“Happy new year!” – sermon/podcast (29 November 2015 – Proper C01)

First Sunday of Advent“Happy new year!”

Proper C01 Advent – 29 November 2015

Happy new year!

Before you think I have totally lost my mind, which I am sure some of you have long suspected I already have, you should know how the Episcopal Church and other churches like it observe the church year. Just as the fiscal year begins for some at a date different from the calendar year, so the church year begins at a date distinct from the calendar year. We start our church year on the First Sunday of Advent. So, today is the new church year. Happy new year!

The readings assigned in the lectionary for today may not make much sense to us as new year’s or Advent readings at first glance. We know the First Sunday of Advent begins the season leading up toward Christmas, and we would expect to hear the stories from scripture that lead up to the birth of Christ. Instead we receive a message that sounds more like the end of the world rather than that of the birth of a savior.

The close of the previous year with the celebration of Christ the King last Sunday, and the opening of a new year with the First Sunday of Advent present overlapping themes as the previous year comes to a close and the new year begins. We have often heard that every ending is the mark of a new beginning, and it is equally true that every new beginning is the mark of an ending. These are what are sometimes called “liminal moments”, moments that mark a transition from one state into another. Within liminal moments we are in a both-and, now and not yet, state. We are on the border between two points in time. Liminal moments have great power. It is in these moments that we are able to make decisions and change the direction of our lives. Standing on the threshold between two states, we can decide to step forward into something new, hesitate on the threshold, or step backward into the old, familiar and comfortable. We are reminded in this Sunday’s readings that Advent is not just a preparation for a coming of Christ that happened over 2000 years in the birth of an infant, but also a preparation for the coming of Christ some day in the future. The Gospel today calls us to examine where we are and recognize the signs of the in-breaking of something new and become prepared to move forward into a hope-filled future. We are to “stand up and raise [our] heads, because [our] redemption is drawing near.”

The community of Thessalonica knew what is was like to dwell too long in these liminal moments. Paul and the early church believed that Christ’s return was imminent.  Jesus in the gospel today says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place”, and Paul seems to have believed strongly in this imminent return and he shared that in his preaching in Thessalonica. The community at Thessalonica believed strongly in the imminent return of Christ, but were confused when members of their community began to die before Christ’s return. Paul, who had founded the Thessalonian community, hears of their confusion and writes this letter, which most scholars believe is the oldest book in the New Testament. While today’s selection is from Paul’s praise for the Thessalonian community, later in the the letter he will work to reassure them that even those who have “gone to sleep” in Christ will rise some day. This time period in-between may be unsettling to the Thessalonians, but Paul prays that they me be “blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our lord Jesus with all his saints”, and that those saints who accompany Jesus will include those who have died before that moment.

So how do we balance this strong belief in the scriptures in an imminent return of Christ with our lived reality of 2000 years of history since his birth, death, resurrection and promise of return? How do we, like the Thessalonian community finds it must do, reconcile our lived experience with a statement from Jesus that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place”?

We need to recognize we are still in that liminal moment. From the moment the Virgin Mary gave her assent to the angel Gabriel’s message and the Word became flesh something new had begun. The reign of God had come near and was breaking into our world, not as a flash as the sky was split in two, but with the cry of an infant child in a humble animal shed. From that very moment God began working on something new, and he called on a young Jewish peasant girl to take part in this new adventure.

And we, like that young peasant girl, stand on a threshold between what has been and what will be. If we open our eyes and look with care we will see the signs and hear the call to step forward over this threshold and help bring about the reign of God. Will we stand up and raise our heads, stepping across that threshold, or hesitate on the threshold, taking a step back into a past that seems all to sure, safe and secure?

That is our challenge at this point in the church year. The scriptures call us to do exactly what most of us find ourselves doing at the beginning of a new calendar year. We are called to examine where we have been and where we want to be. Will we read the signs of the times, the “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves”? Will we “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world”? Or will we instead “raise [our] heads, because [our] redemption is drawing near”? The kingdom of God is drawing near, day by day, being constructed around us as we stand on the threshold. Will we step forward into the bright new future promised by Jeremiah when God will “fufill the promise … made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah”, the two ruling houses of the divided Kingdom of David? Will we join in the work of the “righteous branch” that “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land”? We are not to sit passively as the reign of God is being constructed around us. Instead, we are to “stand before the Son of Man”. I see this standing not just as a standing before God as we are judged for what we have done or failed to do, but also standing before and alongside the Son of Man, prepared to march into the turmoil and work on behalf of the reign of God.

Where are we here at St. John’s? We know all too well the existence on the threshold, living in the liminal moments between two states of being. Will we hesitate here on this threshold, step backward into the safety and security of a past long gone, or will we step forward into a new and beautiful future where we work alongside the Son of Man in the building up of the reign of God here? May we pray we will benefit from the same prayer that Paul offered for the Thessalonian community: “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” Amen.

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