anticipation is fueled by the reality that Christ will return to rule and judge the world someday. Sure, after two thousand years of church history it’s a little difficult to have any sense of urgency or expectation. The Apostles, for a while, seemed to think that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. But as time drags on, we’re getting further and further away from those Gospel events. It makes faith in the doctrine of Christ’s return difficult sometimes. How do we cling to this blessed promise and hope?
One way that we are encouraged to trust in the promise of his return is by rehearsing the reality that he did come once, in the flesh, and is among us even now through the Holy Spirit. Pick up your Bible and read the New Testament. Daily reading plans are not simply a modern fad; it has always been a part of church tradition, and especially since the Reformation it has become available to more and more people. We’ve started putting an Anglican daily lectionary on the back of the bulletin; if you keep up with it, you’ll get through the New Testament three times in a single year! I commend this to you because as we immerse ourselves in the New Testament, we remind ourselves that Jesus was a real guy. He really came into the world, ministered, worked miracles, touched lives, and left a legacy and spiritual family in which we continue to experience his presence spiritually to this very day!
Another way that we are encouraged to hang on to the Advent attitude of active anticipation is by the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus. An apocalypse in the Bible, we must remember, is not the near-total destruction of the world… that’s a modern movie genre. No, in the Bible, an apocalypse is a big unveiling or revelation of God to the world. The last book in the Bible, called The Apocalypse in Greek and the Revelation in Latin, is so called because it’s about the final and complete unveiling of God to the entire world. Destruction and judgment is part of it, but that’s not the main thing. In three of the gospel books, Jesus gives us what’s often called a mini-apocalypse. We’ll hear from one of them next Sunday. In those apocalypses, Jesus tells us that there will be famines and earthquakes, and wars and rumors of wars, and persecution before his return. Some people look at those things and sensationalize current events and start crying out “the end is nigh!” Others may scoff and say “those things have always been going on, somewhere in the world, what’s the big deal?” Both responses have an aspect of truth to them. These disasters and evil events in the world are meant to be reminders to us that God’s plan for the world is not yet finished, and thus we are to remember that Jesus still has yet to return. We don’t need to get alarmist about it, but we ought to be moved to an attitude of active anticipation.
A third way that we’re encouraged to persevere in this Advent attitude is in our manner of worship. The last prayer in the Bible is “Come, Lord Jesus.” Forms of that prayer echo throughout our liturgy, especially during this season. In Matthew 24:27, Jesus said, “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” We remember that Christ is coming whenever we celebrate Communion. Indeed, the liturgy is rich with symbolism. The vestments of the ministers point to the dignity of Christ the King. We strike our breasts, and bow our heads, and bend our knees to remember our sinfulness, God’s mercy, and his glory. We stand, and sit, and kneel, to remind us of our place as petitioners, disciples, and penitents under God. And, since ancient times, Christians have faced East during the Communion liturgy to remember to keep watch for Christ. Together, the clergy and the people faced the East together, waiting and watching for Christ. Even in Churches that did not physically face East, the everyone stood together in the Mass, gazing at Christ on the crucifix, or the altar, or the tabernacle, to recall the importance of watching for his return. The symbolism of the priest and people facing ad orientem—to the east—is an ancient reminder of the coming of Christ.
More recently, it has become common for the priest and the people to face one another during the Communion service, and this has also been the norm in Protestant worship. The priest stands behind the altar as he consecrates the Eucharist, facing the people. The people see the face of the priest as he prays, and he sees their faces. These positions can have important symbolism too. They can remind us that we are a community—one body in Christ. And they can remind us that the Eucharist, at the center of the assembly, should also be at the center of our families, and our lives. But the symbolism of facing together, and awaiting Christ, is rich, time-honored and important. Especially during Advent, as we await the coming of the Lord, facing East together—even symbolically facing Christ together at the altar —is a powerful witness to Christ’s imminent return. And let’s face it, it’s easy to be complacent in our spiritual lives and in the work of evangelization—we need those reminders that Christ will come. So in this ad orientem, I am not be facing away you. I am with you —among you, and leading you — facing Christ, and waiting for his return.
Lifestyle = Armor of Light = living transparently
Lastly, it is important that we back up our attitude with our lifestyle. We cannot simply “talk the talk” without making sure to “walk the walk.” This is where we come to the exhortation to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Just about a month ago we heard from the famous passage in Ephesians 6 about putting on the whole armor of God. That armor was clearly a set of defensive tools in our struggle against the schemes of the devil. This Armor of Light, however, is set in a very different context. Romans 13 is not about spiritual warfare, but about holy Christian living. We are to love one another, which is the Summary of the Law and spelled out in the Ten Commandments. In so doing, we cast off the life of sin (the works of darkness) and put on the Armor of Light.
So the Armor of Light isn’t so much a defensive thing as it is a way of life. Besides, think about light for a moment. What does it do? It removes darkness. A modern expression that captures this idea well, I think, is the catchphrase of “living transparently.” The Armor of Light surrounds us in light, so that everything is made more visible to ourselves and others. When we pursue after sin, we run from the spotlight, to carry out our deeds in darkness. Putting on the armor of light, then, is one of the ways in which we live out that sense of anticipation that Christ will return.
To return to the illustrations I used at the beginning, if we are wearing the Armor of Light, we will more quickly catch ourselves when we betray our prejudices one way or another over such divisive events as what has happened in Ferguson over the past week. If we are wearing the Armor of Light, we’ll be more quick to stop fighting with our siblings and figure out how to get along before the parents come home. When Jesus returns, we want to be spiritually awake, ready to welcome him, so we can joyfully celebrate rather than fearfully scramble to get ourselves in order.
The more we meditate on his first coming and his continual spiritual presence with us, as we watch the signs of the times and face East in worship, and as we strive to live transparently under the Armor of Light, the more attentive and ready we shall be for the return of Christ our King, and our God.