Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

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

And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.

These are not particularly cheerful words during a season in which the culture-at-large tells us that it’s time to start celebrating Christmas. I’d guess that most of you here have been more-or-less successfully catechized to know that there is a difference between Advent and Christmas, a distinction which the church continues to maintain despite the fact that it seems that Christmas in the secular culture seems to keep expanding to envelope about the last quarter of every year in a phenomenon called “Christmas creep.” As jaundiced as one can be about this sort of thing, I continue to be surprised every year when I see Christmas displays in big-box stores well before Hallowe’en.

All this is well-trod ground for us, but I think that sometimes we say there is a difference between Advent and Christmas, but we don’t quite acknowledge what precisely the distinction is, or, more to the point, what Advent is really all about. We sometimes say that it is to prepare us spiritually for Christmas, a sort of fast before the feast in the same way that Lent prepares us for Easter. This is true, but there is a whole other theme in Advent which we sometimes shy away from: namely the second coming of Christ.

It should be no surprise that we tend to forget this part of the story, but it’s unfortunate nonetheless. We in the Christian mainstream have basically ceded this topic to fundamentalists, and that’s too bad, because there is a great deal of hope to be found in scripture’s account of the second advent of Christ. It’s not just weird, scary stuff.

Remember that scary passage from the Gospel reading with which I opened the sermon: the nations are in perplexity, people are fainting with fear, the seas roar, and the heavens shake? Here’s what comes next.

And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.

We get caught up in the nasty bits and we forget that the Gospel is Good News. We forget that it’s not about God inflicting havoc on the world, but about God coming to us in the midst of turmoil and, through Jesus Christ, setting all things right.

What our Lord is on about in this morning’s Gospel is that when things seem to be absolutely as horrible as they can possibly be, God is there ready to step in and establish justice and peace, to bring about the Kingdom of God.

We do pray for this every week for heaven’s sake: thy kingdom come. We pray for it because it’s a good thing. I’ve said before that, despite the obsessions of some streams of American, fundamentalist Protestantism, there are some things not worth worrying about. Don’t worry about some people getting raptured up and others left behind. Some very poor biblical scholars basically invented that idea in the nineteenth century. Don’t worry about the wrath of God coming down to give you your just deserts for saying a cross word to your kid or accidentally swallowing your toothpaste before church. This religion we’re a part of is about grace, not judgment. Don’t worry too much about the whole world going to hell in a handbasket (unless you’re specifically worrying about premature Christmas decorations, I guess). God won’t permit it to go that far. Just as nations and peoples start freaking out in today’s Gospel readings, God comes and sets things right before it gets too bad.

So, that’s really the upshot, here. Don’t freak out. “Keep calm and carry on” as that old English poster from the Second World War put it (there’s one in my study and it inspires me frequently). God is on our side. God will keep us safe. God will establish a kingdom without end. Watch for it and pray for it.

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