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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Advent Sermon for Gaudete Sunday - Awaiting Christ and his Kingdom: Luke 3:7-18

St. Mary and St. Martha 2012

Gaudette Sunday


 I am sorry; I could not resist. How often in life do you get to say that to an audience?

 For most of the history of the Church, Advent has had a double meaning. On the one hand, the saints of God rejoice in the coming birth of Jesus Christ. This is captured in the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” On the other hand, the saints of God also look forward to Christ’s Second Coming, which is usually depicted as a time of resurrection and judgment. The Church uses the Greek word parousia for Advent to refer to this Second Coming of our Lord. This gives Advent a meaning of sacrifice and preparedness as well as celebration. Going back to the fourth century, the Church even fasted 40 days before the “Christ Mass” day.

So, there is a deeper message in John's heated words of judgment that can teach us something about Advent and about what it means for all of us to be the saints of God awaiting his kingdom, both in its first and second coming. If we can learn about the Kingdom of God, perhaps we can learn something deeper about Advent. John’s message was off-putting, but then the Kingdom of God is often off-putting, jarring to our cultural sensitivities. The Kingdom of God is always about reversals of our preconceived expectations. Jesus threw curve balls at his disciples all of the time: "The last shall be first, the first shall be last" "The faith of a mustard seed can move mountains" "Let you who is without sin throw the first stone" "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The tax collectors, soldiers and others who came to be baptized by John in the desert also experienced a reversal of the status quo: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” ‘But…but John what if we are just enabling them to be moochers on society with our charity?’ Or how about this one: John says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” ‘But..but John the free market says that I can sell this product at 20 times the price of production if that is what supply and demand allows.’

I imagine the people in the crowds asking John the question "what must we do?" were really people like you and I, human beings fulfilling our roles in society. We think we are following the rules, tasks, and guidelines that are expected of us. However, the Kingdom of God works in unexpected, peculiar, and radical ways. Often, seeing the "way of the kingdom" is more a matter of changing our theological perspective of what we already do in life. My teacher John Milbank calls the Incarnation “the Word made strange.” We still have the structure of this world, we still call a spade a spade, but the Incarnation changes everything. It twists and skews our perspective of the world as it is. Time in this world is nowthe time of the Kingdom. I encourage everyone this new Christian calendar year to start thinking about your time from the perspective of Christian time.

Action in Waiting 
John the Baptist teaches us this morning that the coming of the Kingdom, and our preparedness for it, is not just a passive exercise. If I were to go to gym and just lay down on the bench press and twiddle my thumbs, perhaps hum begrudgingly along to the latest Katy Perry song playing overhead, my future self with a ripped physique will probably never appear. If I were on the “Biggest Looser” reality TV show and did the same thing, Bob Harper would probably chew me out. Also, preparing and being attentive for the Kingdom does not consist of mere warm-up spiritual exercises, such as "opening the door for a stranger", "putting in some coins to the Salvation Army bucket in front of Macys." The Christian faith must be an "all-in" state of being that involves being attentive, ready for sacrifice, ready for action, and ready to change our theological perceptions of everyday life. So, how does the Advent watchfulness relate to living as active and attentive members of the Kingdom of God? 19th century theologian

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt describes the Advent time of preparation this way: "we call this time advent because it reminds us of what comes from God for the creation of his kingdom on earth. We who are here have been led in a special way to keep what is coming in our hearts and to shape ourselves according to it. That which comes from God - that which moves our hearts, not only in these days but at all times. That which comes from God is the most important thing we have, in the past and in the present as well as the future...unless what comes from God is a part of it, it remains like dead seed and does not achieve what must be achieved if God's kingdom is to be." Often times when people talk about the coming, it is out of desperation or want of a quick fix, not for the kingdom of God itself. We see this in times of crisis, such as the horror we witnessed this week with the elementary school shooting in Connecticut. In such situations, we quite understandably and rightfully make the New Testament cry of "maranatha", Come Lord Jesus! (1 Cor. 16:22). However, when we are talking about the coming of us, we should not be concerned with ourselves but on what belongs to him. How can we reshape our Advent preparation?

 In Luke 12:35-48, Jesus uses the example of a banquet. He says, "be ready for action, and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet...blessed is the slave whom the master will find at work when he arrives." God's Kingdom is never shaped by us, by human creativity and ingenuity. Christ shapes it. It is our charge in this life to be shaped by Christ’s Kingdom. Blumhardt says, "the reign of God is a marvelous thing. To worldly wisdom God's kingdom seems like foolishness, and yet it gives shape to the whole world, the whole creation, making it God's eternal coming" (Blumhardt). Despite the appearance that God's kingdom is a one-way procession into the creation, his plan for the expansion of the Kingdom is for it to be a collaborative enterprise. Going back to the story of the master returning from the wedding banquet, if there is not a doorkeeper to open the door when the master arrives, He may not force himself in. Though the Creator of the universe does not need a key to get into any door, He has entrusted his kingdom to us, the Church, the saints of God (Blumhardt).

 But how do we make ourselves ready for God's kingdom? "We find it so hard to put into God's service, but this is because we weak human beings don't really want to know what is true. We live in a mass of wrongs and untruths, and they surround us as a dark, dark night" (Blumhardt). In order to do the important work of the Kingdom, we must have a light. We must take the lantern to the darkest corners of our lives and shine the light on the garbage that needs to be taken out. To think that shining a light in the dark recesses of our lives is an individual matter is not think as a Christian. The Church must carry the torch together out into the world because the light of God's kingdom does not just shine in our basements but throughout the whole cosmos. It is uncomfortable when someone else comes into our dark room with a bright lantern (or in our case an LED flashlight) because the light shows us just how disorderly things are, how far from the truth our lives really are. Often the pressure of others chastising us for shining a light on their trash causes us Christians to put out our lights, to extinguish the flame and go back to what the culture says is good and true. It is not easy to change what you think is OK, to sacrifice self what is truly needed to actively participate in the Kingdom of God. We resort to what Father Tim aptly labels “cultural Christianity,” or perhaps “Easter and Christmas Episcopalianism.” 

