A sermon for the first Sunday of Advent

We had a house full of company over the long Thanksgiving weekend, which is why I wasn’t here last Sunday. I wasn’t out looking for another job. Father Ditterline was kind enough to cover so I could concentrate on being with my family, and it was a real joy to have both of my children at home, including my daughter who lives in California and, of course, it was a joy to have our granddaughter at our house for several days. Her language skills are just exploding these days, and she has a lot to say about everything.

She just turned two at the beginning of November, but I wouldn’t call her a terrible two—although we did notice that if there’s something she wants, she does think she has to have it right away. She does not like to wait.

Waiting isn’t easy for two-year-olds, and to tell you the truth, it isn’t always easy for us adults, either. I don’t like waiting in lines in stores, I don’t like waiting in traffic. And not too long ago, I spent more than 30 minutes sitting in a doctor’s examining room, and I can tell you that I did not appreciate that at all.

So today in church we begin an entire season devoted to waiting, the season of Advent, and the funny thing is that I really love it. I think that Advent might be my favorite season of the church year. I cherish the peace and quiet that comes to us just as the whole world is ramping up for Christmas. I love that contrast of Advent, the fact that it’s not a commercial holiday even though as a society, it seems, we just can’t wait. We can’t wait for Christmas.

But there’s a reason that my little granddaughter has so much trouble waiting. It’s really understandable when you think about it. It’s because she doesn’t understand time. If she needs or wants something, she thinks it has to be now, or not at all. She doesn’t really have a concept of the future, of the idea that even if she has to wait a little while, she will still get what she needs.

Her parents are working on that, little by little, teaching her to wait—which, when you think about it, is one of the most valuable lessons we parents teach our children. They’re trying to help her to understand the idea of time passing, so every once in a while they’ll set a timer and they’ll say, that’ll happen in a minute, or in two minutes. And they have a kid’s alarm clock in her room and it turns a light on at the time you set, so if she wakes up early she’s supposed to wait for that light come on and then she knows it’s OK to call for her parents. And I’m not there that early, so I can’t tell you how well that’s working.

In our tradition, we also also use light to mark the passing of time. We light one more colored candle on the Advent wreath every week for each of the four Sundays of Advent, until finally Christmas comes and we light the white candle at the center, the Christ candle. Christ among us, Christ the light of the world.

I’ve heard a couple of different explanations for what the colored candles stand for. Sometimes I’ve heard it said that they represent hope, peace, joy, and love.

But there is another version that says they stand for the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary. And that’s a closer match to our readings here in church we by week.

So in your leaflet you’ll see that the prayers say each week are matched to the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist, and Mary.

So today, we honor the faith of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who with their wives, the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, are the ancestors of the Israelites. They’re our own fathers and mothers in the faith.

And I want to talk about Abraham and Sarah in particular today, but first I have to say a little bit more about Advent.

So what exactly is it that we’re waiting for this month, when we say we’re waiting?

Yes, we’re waiting for Christmas, obviously—at least to the extent that anybody does wait. But there’s more to it than that. We wait for the birth of Christ, which is possible in God’s time even though it’s something that’s already happened. And we wait for the Second Coming of Christ, when God’s promised Kingdom will finally come. When all that’s wrong with our broken, sorry world will finally be set to right.

So every year on the first Sunday of Advent, we hear a Gospel that talks about the end of the world, about those end times when Christ will come again, and this isn’t just a grim but temporary distraction from the joy of the season to come, and it isn’t meant just to frighten us.

It’s meant to be a sign of hope. It’s a reminder that this Second Coming isn’t just about final judgment—perhaps even more significantly, this is when God’s promised Kingdom will finally come in all its fullness.

I’ve been reading a book this year, it might be the best thing I’ve ever read about the meaning of Advent. It’s by a woman named Paula Gooder.

She describes this time we live in as an in-between time when “we see glimmers of God’s glory in the world but have to wait for the time when that glory will suffuse the whole of creation.”[i]She says this is why we as human beings are able to have a vision of the world as God yearns for it to be, but we don’t the ability to bring it about in full.

And in the meantime, while we wait, we aren’t meant to be just passively waiting for those better days. So here’s what Gooder says:

This biblical vision of waiting for the future is one that calls forth both an acceptance of the reality of our current situation and a determination to change it. We live “between” and so must accept the nature of the world as it is now, but we can also grasp hold of God’s possibility for the world. The glimmers of God’s glory that we see exist to strengthen our resolve to increase those glimmers, to strive to make God’s kingdom more present on earth every day. Waiting for the future involves a recognition of what the world might be and the resolve to bring our own part of it one step closer. … waiting becomes active: waiting for the future involves transforming the present.[ii]

Waiting becomes active.

