Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 27, 2022
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14
Something extraordinary is on the horizon. We can feel it in the air. We can see it all around us. Last week, we gathered to celebrate Christ the King Sunday to end the church year, and other than white paraments, the sanctuary looked pretty normal. But this morning, things look anything but normal. Thanks to many of you, our sanctuary is quite festive with purple paraments, red poinsettias, Christmas trees, and greenery adorning our sacred space. In addition, a special wreath and candles alert us to this holy time. Of course, dressing up the church is not for the sake of merely decorating. There is an underlying liturgical purpose to it all—to alert us that the season of Advent has begun, to remind us that we are drawing nigh to something pivotal to our faith story.
The word “Advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” As Christians, we celebrate Advent from three different perspectives. First, we anticipate the coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem. Second, through Scripture, meditation, prayer, and worship, we prepare our hearts to receive Christ more fully and more deeply. And finally, we look forward to the day when Christ will arrive again—to make all things new—to fully implement his Abba Father’s plan for a new kingdom upon the earth—where hope, and peace, and joy, and love will reign for all time.
Regarding the Season of Advent, the Presbyterian Companion to the Book of Common Worship offers these words of instruction:
In Advent we expectantly wait for the One who has already come. We anticipate the promised justice of God’s new world, yet we praise God who raised the “righteous branch” to rule with justice and righteousness. We hope for the restoration of the afflicted, the tormented, and the grieving, yet we delight that healing has come in Christ. We long for the beating of swords into plowshares, yet we rejoice that the Prince of Peace has appeared. We yearn for the barren deserts of our inner cities to flourish, yet we laud the desert Rose that has bloomed. We dream of the land where lions and lambs live in harmony, yet we acclaim the child born to lead us into the promised land. Christ has come! Christ is risen! Christ will come again! In Advent, we are living between the first and the second coming of the Lord…[i]
It is unclear when this period of Advent preparation began in the history of the church, but it can be traced back to at least 480 A.D. The keeping of an Advent wreath has its roots in the 16th Century, but it was some 300 years later that it gained popularity because of a Protestant pastor in Germany, who needed a creative way to teach impatient children as they waited for Christmas. He came up with the idea of a ring of wood with nineteen small red tapered candles and four large white candles. Every morning a small candle was lit, and every Sunday a large one. Eventually, custom retained only the large candles—one of which we light each Sunday of Advent to represent hope, peace, joy, and love, until finally, on Christmas Eve, we light the white candle, to celebrate our Savior’s birth.
Over the next four weeks, we will hear a lot about light. Our time of worship will begin with the lighting of the Advent candles. With each passing Sunday, another candle will be lit, another flickering flame to help light our way. Although we will surely hear songs of Christmas everywhere we go, we are not there yet. We are on a journey to Bethlehem. Who will show us the way? The prophets have much to say about the coming of the new day of the Lord. The prophet Isaiah, who is often called the “poet of light” envisions a new heaven and a new earth in which God is center stage and peoples from all nations will come to God’s mountain to learn how to walk in God’s ways. The word of God will be their guide. Weapons will be transformed. Battlegrounds will become gardens. Isaiah calls us out of darkness and encourages us to “walk in the light of the Lord.” To walk in the light of the Lord is to walk in hope—hope that God’s light is coming into the world—hope that a baby born in a manger can lead us into new life.
Our reading from Romans draws our attention to the second coming of the Lord, as Paul highlights what is ours to do in the meantime. I invite you to hear the text again from The Message translation:
But make sure that you don’t get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God. The night is about over, dawn is about to break. Be up and awake to what God is doing! God is putting the finishing touches on the salvation work he began when we first believed. We can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight. Get out of bed and get dressed! Don’t loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!
Regarding this text, one biblical scholar delves further into Paul’s intentions. She writes,
The new day that God is bringing is a time when God and humanity will be reconciled; when peace, justice, and integrity will be the hallmarks of human society. What Paul wants is for Christians to start living now as though this day has already begun. In the early years of the Christian movement, believers lived with a sense of real anticipation…2000 years later, the sense of anticipation has diminished…For Paul, this anticipation is not so much about circling a date on the calendar as it is about hope. Paul really believes that the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus is God’s sign that all of those promises about life and wholeness prevailing over brokenness and death are true, and that God can be trusted to do what God has promised. Paul knows what time it is: it is time to wake up and look forward to what God will do in the future and what God is beginning to do now in your life and mind. [ii]
Paul instructs believers to “dress yourself in Christ.” How do we do that? By putting on the character of Christ: love, kindness, compassion, grace, mercy, forgiveness. God comes again into the world whenever we live as Christ lived. When the poor are cared for, when the lonely are comforted, when the forgotten are remembered, when the oppressed are provided justice, when the excluded are included, when the lost are welcomed home—God comes.
But here we are, some 2000 years since the birth of Jesus. We have been waiting a long time and there are days when the light dims, nearly overtaken by darkness: wars that never end, daily mass shootings, children without sufficient food and medical care, a worsening economy that is making it hard for families to make ends meet. No doubt, each one of us has been touched in some way by the darkness of personal loss—the death of a friend or family member, the health diagnosis that rocks our very foundation, concern for the future of our children and grandchildren.
Yes, we know what it means to sit in darkness. But as Christians, we also know what it means to walk in the light. We do not deny the darkness. We simply choose not to reside there. We remember that the powers of the world—whether the Romans in Jesus’ time or the powers that be today—they do not determine the future. The future is God’s, and our task is to claim the light of Jesus, to stay awake, and to seek God’s light wherever it may be found and then, to share that light at every opportunity.
Through the light of the first Advent candle, we are drawn into the past as well as the future: Christ has come, and Christ will come again! As we enter the season of waiting, let us learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths. Let us remember God’s gift of salvation. Let us keep watch and remain hopeful. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] An excerpt from the Companion to the Book of Common Worship, 96.
[ii] Cynthia M. Campbell, Feasting on the Word
*Cover Image: StushieArt, used by subscription