Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36.
Advent is meant to be the season of preparation for the coming of Christ but as I look around, I can’t help but wonder if I can write about the meaning of Advent.
How do you speak or write of preparation for a day in December when there are so many people in the world today for whom getting through today is more important than anything else? What do you say to a person whose Thanksgiving dinner was, perhaps, nothing more than a bowl of soup and some crackers? What do you say to the person who wonders if they will find a warm place to spend the night, let alone the next few days? What do you say to the family whose son, daughter, father or mother has been told that they will be sent overseas to fight in a battle that doesn’t appear to have an ending? What do you say to the person or the person’s family when they have been informed that they need immediate medical care but the health insurance company refuses to pay for it?
How can you preach a message of preparation when the message of society is to live only for yourself and for today? How can you preach a message that speaks of hope and opportunity for all of God’s children when so many ministers and religious leaders say that only a few are chosen and the rest will be cast aside.
It is no wonder that so many have left the church and there are so many who see the hypocrisy in the words and actions of the church. It is no wonder that so many people view Christmas as a co-opted pagan holiday and Christianity (and probably all religion) as mythical in nature.
As long as the focus of the church, denominationally and individually, is on the members of the church and only on the members of the church, Advent will be nothing more than four weeks of marking time until the church decides to die.
The church, for the most part, has forgotten what the Gospel message is and to whom it was given. It wasn’t given to the rich and powerful; it was given to those that the rich and powerful hated and despised; it was given to those who the rich and powerful could not see. It was given to those that society had cast aside or thrown away. It was a message for the ones that society had forgotten.
The church, for the most part, has built walls to keep people out when they should have been opening the doors so that they can come in. We sing of the shepherds, the lowest social class at that time, visiting the babe in the manager but we will not let the lower classes into our sanctuary.
The church is leaving the places where it should be present. You can’t build a successful mega-church in the inner city because the people will not come. You have to build the mega-churches out in the rich suburbs where the money is. And there are more churches concerned with their own well-being than they are the well-being of the people. And if you are out in the suburbs, you don’t have to come into the city, so you can ignore the problems.
And most importantly, as the number of homeless and hungry and poor increases, the church has remained remarkably silent. The church should echo the message of Jesus who spoke of seeking the one lost sheep while our corporations and their supporters tell us that such a loss is acceptable.
The church should be more concerned with the number of people who are hungry and without shelter than worrying about a person’s sexuality and lifestyle. The church should be more concerned with banks and financial firms that reap excessive profits and charge unreasonable and high fees than they are with the music that is sung in church.
Because Jesus was tortured by the political authorities of His day, the church today should be more concerned and not so silent that our country has tacitly approved the torture of individuals simply because their skin is darker and their faith is different.
Because Jesus fed the multitudes and healed the sick, the church today should be more concerned and not so silent that one in six today goes hungry and that the number of people without adequate healthcare increases everyday. But it seems that too many churches, individually and denominationally, feel that poverty and hunger are still signs of sin, not society. And too many churches today, individually and denominationally, feel that it is more important to tell someone who they can or cannot marry and what they can or can do with their body than insure their health and well-being.
There are many churches today making a difference in this world but there are as many churches where the words of Christ are said in a service on Sunday and forgotten before the person has even left the building. It is as if what a preacher says on Sunday has no meaning the rest of the week. Those who say that religion has no meaning or place in today’s society only need to point to what people see in churches today to prove that they are right. Unfortunately, those in church today can’t see the same thing because of the logs in their eyes.
It will take more than just remembering what Jesus said about taking the log out of our own eye before we take the splinter out of someone else’s eye.
And perhaps that is what Advent is about. Maybe now is the time for the wakeup call; maybe now is the time to begin preparing our hearts and minds and souls for Christ.
No matter the situation, we are reminded of a promise made to us through the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel that one would come who would execute righteousness and justice. We are reminded by Luke that no matter what may happen in this world, the words remain true.
Time and time again, it has been we who have reneged on our part of the covenant with God. Time and time again, we have walked away from God, turning to Him only when we needed Him. We see Christ not as our Lord but as our servant, to grant to us that which we want. But, time and time again, God has given us another chance.
And that is why we have Advent. We have to prepare for the coming of Christ, not on any particular day but in our hearts and in our minds. The promises are true and we who have heard those words must make sure that they are not forgotten and that the promises made are kept.
The Holy Child will not come to us; we must seek, as did the shepherds that night, the Holy Child. We must cast aside the trappings that society insists we bring with us; Christ will remove the burden of our lives from sin and death but only if we seek Him. Burdened by the trappings of society and unwilling to let go of them, we cannot make the journey.
This is not about doing good works in hopes that such works will get you into heaven. That is a debate for another time and for another place. What it is about is the fact that we are Christ’s representatives on this earth and we are the ones who by our acknowledgement that we are such must do his work. One time, many years ago, I saw the passage to heaven through the good works path. And my minister pointed out that it was still God’s grace, not anything that I could do, that would get me in. But because I had accepted Christ and because I proclaimed myself a Methodist, I had an obligation to work for Christ, to work in the way that Christ worked, and to do what Christ did.
If the birth of Christ is to have meaning in this world, it is because we have decided that Christmas is more than one day out of the year. And that is why we begin the season of Advent, not to prepare for one day but to prepare ourselves for a life in Christ, with Christ and for Christ. We can offer hope to those without hope, who have been forgotten in today’s society. But we must first cast aside the ways and trappings of a society that speaks of wealth and power as a sign of righteousness and pick up the mantle of the servant that Christ offers to us.
The promise of Advent lies in what we do these coming days, not what lies at the end. To speak of the promise is to speak of a new reality, the fulfillment of the Gospel. How can I speak of Advent as the promise of Christ? Because it is, it will be and because we must.