A Sermon for Advent Sunday
December 3, 2023 at Holy Communion
“Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God” (Baruch 4:36). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
If you spend much time with me and Katy, and we’re talking about something in society that seems not to be working the way it is supposed to, it won’t be long before you hear one of us say, “2040!” and we’ll laugh. We’re referring to a study done in 1972, whose models have only been confirmed as computer technology has improved, which predicted the collapse of society in 2040.
I am no prophet: I have no idea what will happen in 2040—I have a hard enough time keeping straight what I’ll be doing in a few weeks! But it doesn’t take a prophet to recognize that all is not well. At our November Parish Council meeting, someone commented that she has learned to hate going into the grocery store, because the prices are, well, “apocalyptic.”
So thank goodness this is Advent Sunday, because the season of Advent is for people who see the cracks in the world. Advent is for people who yearn for a greater wholeness than the world of inflation and decay can offer. Advent is about the restoration of our joy while we remain in a world which is winding steadily towards its end.
In Advent the church reflects on the struggle of living in the world. The Psalms which we have read today, chosen in ancient times, give us words to express what it is like to live in a world that is passing away. The Gradual Psalm helps us say, “O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. Will you be displeased with us for ever? will you prolong your anger from age to age?” (Psalm 85:4–5). And in the words of our Introit Psalm we say, “Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me. Let none who look to you be put to shame” (Psalm 25:1–2). We are worried, because both now in the difficulties of the present, and as we look into an uncertain future, we are afraid that our enemies—the forces of disorder and disintegration knocking at our door—will get the better of us.
And it may well turn out that way. But the response to which our Advent prayers invite us is also given to us in our Introit Psalm: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (Psalm 25:1). Our soul—that is, our life, our heart, the centre of our hopes and fears—needs to be lifted up out of the muck and placed on higher ground, the solid ground of eternal hope.
Our readings today also give us metaphors for this other than “lifting up” our souls. In our Epistle, we turn away from the choking darkness in which we live, and we seek to find and live in the new light of Christ, whose kingdom is coming soon. “The night is far gone,” we hear, and “the day is at hand. So let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” (Romans 13:12).
Or, for an image that appears both in our Lesson and our first hymn, we look towards the dawning horizon: “Look towards the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God” (Baruch 4:36). Christians living in the world are like people awake in the final hours of the night, knowing that day is coming while everyone else is asleep. Since ancient times, Christians have prayed facing east, as we do today, because Jesus is coming as the “dawn from on high” (Luke 1:78). This is why Christians have something in common with others who are concerned about society taking a dark turn or falling apart: we recognize that what we are living in now is a darkness which will pass away at any moment—and we are children not of this present darkness, but of the coming dawn (1 Thessalonians 5:5).
So Advent is a season of increasing hope. Unlike Lent, which gets darker as it progresses until Easter Day bursts upon us suddenly, as we move through Advent the invitation to rejoice becomes more and more compelling. On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which this year happens to fall on Christmas Eve, we are so close to Christmas that our Epistle simply tells us to rejoice: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
In fact, if we are being emotionally honest, even though so many of our prayers and readings this season are about the end of the world and have a gloomy tone, it is difficult for us to associate this season with anything but rejoicing. I, for one, spent a lovely evening last night down at the waterfront, singing lively carols with friendly people and enjoying the market atmosphere.
And in a sense this is what Advent is about. Christ is among us already—we celebrate his birth at the end of the month, but we don’t need to pretend not to know that it is coming. Christ, God-living-among-us, is for us a source of joy and peace in the darkest part of the year. Although we still live in a world which is passing away, we already live in for and with the King whose kingdom is coming. For Christians, “the end of the age” doesn’t mean the collapse of society or the end of life. “The end of the age” means the full realization of a kingdom of peace and joy which we have now begun to live in by faith.
And yet, in another sense we would do well to be a little brooding this season. It is so easy to put on rejoicing like a mask, to cover over this present darkness with gold wrapping paper. We will only understand what it means for the coming of Christ to be the dawn of a new age if we are willing to face up to the darkness of the age which we leave behind.
We can be honest if we are grieving. We can be honest that having departed loved ones or broken relationships is most difficult at Christmas. We can be honest if the pressure to buy gifts makes you anxious about money. Just as much as joyful carolling is the sign of a kingdom to come, so these things, and every other strain and anxiety, are signs of a world which is coming apart.
Christmas—the real Christmas, the Light of the World coming forth from the heart of the Father into our hearts—only makes sense to those who understand that they live in darkness, waiting for a better dawn.