The First Sunday of Advent
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Jer. 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thess. 3:9-13; Lk 21:25-36

Advent, this season on which we embark today, these few short weeks of repentance, preparation, and expectation, begins with a picture of the end of the world. Jesus, already well aware of the likelihood of his own demise, is preaching prophetically about the destruction of the world people knew. And indeed, just a short 40 years later, in about 70 C.E., the Romans put down the last Jewish uprising, destroyed the temple, and the world for many ended. The Temple was the center of the world for Jews, who still, to this day, mourn its loss.

Jesus’ prophetic words give us a chill down the spine as we hear them today. There has been a lot of “distress among nations” for some time now, and people do “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” Trying to explain this passage as fixed in time is not a helpful exercise. In our context today, it is just as relevant.

Sometimes you have to say things in a prophetic way to get people’s attention. Sometimes you have to tell people the awful truth: that things are a mess and we are all somehow, in some way, responsible for it. Sometimes you have to say disturbing things to get people agitated enough to change their behavior.

It isn’t enough to say we love God and are faithful to God and are members of the church. Our actions and behavior have to show that. It isn’t faithfulness to come to church one week and miss two. Or to come to church every other week. Faithfulness is setting aside an hour or two on the Lord’s Day – the Sabbath day – to come to God’s house to worship. It is participating with the faithful in fellowship and breaking bread with one another. It is a commitment to a ministry in God’s name. Otherwise, belonging is just lip service. Or it is a feeling of not belonging at all.

Last week, I had a conversation with a couple dissatisfied with the church. It is a conversation I’ve had dozens of times with different folks through the years. As was the case in most of those other conversations, this couple that came to church once or twice a month. They came five minutes before church started and left immediately after the service was over. They never went coffee hour, never participated in the special fellowship events or church suppers, never went to Sunday School or participated in any church ministry. Their lament was that they just didn’t feel connected to the church! I wonder why?

It’s really difficult to know how to respond in these situations. You want to be pastoral, and not come off as a smart aleck or accusing or uncaring, because I do care. But there isn’t much you can say to someone who doesn’t feel part of the church and won’t participate in the life of the church except to tell the truth. Let them know, probably, why they don’t feel connected. Why it isn’t meaningful to them anymore. Because their level of involvement has changed or never developed.

And, sadly, the result of most of these meetings is that people go away and don’t come back. Either because I didn’t fix it (somehow magically make it better for them) or because the solution to the problem was clearly going to require an effort they weren’t willing to make. But sometimes you just have to tell the truth, and hope you get people’s attention, and hope you get a sincere committed response. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. In my experience, most times you don’t, because the right response is too hard, requires too much. Requires some self-examination and a change in behavior and commitment rather than placing the fault or the cause on another or some other thing. It’s easier to not pay attention. It’s easier to leave – walk away – or continue the half effort that is so unsatisfying to the individual and most certainly to God.

You know the old saying: If you no longer feel close to God, guess who moved?! It isn’t God who has moved away from you.

What true commitment are you making to meet God half way?
What are you doing to truly feel connected to church and be a part of the life of the church? Are you willing to make the commitment to regular Sunday worship? Not every other Sunday or when you have the time, but most Sundays and by making the time for God.

What are you doing in the way of Christian ministry? At the church or at some other help organization? How are you giving some of your time as a witness of Christ’s love and care for others?

When’s the last time you talked to someone at church you didn’t already know? That’s another common complaint I hear: “I don’t know half the people at church anymore.” Why?! Get to know your fellow church members. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Stick around after church and talk to people. Have a cup of coffee. Share in the fellowship of the church. That’s just as important as worship in feeling connected. In being a part of the church.

Give. Make a financial commitment. As much as anything that will help you feel invested in the place.

Come to a church supper or party. That’s really where you get to know people. And we’re actually a pretty good bunch of folks here, I think. Good people to know. Nothing brings people together like a table and a meal. Eating together is one of the most intimate things we can do together. Don’t miss that important part of the life of the church – if you want to feel connected – to God through God’s people.

The only way to feel connected is to get connected. The only way to feel a part is to be a part.

Now I know, even as I preach these words, even as I tell this truth, this awful truth, that some will be offended. How dare I suggest such a thing. I dare I make people who aren’t connected feel they have to consider such an extreme change of membership and belonging.

How dare I risk making anyone feel badly or uncomfortable by calling them to any sort of personal responsibility or task as members of the church and for their own sense of belonging to the church.

