What greater present can we ask for?

Sermon Preached on Advent 1A (December 2, 2007)
At St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)

How many of you have completed your Christmas shopping? Is there anyone who hasn’t started yet? For many of us, the beginning of Advent, marks the start of the last minute shopping sprint as we count down those precious few weeks and days before Christmas arrives and eager faces sit around the Christmas tree waiting to open gifts thoughtfully purchased or prepared and carefully wrapped by loved ones. Department stores have count down signs, many homes have Advent calendars, and even our churches have Advent wreaths with candles that help us calculate the time between now and Christmas. Each year I feel as though Advent is becoming more and more about presents and less and less about being present. And each year, it becomes harder and harder to do anything about it. How do we resist the pull of Christmas which now begins shortly after Labor Day and live into the hope and expectation of the Advent now? How do we not prepare for Christmas and instead stay present for Advent?

Truly there are no easy answers. Because it is no longer just the secular pulls of Christmas that threaten to pull us away from the present. In fact, living outside of the present has become a year-round phenomenon. With the advent of TiVo, we can now watch our favorite television shows anytime we have the time. Time, one of the last vestiges of God’s creation untouched by human hands is now being controlled by humans as our lives spin more and more out of control. And yet, each year in churches around the world, these four Sundays before Christmas that mark the time of Advent, invite us to be counter-cultural, invite us to live fully in the world, fully in time, fully present in the present rather than focusing on the presents (that is, the gifts) that will be under the tree.

What does it mean to live in time? Well, one thing we know from Scripture is that God works in time. God is not a God of the instantaneous. The promises of God unfold over time. The first story of our Scriptures is that of creation and we are told that God created the heavens and the earth in six days and, on the seventh day, he rested.[1] Modern-day science tells us that this is not an actual description of how the world began and while I know those early Israelites didn’t know what we know about science today, I also know they didn’t understand their stories of creation to be precise descriptions of how those events unfolded either. The fact is, there are many stories of creation within our Bible and each of them varies in terms of details and emphasis, suggesting that each serves a unique purpose in the unfolding story of the people of God.[2] And I would suggest, that one of the primary purposes of that first creation story with its repetitive refrain, “And there was evening and there was morning” is to emphasize that the God of our faith is a God who works within the constraints of time. And another thing we learn from this same creation story is that we, human beings, are made in the image of God. We are called to work and live within the constraints of time.

In this morning’s first reading, we read from the prophet Isaiah about God’s promise to establish a house “as the highest of the mountains. . . raised above the hills,” a house so magnificent that “all the nations shall stream to it [and] many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”[3] You and I are invited to move ever closer to the mountain of God. But this trek up the mountain will take time. If any of you used to watch Star Trek, you may remember that a popular mode of travel between the space ship and other planets was the transporter – “beam me up, Scotty” – a nearly instantaneous relocation device. At one moment Captain Kirk is on the space ship, a moment later, he is on the surface of a planet many miles away. Our Advent invitation to “go up to the mountain of the LORD” does not work this way. Instead it is a process in time.

This process of living in time, rather than attempting to control time, challenges us. It is hard to live our lives without being overwhelmed by the past or anxious about the future and yet, this is precisely what the season of Advent, and, in fact, everyday life in Christ, calls us to do. Two weeks ago, we heard these words from the gospel of Luke:

“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and, `The time is near!' Do not go after them.”[4]
In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, a continuation of this conversation, Jesus reminds the disciples that no one knows “about that day and hour” – “neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” and he gives the disciples some practical, though not easy, advice: “you . . . must be ready.”[5] Being ready is about living life in the present, living an Advent life, a life fully committed in the here and now to Christ, to living in the body of Christ, in the Christian community, always moving toward the mountain of God. Paul describes it this way, “Let us. . . lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.”[6]

I began this morning by saying that the beginning of Advent is, for most of us, the start of the last minute shopping sprint as we count down those precious few weeks and days before Christmas. In light of all that I’ve said, I realize I may not sound a whole lot different than the Grinch who Stole Christmas right out from under the noses of all those Whos down in Whoville. So let me clarify a bit now. I am not suggesting that you all stop buying gifts – or return the gifts you’ve already bought. I’m not suggesting you wait until Christmas day to put up your Christmas lights, your tree, and all the decorations that make your home look and feel more festive. Instead, I am suggesting that you do these things with an eye toward what they are –trappings. They are the trappings of a predominantly secular holiday that has come to coincide with the season of Advent of the Christian year. And, in the midst of it all, make time and space for the observance of Advent - a season that is marked by living in the present - neither being overwhelmed by the past nor anxious about the future. Advent, a season focused on being filled with all confidence and hope that God will, in God’s time, bring us to that glorious mountain where the peoples “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” and where the nations “shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”[7] What greater present can we ask for? “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”[8]

[1] Genesis 2:1-2.
[2] E.g., Genesis 1:1-2:3; 2:4-25; Wisdom 8:4-6; 9:9; Sirach 24:1ff; John 1:1-5; I Colossians 1:15-18; Hebrews 1:2.
[3] Isaiah 2:2-3.
[4] Luke 21:5-8.
[5] Matthew 24:36, 44.
[6] Romans 13:12b-13a
[7] Isaiah 2:4b.
[8] Isaiah 2:5.