Monday, November 28, 2011

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, Year B: Sing We Now of Christmas: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

Sermon 11/27/11
Mark 13:24-37

Sing We Now of Christmas: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

            Come, Thou long expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee. Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art; Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart. Born Thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King, Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring. By Thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone; By Thine all sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
            This famous Advent hymn was written in 1744 by, Charles Wesley, a prolific writer of hymns, many of which are still in our hymnals today, and younger brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Charles knew that most people might not learn and memorize complicated theological doctrines, but they would indeed learn the words to songs, just as we do today. So he laced his hymns with the theology, the ideas about God, that he wanted to make sure people knew. What does this hymn say?
Well, you might notice, for one thing, that it doesn’t talk very much about a baby Jesus. Yes, it talks about why Jesus is born, and that he is born a baby, a child. But mostly, this hymn focuses on why we need Jesus to be born, why we long-expect this Jesus. Jesus is born to set his people free, to deliver us from fears and sins, so that we can find our rest in Jesus. Jesus is born to be our strength, our consolation, the hope of the whole earth, the desire of every nation, and the joy of every heart. Jesus is born to deliver his people, a child yes, but a King, born to reign, born to usher in the Kingdom of God, born to rule in our hearts, born to raise us up to God’s kingdom. For Charles Wesley, for this Advent hymn of longing, that’s the important message about what we need to know about Christ’s birth, why we should want Christmas to come so much. Why are you in such a hurry for Christmas to come? Are you?
Have you seen those Hallmark commercials for the Christmas countdown ornament? In them, a little girl follows her parents around the house telling them exactly how much time there is until Christmas, information she knows because of her ornaments with a digital display that lets her keep track. Right now there are 27 days and 16/18 hours or so until Christmas, just FYI. You may remember feeling just like this child – so eager for Christmas to come. Maybe the children in your life are like this today. Counting down the days. Is it so bad to hurry Christmas along? Is it so bad to be anxious and eager and excited for Christmas to arrive? Why not wish for Christmas to come, for the Christ-child to arrive? Children usually get the point that we adults are too serious to see, and maybe we all need to be a little more excited and anxious for Christmas to come.
Then again, during our stewardship emphasis we talked a lot about time – about wanting more time and wasting time. What time we have and what we do with it. The older we get, the more sense we have that rushing time ahead can be a dangerous thing. It already goes by way too quickly. I have told you that The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my favorite books. In the last volume, The Last Battle, some of the characters are talking about why Susan, one of the children from the first novel, has not returned to Narnia. Lady Polly explains, ʺI wish [Susan] would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.ʺ For a book first published in the 1950s, C.S. Lewis’s words remain remarkably timely. How many of us do this exact thing? We spend all this energy rushing to a certain age in life, and then the rest of life trying to figure out how not to get older, wondering at how quickly time is passing us by.
So which is it? Should we rush to Christmas? Advent may be a time of preparation, but if all our songs are about how we want Jesus to come soon, aren’t we really just rushing ahead? Is that good or bad? Or should we rest in the waiting of Advent? Be content to let the days unfold, not wanting Christmas to arrive until we have savored each day?
I think children are excited and anxious for Christmas to come, but I also know that young children have a very skewed concept of time. Take my nephew Sam. Anything past happened ʺa couple weeks agoʺ for awhile. Things that happened ʺwhen he was littleʺ could be things that were when he was an infant, two years old, or earlier this year. He does talk about growing up – he defines this as the time when his feet will touch the floor when he sits on a chair. And last year, he was perplexed over what had happened to his friend Alex – the same age as Sam – since he hadn’t seen him a while. Sam mused: I think Alex must be a teenager now! Sam is indeed excited for Christmas to come, as he is excited for most joyful things to take place in his happy life. But Sam isn’t rushing time by. Instead, I would say he is ready. He is ready for the excitement he knows is on the way. A day, a week, a month – they can all seem long or short to Sam depending on his mood. But he isn’t in a hurry. He is just happy, and ready for Christmas when it comes.
Our task in Advent isn’t to rush the days by to Christmas, and it isn’t to drag our feet in an effort to slow down time. Our task is just to be ready. In Matthew, Jesus is talking about when he will come again to earth, and how the disciples should prepare. His advice? No one knows the time, the hour – not even Jesus or the angels – of when Jesus may walk the earth again. In that case, it isn’t anything we can count down to, or hurry to, or dread, or wait for, or whatever really. What we can do is what Jesus advises: Keep alert. Keep awake. Be ready. We are called as people of faith to be ready for God however God shows up on earth, wherever and whenever.
Jesus, long-expected, is coming – born a child, and yet a king – in all his fullness, Jesus is coming. That is a promise we can count on. And so with faith in the promise, we can be filled with hope, longing, expectation, excitement. And we can be ready for his arrival. Amen.    

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