Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and we start a new year in the liturgical calendar. This season is named for the Coming of the Lord. Or to be more precise, this season is named for the two Comings of the Lord. The first coming was about 2000 years ago, when Jesus was born. The Second Coming, when Jesus will return in glory to judge the world, is yet to take place. Liturgists debate about whether this season is a season of penitence or a season of preparation. Perhaps the correct answer is that it is a bit of both. For spiritual preparation often includes penitence.
The world outside the church has already turned its eyes to Christmas. Trees have already been decorated. Strings of colored lights are going up on houses even as I speak. And Macy’s is already playing Christmas carols over its loudspeakers. But those of us inside the church are asked to slow down a bit, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the coming feast of Christmas, and more importantly, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the Second Coming of Christ.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that, in the time of Noah, the people who were destined for destruction went about their daily lives oblivious to their situation until it was too late to act. Jesus goes on to say that the great Day of Judgment will come at an unexpected time. Even he does not know the day and hour. And so he counsels his followers to be ready at all times. We are expected to be alert to our spiritual situation—to be aware of the consequences of both our actions and our inactions.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In 1939, Winston Churchill gave a famous speech about Russia that included the following phrase: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” The same could be said about today’s Gospel reading! Here we have Jesus Christ, Son of God and Prince of Peace, telling us that he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but rather division. He goes on to describe how even families will be divided because of him. What are we to make of this? Well, as Winston Churchill said, “Perhaps there is a key.” And I think that the key is the word “crisis.”
In English, “crisis” connotes a time of catastrophe, a time when everything is going very wrong. But the English word “crisis” derives from a Greek word that has a somewhat different meaning. That Greek word means “a moment of judgment” or “a time of decision.”
The terrible division that Jesus describes is not something that he particularly wants to take place; it is something that he knows will take place in response to the Gospel. He came to bring Good News to the earth, and yet Jesus knows very well that many people will reject his teaching. Today, just as on every Sunday, we hear the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed, and we are presented with a moment of judgment, a time of decision, a personal crisis. Will we side with Jesus Christ, or will we side with the world?
Well, folks, this entire nation is facing a crisis. As a people, we are faced with a moment of judgment, a time of decision. Every day, we all must ask ourselves, “Whose side am I really on?” The psalm today reminds us of God’s commitment to the vulnerable people of the world. He says, “Save the weak and the orphan; defend the humble and needy; rescue the weak and the poor; deliver them from the power of the wicked.” What God does not say is to support the politically powerful, to defend the mighty, to give tax breaks to the rich. He just doesn’t! God is primarily concerned with those in need. The rich and powerful have already had their reward.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Its official title is “the Last Sunday after Pentecost.” But it’s more commonly known as “Christ the King Sunday,” and it’s treated as a sort of unofficial feast day. Not surprisingly, we find repeated references in today’s readings to divine kingship, in particular the divine kingship of Christ.
Of course, the first reading from the book of Daniel was written centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. It recounts a vision that Daniel had of the divine throne room. Rarely in Holy Scripture is God the Father physically described, but here, in an instance of blatant anthropomorphism, God is portrayed as an old man with white hair and white clothing seated on a flaming throne. Before him is presented “one like a Son of Man.” And to him God grants “dominion and glory and kingship.” Since “Son of Man” is one of the titles of Jesus in the Gospels, Christians have, from the very beginning, understood this vision as predicting the Kingship of Jesus.
The reading from the Revelation to John, like the reading from Daniel, recounts an apocalyptic vision. Here Jesus Christ is explicitly identified as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” And his kingdom is said to be a priestly kingdom, composed of “priests serving his God and Father.” Now, to make things perfectly clear, John is not talking about ordained ministers when he speaks of priests. He is referring to all the baptized; in other words, he is talking about you!
Customarily, when I preach, I focus on the appointed Gospel reading. But for some reason, I just didn’t feel like preaching on grapevines this Sunday, so I’m not going to do it! Likewise, it would make good sense to preach on the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch; after all, Eastertide is traditionally a time to explore the Christian sacraments. But I’m not going to do that either! Instead, I am going to focus on the Epistle and talk about love.
If there is a single key to understanding our God, it is that simple sentence: God is love. That statement explains why God created the earth and all its creatures, including our good selves. It explains why God repeatedly sent prophets to guide his children when they had strayed like sheep. And as St. John points out today, it explains why God became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, lived among us as one of us, and died on a cross for our sake. It was all because God is love.
Now, we need to be a little careful about that statement. For the converse statement, love is God, is just not true. We do not worship love per se. We worship the God who is characterized by love. And out of love for him, we try our best to imitate that love. We respect all our brothers and sisters, without exception. We wish them well. We pray for their wellbeing. We help them when they are in need. And we are patient with them. Now, that doesn’t mean that we will always agree with our brothers and sisters. It doesn’t even mean that we will necessarily like our brothers and sisters. But love demands that we respect them as fellow children of God and treat them accordingly. I will admit that this is not always easy to do. To be honest, some folks make it pretty hard to love them!
