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HOPE -- Advent Homily

Sermon – 11/28/04
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 13: 11-14

The text for our reflection this morning comes from Romans chapter 13, verses 11 through 14:

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

It’s no accident that the church year begins on this day, the first Sunday of Advent.  The month before we celebrate New Year’s Day, we celebrate the beginning of the church year.  Nearly four weeks before the celebration of the birth of Christ, three weeks before the Winter solstice (the longest night of the year).  The sentiment of advent is expressed well here in this text from the apostle Paul.

Though the nights are still getting longer we know that the time is coming soon when the North Pole will reach its furthest tilt from the Sun, and we will begin that season when the days grow longer.  Advent is the season that affirms that in the midst of the longest nights, that day is near.  The season of darkness will come to an end.  Thus it is on this day, and not on the Winter solstice, not at the beginning of the new year, that we claim our hope in that time yet to come.  And so we light one candle on the first Sunday of advent.  And then 2, and then 3 and 4 to remind us of that coming light into our world.

Now if you glance through the advent section in your hymnal (feel free to do that, it’s on page 118 of the hymnal), there are 23 pages of advent carols.  Not Christmas carols – the first one is ‘Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel’ – we think of it as a Christmas carol but really it is an advent carol.  Carols that are filled with the hope of advent.  And almost all of which refer to this metaphor of light in the midst of darkness.  For instance, in ‘Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel’ the second verse reads: 

Oh, come, thou Dayspring come and cheer,
Our spirits by thine advent here,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's deep shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Kelly sang for us:  

Hope is a star that shines in the night
Leading us on until the morning is bright

And we sang:

          Awake, awake and greet the new morn
            For angels herald its dawning.  

Another one, perhaps not as well familiar:

            People look east, the time is near
            Of the crowning of the year

Why look east?  Because of course that’s the rising sun.  And in verse 3 of that carol, we read:

            Stars keep watch when night is dim
            One more light the bowl shall brim
            Shining beyond the frosty weather
            Bright as sun and moon together
            People look east
            Love the star is on the way

And so this is the theme of advent, and it’s one of the reasons why we sing these beautiful, even though less familiar, advent carols along with the Christmas carols during this season.  Now if we were a purer liturgical church, we would only sing advent carols and we wouldn’t sing any Christmas carols until after Christmas.  But we're about as impure as they get J.  So we mix them all together because we enjoy singing all those songs.

We all experience those times when the world is a dark place for us.  And hope seems faint.  And that’s why we need this season of the year to remind us of that hope, of that light.  Advent is that season, to remind us that when war rages on, that God is not far away.  When grief overwhelms us, God is not far away.  When there is not enough money to pay our bills and we’re at the end of our rope, God is not far away.  When there is no one left to turn to, God is not far away.  When the morning news is depressing – and that’s the height of our day, and everything goes downhill from there – God is not far away. 

Advent is the affirmation that though it is still in the middle of the night, we know that the new day will soon arrive.  ‘The people who walk in great darkness will see a great light’ says the prophet Isaiah.  But advent, you see, comes before we can see that light.  And yet we are no less confident that it will come.

Now this all sounds good, but what does it practically mean?  For the apostle Paul, it meant that Christ would return, soon, in the immediate future, if not in his own lifetime then soon thereafter, to bring about this age of peace when they would be able to dwell secure and God’s reign would be here on earth.  John Dominic Crossan says ‘we have to be honest, and say that Paul was wrong about the timing, so get over it’.  But that doesn’t mean that our hope should be any less. 

It’s not often that we read about speculation of this notion of the second coming in the editorial pages of the Register Guard.  I just don’t think that’s one thing the Register Guard has on their mind, to put out there.  But there it was, I think in Friday’s paper, if you read Nicolas Kristof’s column, a columnist for the New York Times, commenting on this notion of the second coming of Christ as popularized in the Left Behind series [of books].  And he offered a bet to authors Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that he’d donate $500.00 to the battle to fight the anti-Christ if the rapture came within the next 10 years (as they seem to believe it might) and they in turn would give $500.00 to a charity of his choosing to fight bigotry if the rapture did not come in the next 10 years.  Pretty safe bet, I’d be willing to take it any time.  He shared out of his perspective that the particular viewpoint of those authors is in fact based in bigotry because of the notion that if you are not one of us, then you will be condemned to a terrible death and all of the other folks – Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc – are all then thus condemned.  And he would call that bigotry. 

If you’ve been paying attention to my preaching over the years, you would know that I think that this notion of a rapture is a nonsensical notion based on a totally erroneous reading of obscure scripture with no basis in reality or theology.  And besides that have I ever told you that I just think it’s wrong?!

Paul does not speak of rapture.  He does speak of the return of Jesus, as that new day that would usher in this era of peace and God’s dwelling here on earth.  Here is the important thing for us to note about that:  Paul at no time says “we’ll wait for that day to come because you don’t need to do anything now.  Just wait, just sit back and watch and just wait for that to come”.  That’s not what he says.  Instead, Paul’s message is, for the followers of Jesus, that new day has already begun!  To follow Jesus as the light of the world means we don’t have to wait for the new dawn – for us, the light of Christ has already overcome the darkness of this world.  And so Paul says ‘the time has come to wake up’.  This is not a call to come to church on Sunday morning.  This is the call to recognize the coming of God’s reign that has already begun in our midst.  Wake from your sleep, put on the armor of light in the middle of the night.

And so I would suggest to you that the second coming is not the moment that the sun (s-u-n or s-o-n) appears on the horizon, but it is every moment in which the light of Christ overcomes the darkness of the world.  We are not called to wait for the return of Jesus, we are called to act on the return of Jesus, now.  Thus it is not at dawn that we sing ‘awake, awake and greet the new morn’, but in the middle of the night, in the beginning of advent, while the nights are still growing longer and the winter solstice is still 3 weeks away.  Advent is the time for us to decide – will we remain in the dark or will we put on that armor of light?  Will we live by the flesh or will we live by God’s spirit?  Will we live as if there is no tomorrow, or as if tomorrow is as important or more important than today?  Will we hate others as our enemies, or will we love our enemies as much as our friends?

Because this is the time of Christ coming, as is every time, we need to wake up from our lethargy.  To wake up from our complacency.  To wake up from our naiveté.  To wake up from the holiday.  The coming of Christ is at hand, leading us to the promised land.  Much to our surprise is how Christ leads us to here, and to now.  For though our world is covered by night, to each has been given God’s new light.  This is the dawning of the new day, when we follow that star of the Christ way. 

May we follow that light.


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