Just because we’re waiting for a future time, that doesn’t mean that the present doesn’t matter. We aren’t just meant to be killing time here, sitting around waiting for something to happen.

And I know this might seem paradoxical, but one of the great lessons this Advent focus on waiting for the future can teach us is about how we’re supposed to be living in the present.

Advent waiting should help us to recognize that God is with us here and now—present and active in our world, and calling us to participate in that activity.

God is with us right now, even as we wait.

So now, this is a good time to go back to Abraham and Sarah, our patriarch and matriarch.

If you remember that story, God called them to leave everything behind—and I mean everything: family, friends, business, the place where they lived, their—and set out on a journey to what God called “the land I will show you.”[iii]They didn’t get a detailed itinerary in advance, and their adventures took 14 chapters of the book of Genesis.

My favorite part of the story has always been the part where Sarah gives birth to a son in her old age, because I see older women bringing new life into the world, in a lot of different ways, all the time.

So God promised to make Abraham “a great nation,”[iv]without explaining what that would mean. But Abraham didn’t live long enough to see that promise fulfilled, even though Genesis tells us that he was 175 years old when he died.

But God was with Abraham and Sarah through all of those adventures, and Abraham and Sarah trusted God to show him the way, step by step, through all of it. And that’s what matters. What matters is the journey with God, not the destination.

So, Paula Gooder again. She says:

God’s call to us remains a call to change: to leaving and accompanying, to moving and changing, to growing and flourishing. It is part of human nature to yearn for stability, to put down roots, and to stay put; but it is also a rule of nature that things that do not move do not live.[v]

And that, I think, is a good lesson for us, too, because we’re on a journey of moving and changing right here at Good Shepherd these days, and it doesn’t feel easy.

I hope it will also be a journey of growing and flourishing, for all of us.

But we’re in an in-between time, a time between what hasbeen here in the parish—at least for a little while—and what willbe. And when I leave, we don’t know what will come next—for me in my own life, for you as a parish.

So it’s time of uncertainty for us, and sometimes it might feel like terrible uncertainty. But we have to believe that it’s also a time that’s filled with promise and possibilities, if only we are open to them and if only we trust that God is on this journey with us, inviting us to change and grow as we wait for the future.

I’m looking forward to relaxing a little, I’m looking forward to having more time to spend with my family. But I have loved being here, preaching and celebrating Eucharist with you every week, and walking with you through all kinds of things.

So it’s hard to let that go. I do hope to find new and different ways and opportunities for ministry, but I don’t what that will look like, and it is a little scary.

And meanwhile, I know the conversations have already begun here about what you want your new priest to be like, and I’ve heard people say they hope it won’t be long before this in-between time with all its uncertainty is over, and a new person is settled here.

But the lesson of Advent waiting is that we have things to do together in the meantime. God is here with us, just as before. We continue our work toward the Kingdom. We live faithfully, just as we do in all times.

And—like Abraham and Sarah—we need to be open to what God will ask of us next.

I pray for God to show me how I might serve in a different way, and I trust that will happen, even if I can’t imagine it now.

And as a community, I think we need to pray that God will send another good priest to this parish, but we need to trust and be open to the possibility that this person might notturn out to be exactly what any of us imagined, but indeed will be the right person to serve here.

So with all of that in mind, I want to close with a prayer that’s titled “A prayer for transition (inspired by many a search committee).” And I think it works as an Advent prayer, too.

Ever-present God,

You call us on a journey to a place we do not know.

We are not where we started.

We have not reached our destination.

We are not sure where we are or who we are.

This is not a comfortable place.

Be among us, we pray.

Calm our fears, save us from discouragement,

And help us to stay on course.

Open our hearts to your guidance so that our journey to this

Unknown place continues as a journey of trust.[vi]

This waiting may not be comfortable, but it’s the place where we are and where we trust God to be with us to keep us on course.

May 0ur Advent waiting this year especially be filled with rich blessings that bring us to a wonderful future.

Amen.

[i]Paula Gooder, The Meaning is in the Waiting, 18. To give credit, this reflection is hugely informed by Gooder’s book.

[ii]20.

[iii]Gen 12:1

[iv]Gen 12:2

[v]29

[vi]The Rev. Canon Kirsti Philip, Women’s Uncommon Prayer, 55.