Happy New Year! I know 2017 doesn't start until January 1, but the church's calendar turns over today, the first Sunday of Advent. The word advent means "coming," and during this four week season we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. As we begin a new church year, you'll notice that our gospel readings each week are different. Last year we read from Luke; this year we'll read from Matthew.
Waiting is a key practice during Advent. Nobody likes waiting. I waited sixteen years for a new Star Wars movie, then after three duds I waited another ten years for a good one. A new Star Wars movie opens in... 19 days. As much as I would love to rush to cinema to see it today, I know I have to wait. We have not decorated the church for Christmas yet-- we want to encourage waiting. We will not forget Christmas, I promise. But first, we wait.
Advent has a sort of dual focus: now that Thanksgiving is over we are excited for Christmas, so we are naturally looking in that direction. But ultimately Advent is about preparing oneself for Christ's triumphant return. In the early days of the church, Advent was thought of in much the same way as we think about Lent, the weeks before Easter. It was a time of preparation. As we go through Advent consider changing your activity level: slower and more contemplative. As everyone else is rushing from one thing to another, go through your day thoughtfully and deliberately. As the noise around you gets louder and louder, practice silence. Advent urges four different kinds of effort:
So I want to invite you to join me in a couple of spiritual practices this Advent season: prayer and scripture reading.
One practice of prayer we often neglect is confession. Offering our brokenness to God, and hearing God's words of forgiveness and pardon, gives us assurance and hope. So right now we'll pray together a prayer of confession, which will be followed by a time of silence, to lift up your own individual sins before God. Then we'll hear words of assurance of forgiveness. Let us pray.
Holy and forgiving God, we have sinned against you and each other in thought and word and deed. We have turned from your life-giving word, and ignored the message of those you sent. We are unprepared for the coming of your Son. Have mercy upon us and forgive us, that strengthened by your love we may serve you more faithfully; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
** silence **
'I am making all things new,' says the Lord. This is Christ's gracious word: 'Your sins are forgiven.'
A second spiritual practice for Advent is the reading of scripture. Simply reading the Bible on a daily basis promotes spiritual health. Advent is four weeks long, and the Gospel of Matthew is 28 chapters long, so the math makes it very easy. Every day during the week, join me in reading four chapters. By the end of Advent you'll read the Gospel four times through. Reading four chapters takes about 20 minutes. This can be a great family activity too-- kids can read, couples can read to each other, etc. Here's how the schedule works:
Gospel of Matthew Reading Schedule for Advent
Sunday: Chapters 1-4
Both of our texts today emphasize the importance of staying awake. One of the greatest temptations followers of Jesus must face is tiredness. Remember the disciples in the garden with Jesus? He brought Peter, James, and John to Gethsemane to pray with him. Again and again he went away to pray, but when he returned he found them sleeping, unable to stay awake. Someone said advent texts are read not for the oppressed but for the sleepy. In the Romans text Paul urges them to, "Wake from sleep" (13:11) because "salvation is nearer than when we first became believers." I love the idea of salvation being nearer. It implies movement. The longer we believe, the closer God moves toward us. In the gospel text, Jesus says, "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day the Lord is coming" (24:42). We become sleepy. We've waited for Jesus' return, it hasn't happened, and we become apathetic. We must be about the work Christ calls us to, spelled out for us in Matthew 25:31-46:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Keep awake by doing the work Christ has called us to do: serving others.
Throughout Advent, you'll see images of lighthouses on the bulletins. The one today is taken from a distance-- you can only see the light faintly. Each week the image will change, closer and more in focus. Lighthouses protect ships from the danger of losing their way or crashing on the rocks. Christ is our light, guiding us, if we are awake enough to see. So join me in the spiritual practices of daily prayer, emphasizing confession and silence, and scripture reading: four chapters from Matthew each day. And live your life in such a way that when Christ returns he finds you awake, shining your light for others. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.