Action in Dying
 We must die to ourselves, and this seems like foolishness in a culture such as ours that prides itself on 24-hour satisfaction of any desire. However, the Kingdom of God includes the sacrifice of Christ, which makes it possible for a new humanity to arise in the resurrection (Blumhardt). St. Augustine of Hippo, the great fourth century bishop, reflected on the need for death and sacrifice in a letter: "It is necessary to die, but nobody wants to; you don't want to, but you are going to, willy-nilly. A hard necessity that is, not to want something which cannot be avoided. If it could be managed, we would much rather not die; we would like to become like the angels by some other means than death. "We have a building from God," says St. Paul, "a home not made with hands, everlasting in heaven. For indeed we groan, longing to be clothed over with our dwelling from heaven; provided, though we be found clothed, and not naked. For indeed we who are in this dwelling place groan, being burdened; in that we do not wish to be stripped, but to be covered over, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."

We want to reach the kingdom of God, but we don't want to travel by way of death. And yet there stands Necessity saying: "This way, please." Do you hesitate, man, to go this way, when this is the way that God came to you?” Advent means that we will need to die to our own selfish desires just as we all must someday go into the ground in order to obtain resurrection. However, the sacrifice is not in vain, but has the hope and anticipation of the brighter light of Christ, which will dispel all darkness. Action in Action In addition to waiting, shining the light to clean up the master's house, we must be active in opening the door to hear what the master needs to tell us. Even though Jesus came and then departed, his resurrection tells us that everything in God’s kingdom is alive at every moment. This means that at any time he could knock on our door:

 'What foolishness you are doing in this house? You act as if things were going to always stay the same.

Don't settle down as if you were the masters!”
 …and another time there is a knock 'Watch out for idolatry!’
 …and another ‘Do you want to serve both God and mammon?’
 …and another ‘Do you want to sit at both God's table and the table of demons?’
‘Who is your master? Do you want to work with the methods of this world or by the spirit of God?’ 

Advent teaches us not only to open the door when knocked, but it impresses upon us the importance of God's coming in Jesus Christ, the importance of Incarnation for the Kingdom of God. Either the profusion of the Godhead into the creation through the person of Jesus Christ has meaning for us right here and right now, or it does not have any meaning at all. With the Incarnation, the whole cosmos must now be "all in" the Kingdom because he has fully entered it. Therefore, it is not just your immortal souls that matter to God in his Kingdom. He wants our bodies to, even in the small things of life. Father Tim has been faithful in making this Christian year the year of the saints, whom we can learn many rich lessons. Brother Lawrence is not a canonized saint, but he is a saint of God whom I try emulate in my thinking and living, and his theology of presence is tremendously illustrative of how we can be active and attentive to the Kingdom. He said, "The time of business does not differ from the time of prayer, and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were on my knees at the Blessed Sacrament."

The great Carmelite, St. Teresa of Avila, also speaks of the emergence of God's presence from the seemingly mundane tasks of everyday life, "if you have to be employed in domestic duties, as for instance in the kitchen,” she says, “remember that the Lord goes about among the pots and pans, helping you in all things." How wonderfully appropriate is this quote given our patron saints Mary and Martha of Bethany. It is not always the big things in the Christian life that the Kingdom shines through the strongest. We must have a theological renewal of the mind concerning the ever-abiding kingdom of God in our midst. It is not just a spiritual dimension of life; it is an incarnational reality. Advent calls us to prepare our minds to think differently about fundamental structure of the world, differently about what we think discipleship is all about, and differently about our mission in this community as citizens of the Kingdom of God. The people seeking baptism by John the Baptist in our scripture reading today were not expecting the coming of Jesus and the baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit that would follow him. They thought the status quo was good enough. We desperately need to rethink what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. Getting your "religion" in on Sundays, your "work" in 9-5 during the week, and your "family time" in what is left over is not living in active attentiveness to the Kingdom of God.

 The Kingdom must break through the barriers of our compartmentalized lives, and penetrate down to the marrow of everything. The Kingdom is not just about claiming you have Abraham as your father, as the tax collectors and soldiers did in the Gospel lesson. It is not even about doing good deeds, which this parish is so wonderful and diligent about doing in the community. The Kingdom is about seeing God at work among the pots and pans of the kitchen, in the business report you write up at work, in playing ball with your son, in mowing the grass at the church, in buying groceries for the family down the street going through a rough time, in studying for a test, in praying, in reading the holy scriptures, and in attending mass every week. God's Kingdom is always at work in the world. We just need to put on our theological glasses to see it clearly. As we go through this season of Advent, we must prepare for the coming of Christ and his Kingdom. Shine a light around the darkness of our house to see what garbage needs to be taken out. Equip us for the unexpected twist and turns to the status quo. Transform the way we see the world by realizing that God's invisible Kingdom is “eternally coming” our midst. We must make the Incarnation of the Godhead in Jesus Christ real and meaningful in the Church so that we can make Christ real for a dying world. Blessed be the name of God.

Daniel Haynes, PhD.
Gaudete Sunday
Advent 2012

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