And so a New Year begins.
The new year of the Church comes in with the beginning of Advent and its four Sundays until Christmas Day. We turn the calendar and start a new set of readings for our worship together. We pull out the purple hangings for the church to remind us that we prepare for the Lord’s Coming. We watch and we wait as best we can as we do all the things we do to make Christmas Christmas. And so it begins.
A sermon based on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
New Year’s for the Gregorian Calendar comes in a little over a month, when we’re in a bit of fog from feasting and reveling and whatnot. At that moment, we’ll think about resolutions and things we’d like to accomplish in order to make our lives “better.” Sometimes I wonder how frequently that idea of “better” is primarily viewed with an eye toward the goals our society holds up as its ideals: youth and beauty and wealth, hoping we can have some of that for our ourselves.
Our Jewish friends have their New Year in the fall depending, and with it comes a traditional greeting that gets translated, “May you be inscribed [in the Book of Life] for a good year.” As professor Philip Campbell puts it, “The emphasis is on having a good rather than a happy year. Purposeful, sober reflection is required. … [I]t is… a commitment as a new year unfolds to live toward the good, the just, and the true.” Imagine the world if we all did that with our resolutions. Rather than worrying about how we stack up in the areas of finances or fitness or good looks, imagine if we committed to living toward the good, the just, and the true?
Paul seems to be thinking of resolutions too when he prays for the Thessalonians night and day that they could meet together in person so he could restore what is lacking in their faith. He’s resolved to help them grow in their spiritual lives. I wonder what it is that might be lacking in our faith these days. What it is that we might need to adjust as we follow the one who is to come so that we might commit to seeking out the good, the just, and the true?
One of those things might very well be our desire to have Christmas like everyone else. That we need to keep up with the Joneses or McGillicuddies or Browns who all seem to be preparing for the ideal Christmas that our society would like us to have. We’ve been hearing for weeks that this Christmas might not be Christmas at all because of shipping containers stuck in ports around the globe. That if the tinsel and bows and wrapping paper don’t make it into a local Target, our holidays will be doomed.
Really? Doomed? Over hot selling items that may not be on the shelves or available for 24 hour delivery from a warehouse in Walla Walla? Have we learned nothing in the 64 years since Dr. Seuss published How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Have we not yet internalized that Christmas comes whether or not there are ribbons, boxes, or tags? That Christmas may not in fact come from a store? That perhaps, just perhaps, Christmas means a little bit more?
Could we seek out the good, the just, and the true not in all the latest and greatest when it comes to presents, as much seeking it in relationships? Could we perhaps seek to spend time and reconnect with those we’ve loved and missed so much during the time of this pandemic as part of our Christmas celebrations this year? Could we give the gift of our presence?
Perhaps another thing lacking in our faith is the way we turn a blind eye toward injustice and the dehumanization of others. There were articles aplenty this past week about how to avoid difficult conversations at the Thanksgiving table. We do not want to become too political or too strident. Besides, some people will just be the way that they will always be, so why ruffle feathers over it. But Paul makes it clear in his prayer: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and all, just as we abound in love for you.” Moving toward the good, the just, and the true means showing the unequivocal love of Jesus to everyone, and especially those who are on the margins. Those who are often treated unfairly. Who do not receive the benefit of the doubt, or are the first to be accused or belittled.
Love in this way means speaking out against the injustice. It involves getting uncomfortable. It leads to loving others—loving all—just as Jesus loves us. In our world, that love doesn’t always seem readily apparent, and people notice that, especially about Christians. But they also notice when you take a stand or donate your time or resources or when you refuse to laugh at an inappropriate joke. People see it when you go out of your way to befriend those who are outside of your normal group of friends either because of how they look or where they live or their level of education or their ethnic heritage. We can move toward a good year by making it a priority to love others just as we ourselves are loved.
When we do these things, as Paul puts it, “The Lord strengthens our hearts in holiness so that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of Lord Jesus with all his saints.” We become those who stay awake and live lives that reflect the kingdom of Jesus. We are those who are prepared no matter, who are alert and waiting expectantly for Jesus’ return.
That’s what we’re preparing for, of course, Jesus’ immanent return. There’s no way around it on this First Sunday of Advent when we hear it loud and clear. This season is a time of dual waiting, both for the babe who is announced by angels and welcomed by shepherds, but also for the Risen King who will come again just as he promised. We tend to overlook that part, because such a belief isn’t really safe. It’s pushing us toward the extreme. To really believe that Jesus will really come once again to judge the living and the dead—as we proclaim it each week—feels a little un-Episcopalian.
And maybe that’s where our faith needs to grow most of all this year: in our firm belief that Jesus will in fact return to this earth and the dead will be physically raised and we will live with God forever in a new heaven and a new earth. We like to make Advent so much more palatable. We wait for the child to be born on Dec 24, and then when the time comes we place the figurine of the babe in swaddling cloths in our creche, and then have a feast and watch “A Christmas Story” on TBS.
But what if we wrestled more deeply with abiding love of God that claims that death—the last enemy—will indeed be destroyed and the dead will indeed by raised in physical bodies and that we will live with Jesus forever. What might that mean for us as we prepare for Christmas? Would we begin to live more faithfully? Would we begin to trust in the grace and goodness of God for all people? Would we engage in “purposeful, sober reflection” and make “a commitment as a new year unfolds to live toward the good, the just, and the true”? Because friends, that’s what Christmas is really really about. That a babe is coming to us who will also one day come again in order to bring salvation for the whole world and all of creation. Death will be destroyed, and love will reign. That little child for whom we wait will usher in a new time and era when all things will be made new, and we ourselves and those we love will be raised. That’s the message of Advent. That the day of the Lord will indeed happen at a time that we do not yet know, so we need to get ready and stay awake for he will come on the clouds with power and great glory.
So may we commit to waiting and watching and praying and loving and encouraging and advocating and preparing this Advent with all that are. May whatever is lacking in our faith be restored. And may we be ready to welcome Christ both as the babe in the manger and as the Lord in the clouds. May it be so.