St. James Episcopal Church
Monkton, Maryland

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
Three Advents
Charlie Barton
Saint James Monkton
1 Advent
November 28th, 2004
 
A new church year begins today. We are in Year A of our three-year Sunday lectionary cycle. The liturgical color is blue and the name of the season is Advent. Many of us have rolled through this cycle many times before. We have a sense of what to expect next. But our certainty crafted from past experiences, and our knowledge of colors and seasons can lull us into a semi-conscious state. We can come to believe that this stretch of the journey simply goes on forever.

It does not.

Neither our life nor the world will go on without end.

We are on a journey. But Advent means arrival. We are waiting for the arrival of God with us. We wait not just for the birth of Christ, or for the arrival of Christ present in our own life, but for the final arrival - the kingdom of God - and the judgment that comes in that day.

Now is the time to get ready for God's arrival. In the Gospel reading we hear that the kingdom will arrive like a thief in the night. That means that all certainty is out the window and the kingdom could be slipping in through that opening at any moment. Perhaps the kingdom is already halfway into the places where we dwell. It is time for us to be wakeful, now.

Advent is a season set aside for reflection, self-review, anticipation, and hope. It is time for us to get ready, now. Where have we been heading while we were dozing? Sometimes we need some way to step aside long enough to look at our own trajectory.

Last week, fifteen of us got an early start on Advent. We went on retreat. We drove six hours to the north and arrived on the banks of the Hudson River. Brother Bede of the Holy Cross Monastery met us at the guesthouse door, clipboard in hand. Our four vehicles arrived in staggered sequence. Some of us came in time for Vespers, the late afternoon sung prayers. Others arrived just before dinner. But all of us sat at table with the brothers and the other monastery guests and then listened in silence for the first part of the meal as one of the brothers read.

One might have expected a reading from Thomas Merton or some other spiritual master. Instead we heard a lengthy section of a biography of Ben Franklin. It was a poignant portrayal of the great strengths, and the great failings, of Franklin who seemed to be endlessly inventive and capable in most things but bent on crushing any meaningful relationship with one of his own sons. As we ate simple but delicious food we heard how Franklin methodically stripped his own son of his property, livelihood and his children. When he was finished Franklin never mentioned his son again in any detail for the rest of his life. Franklin did not seem, even in his diaries, to be very reflective about his actions, his motives or the consequences thereof. It was like witnessing a loquacious and elegant sleepwalker perpetrating a slow and simultaneous murder and suicide.

One could sense the life of Franklin and his son getting grimmer and smaller. Their opportunity to seek reconciliation and a fresh start is gone. The light of all of Benjamin Franklin's accomplishments paled in the face of this melancholy darkness. The shadows thrown by this biography may cross the contours of our own lives. What do we need to see? What can we learn from the life of another?

Later, in one of the retreat sessions, we would watch the movie Ebinezer Scrooge and witness a movement in the opposite direction. Scrooge moved from grim and stingy living with no respect for God or man to a life that was opening wider and wider to others. Marley warned of three spirits that would come to Scrooge. The spirits initiated the process of life review but Scrooge allowed himself to be exposed for judgement. It was Scrooge who looked deeply at his own life as it actually was. He examined the events that had formed him, his responses, his motives and his actions. What he saw horrified him. But the end to which his current trajectory led horrified Scrooge even more. So Scrooge became open to change, open to redemption.

To use the words from Romans, Scrooge put down the works of darkness and took up the armor of light. An earnest review of his own life caused Scrooge to change his attitudes and behaviors. He became a new man - born again.

Although we did eventually speak of saints and hear powerful words by Henri Nouwen on the retreat, Franklin and Scrooge became icons of Advent for me.

Advent is a season that holds up heaven and hell, judgement and redemption, and bids us look at our lives before it is too late. There is a fearsome quality in this because none of us are without fault. Franklin and Scrooge and you and I have plenty of chains that we have forged in life. Until this life is over we still have cause for great hope - redemption is real and amendment of life is possible. But the end of our life is not scheduled on our calendar and the kingdom will come like a thief in the night.

So the time to start is now. Advent is a time to be open to review, a time to allow the spirit to turn the surface of our life like a passing plow turning hard soil in an unworked field. Out of the dark depths will come jagged stones as well as worthy soil. It is to be expected. But with the plowing comes the potential for new growth. We do not push the plow or rush the spirit. But we if we are willing we can sit still and wait for its arrival.

We practiced waiting by going to Holy Cross and then immersing ourselves in a cycle of prayer as constant and as regular as breathing. In between prayer there were retreat sessions and meals, but prayer was the foundation of our time. We went to the Chapel for Matins at six in the morning and mumbled psalms with the monks until we had sung the dawn into the rafters and felt ourselves carried to full wakefulness. At eight fifteen we were back to sing the Eucharist as incense filled the room and light filtered down through the aromatic smoke. The Great Silence held from the night before came to a close at the end of the Eucharist and we regained our powers of conversational speech. We were back to the chapel by noon for Diurnum. Vespers at six. Compline at seven thirty. And the Great Silence fell again at nine.

From Thursday evening until Sunday noon we worshipped and waited to see what God would do. We inhaled psalms and exhaled prayer. We breathed in incense and inspiration. We breathed out our hopes and our reflections in the retreat sessions with Brother Kevin. Everything began to be shaped by the cycle of prayer.

Brother Kevin, our retreat master broke open the words of the Advent lessons and collects, offering us exercises of various kinds to help us examine the scripture and our own life. Franklin and Scrooge lurked in the corners of my thoughts: heaven and hell, judgement and redemption. At Holy Cross, fifteen of us stepped to the side to look at our own trajectory. We stepped aside to watch, to get ready, and to learn how to wait.

In his book "Finding Our Way Home", Henri Nouwen says that in our waiting we are not moving from nothing to something but from something to something better. It is an active process. We wait with a sense of promise - there is a seed at work in us. We can, he says, wait with conviction that something is happening where we are, already. If we are present to the moment we will participate in our own conversion. As we do so there will be more of God in the world.

We must be patient in our waiting. We must, like Scrooge, be willing to be stay where we are long enough for the hidden to become manifest. It will not always be comfortable or easy to see what the spirit presents. But salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.

In Advent we are all waiting to see what God will show us in ourselves. We wait to see what God will show us of Himself. Our God is a loving God who wants us to turn from things that diminish us, to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

What are the works of darkness? We know. If we stir ourselves to wakefulness and reflect we will remember. If we are willing to remember we can begin to prepare for the light.

Advent is a work of three movements with waiting in between. We are not the source of the light for which we long. But the light is coming, the light is here now, the light will come again. In that light we will see things as they truly are. Now is the time to get ready: for the babe in the manger, for the spirit already at work within us, for the judgement that comes like a thief in the night but bearing the crown and the light of Christ.
 

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