Sermon for Advent Sunday 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I occasionally get myself in trouble with my liberal protestant in-laws when issues of religion come up, particularly when it is in the context of a conversation on speakerphone and I just throw something into the mix from the “peanut gallery”, as it were. This happened last week, when I overheard that my mother-in-law was busy constructing and distributing “Advent at home boxes.” When asked what such a thing is, she explained that an object symbolic each Sunday’s themes was included, “this item for ‘hope,’ that for ‘peace,’ this for ‘joy,’ and that for ‘love.’”

I could not help myself, and extemporaneously sung out to the first Advent hymn-tune I could think of (Den des Vaters Sinn Geboren, though I’m not allowed to sing in this space now, for which you may be grateful): “These are not the themes of Advent; they’re death and judgment, heav’n and hell.” I believe this was taken in the good-humored manner in which I intended it, when the only consequence my mother-in-law threatened was not giving me for Christmas a subscription to The Christian Century, which magazine she knows I’m not a fan of.

I realize that I’m a bit of a throwback in insisting on the recovery of traditional themes of Advent–death, judgment, heaven, and hell–but this is likely not surprising to those of you who know me. Before liturgical renewal in the 1960s and 70s, one could find these themes clearly enough implied in both Anglican Prayerbooks (including the 1928) and in the pre-conciliar Roman rite. Now things are a bit more jumbled, and we’ve got to deal with both “last things” and “Christmas preparation” all in four Sundays. At least on this first Sunday of the liturgical year, commonly called “Advent Sunday,” we do get these themes rather unabiguously. The prophet Isaiah entreats the Lord “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence.” St. Paul encourages the Corinthians, praying that God would give them endurance, “that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, on judgment day. And our Lord himself, in the 13th chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, for-tells the great difficulty of the last days, the ominous signs and the great and terrible glory of the Second-Coming, when he shall come to judge the world.

I said a few weeks ago that reasonable Christians must talk about these things, because they are biblical and theologically important and, most of all, they are in fact hopeful–much more so than what I called in that sermon the “fundamentalist post-apocalyptic horror story” of premillenial dispensationalism found on televangelist stations and the Left Behind novels. So, let’s address the question which I just implied: How is all this hopeful?

It might strike us at first as the opposite because we’ve got so uncomfortable, sadly with anything other than a friendly, cuddly, rather flat view of God. If, however, we remember that God is a God of both mercy and justice, that he upholds the lives of the oppressed which means laying low the oppressor, indeed that God’s wrath can be understood as a working-out of God’s love, then it should not surprise us that the Lord is, by his very nature, the one who levels judgment, preserves the righteous, and avenges the wicked.

We must look to the context of this morning’s readings to see just what Good News it is, not just that “God is in his heaven” but that because not all is right in the world, God will at the last make it so. In appreciating each of our lessons today, we have to recognize that God’s people, in each case, were oppressed by some force external to themselves.

The Jews of Isaiah’s day were under the thumbs of the Babylonians (or at the very least, if modern scholars are right that the last third of Isaiah was written after the return from exile, then they’ve come back to a city and a temple destroyed, crushing material deprivation, and uncertainty that geo-politics would remain in their favor for long). The Christians in Corinth were being broken apart by internal divisions around doctrinal and practical issues, but this was because of pressure from the pagan majority who wanted them to be “good citizens” which by definition meant becoming less faithful and less distinct from the prevailing culture. And in the Gospel, Jesus predicts precisely what would happen the his earliest followers and, indeed, to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They will face violent oppression; false messiahs will multiply; a new form of the abomination of desolation (the Prophet Daniel’s euphemism for the statue of Zeus, erected in temple in the 2nd Century B.C.) would be erected (this time, it turned out to be the Roman Army itself), and the temple would be destroyed.

Each of these realities could lead to hopelessness, and the only thing for such times is to hold on to the truth that the judge of the nations is, indeed, just. There is only one who can sort it out, and we are not him.

This is both the most hopeful and the most humane message ever given to humanity. I say it is the most humane, because the inability of both the secular world and indeed of certain strains of Christianity (whether the Pelagians of the fourth and fifth centuries or the liberal protestants who publish the Christian Century… that’s why I don’t like it, by the way), their inability to recognize this truth is among the most inhumane of worldviews possible, ironically clothed in the mantle of “humanism.” What do those worldviews say? It is within your power to make everything right- whether that takes the form of the just society or the Kingdom of God. Save yourself and save the world! If you’ve not managed it, well there must be a problem with you! Pull yourself out of crushing poverty by your own bootstraps. Listen to Kanye West who said slavery sounded like a choice to him. While you’re at it, find in a single political candidate or party the foundation of all your hope for peace and justice and equity. Surely, you’ll never be disappointed.

No, my brothers and sisters. This will never do. We must, of course, strive for justice and peace. We must also permit the Lord Jesus Christ to make us more faithful, prayerful, and moral people. But this will not save us and it will not save the world. Perhaps progress can be made in all these things in our lifetime or those of our children and grandchildren. On the other hand, perhaps we’ll see on the level of culture and society and national and international affairs, regression. Either way, the end is not ours to determine, it is God’s, and God alone will save us.

I think this is all particularly important to remember right now, by which I don’t mean Advent Sunday, but the “dumpster fire” which has been the Year of our Lord 2020. We live, my friends, in an evil time. We are not only beset by moral evil, but by natural evil in the form of a deadly pandemic. There are small things we can do to help push against it: we can wear our masks and keep our distance and wash our hands and all the rest, and we can take the vaccine once it comes out. But a million and a half people have died, a quarter million of them in our own country, and there is absolutely nothing any of us can do to make that fair or right. When placed on the scales of eternity, only God can make it balance.

So, our hope today is found in the same place the Jews did in the Sixth Century before Christ. It is found in the same place the disciples found it during that first generation, on Olivet and by Genesaret’s shore. It is found in the same place the Corinthians found it a generation later. It is found in the sure and certain hope that when the Lord returns he shall, as the Psalmist foretold, “judge the world in righteousness and minister true judgment unto the people.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.