Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14
Good morning. Are you getting into the spirit of the season? Have you sent out all your Advent cards? Don’t you send a card out each week of Advent? One for hope, one for peace, one for joy, and one for love? Please don’t tell me that you sent out Christmas cards before you sent out your Advent cards.
Wait! Did you skip the entire season of Advent? Are you doing your Christmas shopping instead of your Advent shopping? What about all the Advent parties?
Are you telling me that there’s no such thing as an Advent party?
Are you sure? This is the season of watching and waiting. There are no watching-and-waiting parties?
So, if I’m hearing you correctly, there are Christmas parties this time of year, but no Advent parties. And of course, lame jokes from the pulpit about the season of Advent. Duly noted. I promise I won’t scold anyone for not observing this season.
I borrowed the title for my sermon this morning from a song by Carly Simon. Like me, that song was released in 1971. It was a huge hit for her, but by the time I was paying attention to pop music, the song was no longer current. If you were born between the late 1960s and mid-70s, you probably remember it from a commercial for Heinz Ketchup. Either way, the song captures the tension of wanting something that’s almost there, but not quite yet.
That’s also the feeling of the season of Advent. We know that Jesus’ birth is the inbreaking of God’s kingdom here on Earth. And we believe that Christ will return. Someday. Yet, we haven’t seen it, so we watch and we wait. We remind ourselves of this during Advent. Sometimes we grow weary of waiting.
When the Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the congregation at Rome, Christianity was growing by leaps and bounds. The Apostles were planting new communities of faith around the Greco-Roman world. Paul probably wrote this letter some twenty-five years after Jesus was crucified. At that point, none of the gospels had yet been compiled. That would come later. So, Paul’s letters were part gospel and part instruction manual—they included rules for living together as a community and they encouraged the members of the various congregations to bring more people into these new Christian communities.
We don’t know if the congregation at Rome had grown weary from watching and waiting for the return of Christ. Today’s reading comes from a section of the letter which describes what Christian community looks like. Paul is writing to a community that has been transformed, “awakened” from sleep because they have been transformed through their relationship with Jesus and with one another. Because of this transformation, Paul says, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”
This passage uses baptismal language to urge the members of the congregation to live into the new community, the new life they have in Christ. Night and day are metaphors. Night is the time before the faithful at Rome became believers; the believers see the light of day after they have been baptized and become members of the congregation.
Paul doesn’t want to see any backsliding. He doesn’t want the faithful to lose heart and go back to their old ways, because they haven’t seen Jesus’ return. He urges them to live into their baptisms and share the love of Christ with the world—to continue the work of building the kingdom of God, while waiting and watching for Jesus’ return.
I think sometimes we lose heart, too. We want church to look like it did thirty or forty years ago. We don’t want to wait, if it means we have to look within and look for the ways we need to change. We want a little change, but only if it makes us feel more comfortable. And if we don’t find that comfortable change, we’ll attempt to numb our pain with memories of the way things used to be. We search for the ghosts of Christmases past, or Christmas pageants past.
In the last church I served, they still had all the costumes for their old Christmas pageants, back when they had thirty or forty kids in Sunday school. I asked them when the last time was that they had the full Christmas pageant. No one was really sure. Some said ten years, others fifteen or twenty. The costumes were in an attic above the sanctuary, they were out of sight, out of mind. But nobody wanted to throw the costumes away, either. Maybe they’d use them again.
This is so common! Congregations accumulate stuff; stuff happens!
I interviewed for a position as an interim pastor a few years ago. During the interview they gave me a tour. Every Sunday school classroom was filled with stuff. Some of it was stuff that was waiting for a rummage sale, but most of it was old furniture: couches, chairs, and tables. Every. Blessed. Room.
The church was located in a small town that had been losing its population and tax base for thirty years. The congregation hoped that a new, young pastor would bring in all the young families. But it was clear from all the stuff that they held on to that they were looking backwards, not forwards. They were waiting passively for some happy future—that looked a lot like the past.
I didn’t get a hopeful feeling from that congregation and I was really glad I got called to serve as an interim pastor in a different congregation. It was a congregation with a lot more hope, even if they had an attic full of old Christmas pageant costumes.
The watching and waiting of the Advent are not passive processes. Certainly, the Apostle Paul is not suggesting a passive process in today’s passage from Romans. Paul uses active verbs:
· Lay aside the works of darkness.
· Put on the armor of light.
· Live honorably.
· Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
These are not passive states of being, they are verbs of doing.
As I look at this congregation, I have hope. You are not passively watching and waiting. Over the last several weeks, there’s been a lot of cleaning going on in this church. Some of this has been routine maintenance. We did a lot of yardwork in November; we decorated for Advent. We do those things every year. But we’re doing more than that.
A couple weeks ago we had a big project to clean and reorganize some of the closets in the Christian Ed building. Maybe a dozen people showed up and dived into the work. Yesterday we had another seven or eight people show up and clean out a Sunday school room. The space is now available for a new tenant, or for an existing tenant to expand.
Instead of holding on to old Christmas pageant costumes and hoping to someday have kids to put them on, members of this congregation are stepping up and clearing space. We’re making space for new things, instead of looking for visions of our past. This is the way forward. This is hope in a season of darkness. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that watching and waiting are not passive processes. Watch for all the new ways that God is at work in this congregation, and then go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to
any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Orrey McFarland, “Commentary on Romans 13:11-14,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4296