Well, believe it or not it’s not comfortable for me either, but I am not fulfilling my duty as your priest if I never call the body to task and if I never call individuals to personal responsibility as members of the body, and if I don’t tell the truth. People have never liked such things, not in the days of the prophets, not in Jesus’ day and not today, but sometimes the truth needs to be told, especially in the church.

Advent is a time for the truth, because it is a time for new beginnings, for turning things around, for a change in behavior.

Jesus, in today’s gospel, calls us to such a change, to serious self-reflection and to a focus on the coming of God’s kingdom. That should be our priority. Not to be “weighed down” with the ways and worries of this world but to prepare ourselves for the world to come, and one that could come to us right now, right here, if we would open ourselves to receive it. If we would listen and respond to the words of truth, to Jesus’ words that will not pass away. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Guard your hearts. Be alert. Be a part. And strive to make others a part, to welcome others to be a part. That’s an important piece of this church thing too – of looking for and building up the kingdom of God.

Once upon a time, a couple went to a church, a large and prosperous one, for the first time. As they walked down the hall they smiled at a number of people, but no one really greeted them. Everyone was preoccupied with herding the choir and acolytes, getting business attended to about the coming bazaar, and depositing their children in nursery and Sunday school, getting to their place to pray – alone, without disturbance. As they entered the church, an usher handed them a bulletin while engaged in earnest conversation with someone else, his face turned away from them. Afterward, the couple agreed that the congregation was too preoccupied to engage in the simple act of hospitality.

And that’s a story to say, so are we—too preoccupied, too much of the time. And Advent, a perfect time to focus in and reassess our part in kingdom building and kingdom living, too often becomes one of the most preoccupied times, dulled by parties and shopping and planning. It should be a season of preparation and expectation and worship and should permeate all that we do, from expecting and welcoming Jesus to expecting and welcoming visitors, to focusing on what’s really important: our relationship with God and the consummation of this age when the Messiah will return to judge this world and the people in it, especially those that claim to be his followers and his people.

So, are there any other tools offered in this Sunday’s readings, any hope we can grasp, any piece of advice we can take home and dwell upon? Yes . . . Let’s start with the collect, today’s opening prayer in the liturgy. “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

This is a gracious prayer in which we ask God to give us what we most need: abiding grace. We can’t do it ourselves. A wise bishop once said, “People fix problems, God redeems messes!” So our first request is to have the grace to set aside darkness and think of ourselves clothed with the armor of light.

For instance, let’s play that scene from the church again: It’s Sunday morning. A couple arrives for the first time and they are greeted at the door by someone who says, “Welcome. May I sit with you this morning?” After Church, they are taken to coffee hour and introduced to the clergy, and others. It’s all about them; and suddenly they’re not strangers, but part of a new community of welcome and light, instead of ignored by the preoccupied one mentioned before.

And the same goes for long-time members committed to making Grace Cathedral a new community by becoming part of a new community, one of welcome and light, a community that lives truly in the love and grace of God and whose members hold God as the most important thing in their lives. The priority above all other things, for them and for their families. A true commitment to God.

In Jeremiah, we get a short and pithy message: “God keeps his promises.” Nobody has to wonder about that. Jeremiah had to tell his wealthy friends and others that things weren’t right between them and God. A truth they didn’t want to hear. But he also got to say that God was going to do something about that. He was going to re-establish righteousness, a right relationship between God and God’s people. The passage also proclaims God’s intention of justice and righteousness in the land – a hope that has sustained faithful people through many faithless times, and continues to do so. God redeems messes. Our messes. That should be enough to let God be our God and to a faithful commitment and response through worship and service and thanksgiving and praise.

Finally, in the passage from I Thessalonians the writer prays that the people who are the beloved believers will be blameless before God at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all the saints. And it all comes out of the boundless love that they share with one another. They have imitated Christ, and their reward will be Christ’s sustaining love forever.

So, what do we have to help us along this Advent journey as we begin a new year – a perfect time for refocusing, recommitting and renewing ourselves to God’s worship and God’s service and God’s truth?

We have the tools of grace; faith (promises kept); and our capacity to “imitate Christ,” all through God’s blessing.

We can still shop, maybe even go to a party or two this season, and we should. But remember they’re not the main thing. The main thing is that even when we feel disconnected – whether that is our own fault or factors beyond our control – we do have the control to “re-connect.” We simply open ourselves up to God by listening for God’s truth and placing ourselves in God’s presence; We commit ourselves to worship, to service and to fellowship through his church and in his Name.

And we will be connected.
We will be alert and awake and ready for God’s coming.
We will be blessed.

“Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

And that is the truth. –The awesome truth.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.