But if we would be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, if we would be dutiful children of our God, we really don’t have any other choice than to love. St. John warns that “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” In a real sense, our ability to love is a test of our faith. You can believe every statement in the Nicene Creed and every word written in the Holy Bible, but if you do not love, you are not a faithful Christian.
Now, if we were on our own, without any help, we all might fail the test of love. But we are not, in fact, on our own. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to us at Baptism and renewed at every Eucharist, God lives in us, and among us. And with God’s help, his divine love can be perfected in us. In the Eastern Church, this growth in divine love is called theosis, often translated as “divinization.” The idea is that as we grow more perfect in love and conform ourselves ever more closely to the God who is love, we will share more and more in his divine energies and come to experience eternal life in the here and now. That, my friends, is the proverbial carrot!
Now for the proverbial stick! If we stubbornly refuse to participate in God’s love, if we put our own well-being above the well-being of all others, there will be a price to pay. St. John mentions the fateful Day of Judgment. Likewise, Jesus makes a rather scary reference to unfruitful branches being lopped off and burned in a fire.
Beloved brothers and sisters, each and every one of us has a choice to make this very day. We can choose to live for ourselves alone, always fearing the fateful day when our selfishness will be judged. Or we can choose to love our brothers and sisters as God has loved us, casting aside all fear of judgment and living in complete freedom. For “perfect love casts out fear.”
And as a first effort toward loving your brothers and sisters, I would ask you today to carefully consider what you are doing when you share the Peace. That moment of the liturgy is as sacred as any other, though we rarely treat it that way. We tend to think of it as an informal break in the worship that allows us to have a quick conversation about the upcoming book sale, or to catch up with someone we haven’t seen in a while. But the Peace is not, in fact, a break in the worship; rather, it is an integral part of it. It is the time in the liturgy when we are asked to demonstrate our love for one another by word and gesture, and more importantly, to reconcile with anyone in the room with whom we have had a disagreement. So when you share the Peace today, please remember to share some love! For “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and the church begins another liturgical year. This season has two distinct foci: the first coming, or advent, of our Lord some 2000 years ago and the second coming, or advent, when Christ will come again in glory to judge the world. This season is marked by darkness, both literally and figuratively. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting shorter and the nights longer. That’s the literal darkness. The figurative darkness is the spiritual twilight in which we find ourselves living today, this turbulent time between the two Advents of Christ, when the world suffers the birth pangs of the Kingdom.
The church observes the season with the use of violet vestments and paraments. And each Sunday of Advent is marked with the lighting of a new candle on the Advent wreath. As in Lent, the singing of the Gloria on Sundays is forbidden. But unlike Lent, we are permitted to say and to sing Alleluia. Liturgists argue whether the season is a penitential season or rather a season of preparation. Perhaps the correct answer is that it is a bit of both.
Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes known as Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be a festive occasion celebrating Jesus Christ’s sovereign rule over all Creation. But to be honest, today’s Gospel reading lets some of the air out of the party balloon! Last week, we were threatened with the Outer Darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This week, we get the threat of “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Not much of an improvement!
Now, I maintain that there is, in fact, Good News in this Gospel reading. But it takes some work to find it, mostly because it takes some work to figure out what Jesus is talking about. The reading is deceptively simple. You might be tempted to sum it up as follows: serve the needy and go to Heaven; ignore the needy and go to Hell. And preachers for the last century or so have, in fact, taken that interpretative route. But the meaning of today’s reading is not so clear. There are two issues with the language of the text that greatly affect its meaning, and they have been a bone of contention since the 3rd Century: Issue #1) What does Jesus mean by “all the nations”? and Issue #2) To whom is Jesus referring when he speaks of “the least of these who are members of my family”?
Years ago, when my cousin Leah was three or four years old, my mother was babysitting her. And Leah noticed a Snickers bar on the counter. She asked if she could have it. My mother explained that it was the last candy bar and that she would split the bar 50/50 with her, each getting exactly half. Now, my mother wasn’t about to hand a paring knife to a child. Instead, she took the knife and asked Leah to point to the exact middle of the candy bar. She said she would cut where Leah pointed. Now, the bar was about five inches long, but Leah pointed about half an inch from one end. My mother asked her, “Leah, are you sure that is the middle, that both halves are exactly the same size?” Leah nodded. Then my mother cut the bar at that point and quickly snatched the larger piece. Leah cried, but she learned a lesson about greed. Now, this story of my cousin is charming, but it is also instructive: we learn that greed infects us early on!