Title: "Advent with Isaiah"
Associated Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44
Date: 27 November 2016
Place: Clinton Presbyterian Church (Clinton, NJ)
Theme: During Advent, Clinton Presbyterian Church worked on themes from Isaiah. This sermon served as the "kick-off" for that series. In it, I attempt to share the role that Advent plays in the life of the church - namely, how it is period of hopeful anticipation for the coming Christ. Isaiah has much to say on this theme and is, thus, a helpful companion for us.
Click "Read More" to read the sermon. The audio file is also available below.
Well here we are. Somehow, it is November 27th – a little over a month to go until 2017, and a little less than a month until Christmas. Can you believe it?
For the church, though, we begin a new year today. This morning is the first Sunday in Advent, traditionally understood to mark the beginning of the church’s liturgical year.
Perhaps that seems a little odd to you. Surely, the church year should begin with the birth of Christ which we observe at Christmas, right?
To understand why the church year doesn’t begin with Christmas, but instead begins today with Advent, we need to understand a little bit about what Advent is.
I suspect that Advent is one of those churchy words that many of us loosely associate with a time of year, but don’t quite understand from a theological or ecclesiastic perspective.
When we hear “Advent” we know that it’s time to get ready for Christmas: we can start buying presents, get a tree, hang some lights. In church, we’ll light candles. We know all this. But what actually is Advent, and why is it important?
The word itself is rooted in the Latin “adventus” meaning “arrival”. That word comes the Latin source “ad-venire” meaning literally “to come”.
Thus, Advent is the Anglicization of terms associated with anticipating the coming or arrival of Jesus Christ.
This is about more than simply planning for Christmas. Advent is the season in which we are reminded of our desperate need – our yearning, our thirst – for our Lord Jesus Christ.
In short, Advent is a season that is fundamentally about hope and faith in God’s promises. In spite of our wickedness and sin we hope for our Redeemer, and acknowledge our need for Him in our lives.
And, so, this is why Advent starts the church year. Because our faith is not simply rooted in a person who was born. It is rooted in the hope, faith, anticipation, and yearning for the Word Made Flesh that we find in that person.
Along with much of the Christian church, Tracey and I will be exploring the Book of the Prophet Isaiah over the course of this Advent season. It’s fitting for me to explain, briefly, why we are doing this.
All this talk about the anticipation of Christ might seem a little strange to you. For many of us, we like to think that Jesus Christ was a historical figure – someone who was born, lived, and died. Likewise, for many of us, the job of a Christian is to emulate this historical figure and learn from what he taught us.
If we think like that, then we’re probably right to say “what is it that we should be anticipating? Our Messiah has already come.” Perhaps, then, we may be tempted to view Advent as a sort of memorial.
But we shouldn’t think like that. That sort of thinking misses the mark in terms of who Christ is and what the job of the church is.
You see, Christ entered our world in the past – that is right. But Christ didn’t stay confined to the past. Through his resurrection Christ is as alive today as he was 2,000 years ago. And so the mission of the church isn’t simply to meditate on a historical figure, it’s to bring us into communion with the living and reigning God.
Isaiah, in today’s reading, told us much about what we can anticipate from the Messiah. The Messiah is likened to a mountain: strong, central, towering over all other things. To this mountain the people will flow as faithful pilgrims, and from this mountain will go forth law and grace which will transform the lives of people and change the world.
The Word of the Messiah will transform instruments of war into instruments of nourishment – swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. And that same Word will transform the people and nations in instruments of peace, without need for war and conflict.
Does this sound like the world we have today? Of course not. On the contrary, ours feels like a world continually characterized by conflict and violence, division and distrust, faithlessness and consumerism.
And so, we hope. We hope and pray and yearn for the completion of Christ’s kingdom. We anticipate the Advent – the arrival, the coming – of a time when swords really do become plowshares and spears pruning hooks. We trust in the promise of Jesus Christ to continue to redeem His world.
Our Gospel reading continues with this theme of anticipation, further stressing that Christ’s redemptive work is not yet complete – but will be in time.
Like Isaiah, the Gospel does not suggest that Christ’s work is finished. Far from it. We have much to anticipate, much to work for. While we bear witness to the glory of Christ through His birth, ministry, death, and resurrection we have yet to see the fullness of his glory and the completion of His redeeming work. It is in this we hope.
Matthew reminds us that the “day or hour” is not known when the Son of God will return to fully redeem this world. But Gospel does tell us to “be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
Now this may possibly sound unnerving, frightening even. But let us remember that it is only frightening if we do not hold to Christian hope and anticipation. The completing of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” is something we pray for, something we need, something we want. The coming – the Advent – of Christ is joyous for us if we are prepared in faith, perilous for us if we are not. To renew this faith and hope is the reason for the Advent season.
And so I end as I started: here we are. Here we are at the beginning of Advent. Here we are at the beginning of our church year. Here we are at the foundation of our faith.
What will this Advent look like to you? How will you come to remember it? Will it be a period of unbridled consumerism, or will it be a season of renewal and re-affirmation of your need for Christ? Will it be a period of custom and ritual, or will it be a period of seeking and thirsting for the Lord?
What will it look like for you? The question isn’t asked idly – because we are ultimately talking about what comes to form the very foundation of our faith. Will we be simply memorializing a historical past, or thirsting for the Kingdom of God?
It’s so easy – so tempting – to distract ourselves during this season. We think that by doing all the things that remind of Christmas that we are focusing on Christ when in reality we’re just focusing on a holiday celebration. Let us commit together – right here, right now – to use this Advent season as Scripture urges us to do: to renew our faith in Christ’s promise of redemption, and our yearning and need for it.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.