Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

November 27, 2022.

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44.

The holiday season is well and truly kicked off now that we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving. And who doesn’t have holiday memories? They run the gamut of course, from lovely, happy, and warm experiences to challenging, hurtful, and disastrous ones. Sometimes it’s a complicated mix of the good and the not-so-much. To a very great extent, how we do holidays as adults is related to how we experienced them growing up.

In my family there would always come a point a day or two after Thanksgiving where the limits of togetherness were reached. Eventually a line would be crossed by one or several of us. When my mother’s last nerve was stretched to the limit she would say, “You’ll stop that right now if you know what’s good for you.”

Sometimes this was effective. But sometimes not. Because knowing what is good for us is not necessarily an easy thing to work out. What seems good to one person may not be good for another. Even relatively compatible family members have issues that never seem to get settled. When there are longstanding undercurrents of hostility it’s even more complicated.

What is true in any particular family is writ large in the human family. We cannot entirely escape being together. We live together on the land, in towns and cities, in nations, and on this earth. We get on each other’s nerves.

We are always in some kind of competition. And we lack a shared vision of what is good for us all. Consider for example that access to clean water is a universal human need, but we do not share a vision to provide it. Given this failure, how can we ever hope to address the need for food or shelter or meaningful work? And that’s not good.

The season of Advent always begins with a message of apocalypse. We hear warnings from various scriptures to be ready. Things are bad and are only going to get worse. They seem to say in a variety of ways, “You’ll stop that right now if you know what’s good for you.”

What is the way to good? It looks like Matthew is the worst news of all the lessons today. All Jesus seems to be saying is “…keep awake…you must be ready…for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” And it’s going to be all, uh-oh.

In the days of Noah the people carried on with daily life, knowing nothing of God’s displeasure with humankind’s relentless sinning. When the flood came all living things were washed away except for Noah and his household, and the animals they’d rounded up and herded onto the ark.

They were not prepared for God.

The same goes for the field workers, and the women grinding meal together. Only those awake and alert like Noah will be prepared when Jesus comes again. So best to be on your guard. Get ready. Everything else you’re doing? Well, whatever it is, “You’ll stop that right now if you know what’s good for you.” Right?

And according to the book of Acts, some people in the early Christian community did just stop. They gave up working and taking care of anything or anyone because, it’ll all be gone soon so why bother? And isn’t it good to be ready for Jesus?

People of faith turned inward on themselves to pray and get ready for Jesus to come again. But their undone tasks were more than the rest of the community could manage. Which is not the kind of getting ready that Jesus meant. The coming of Jesus is a pivotal moment, but anxiety, fear, or passivity are not the way to readiness.

If you take today’s fragment from the Letter to the Romans, it may look like self-improvement is a possible way out of catastrophe. We know what quarrelling and jealousy look like. And licentiousness? Debauchery? Let’s not even go there.

Paul identifies the root problem of human sin as the gratifying of our desires. Our desire is something that always seems good to us, but it usually fails the test of being good for others.

Why does Paul even have to tell the Christian community this? Short answer: we’re never done with cleaning up our toxic behavior. There’s all kinds of room for improvement.

But there’s more going on than just this. Paul says that the reason for tackling our toxicity head on is that “…salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Many people of faith think of salvation as that moment when Jesus returns in a blinding flash with spiritual muscle to give everyone their just desserts. So, “You’ll stop that right now if you know what’s good for you.”

But the word salvation is not a tough love word. Grammatically it’s a feminine word and comes from the root word for “deliverance”.  As a child being born is delivered.

Israel’s prophets typically announced God’s judgement, saying in so many words, “You’ll stop that right now if you know what’s good for you.” But today’s message from Isaiah is more the good news today than even Matthew’s gospel. It is about God’s deliverance.

It’s all down to this. God comes to deliver us. Because if it’s up to us, nothing will change. The womb is warm, let’s stay here. We keep doing what we know, we don’t hope for greater things.

But Isaiah says, the good is found in God. There are no barriers to God. The doors of God’s house are wide open to all who seek the Holy One. Therefore what is good is equally accessible to all.

When we are in conflict with one another, the way through it is to look to God as the judge of all. God arbitrates, says Isaiah, because how can God rule in favor of one beloved child over another in any zero-sum judgement? God knows the good in every living thing, even if we cannot see it.

The prevailing of peace and plenty is God’s doing. Resources formerly spent in conflict are re-worked into the implements of food production for the good of all. When the thirsty and hungry are filled and people can live in safety, then all is good. This is the life that God desires for us, it is the end that Jesus comes to bring. Who wouldn’t want to hope and prepare for this?