Sermon preached for the First Sunday of Advent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD,
and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
This time of year we are fairly drowning in promises. On the radio: I’ll be home for Christmas and Santa Claus is coming to town. While shopping: your package will arrive by Christmas and this is exactly what you need to make your family happy. And then we come to church and the promises get even bigger: I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land; a child will be born for you; Christ has died Christ is risen Christ will come again; there will be a new heaven and a new earth. The kingdom of God for all to see, the kingdom marked by joy, justice, and love.
For some of these promises, we will know if they come true in about four weeks. We’ll know if our kid really did make it home for Christmas; we’ll know if the package arrived on time; we’ll know if Santa Claus made his yearly trip around the world. But for other promises, well, we’re still waiting to find out if they’re going to be true–and that’s hard. Waiting on a promise and not giving up? That’s really, really hard. Most of us have a time limit, I think; a time limit for how long we will wait before we give up hope. And when it comes to the promises of God, we have been waiting a very, very long time.
When I was in high school, my young cousins came to visit us. Scott was eight at the time and one day he swung himself down into the dining room chair with all the heavy exhaustion of the world in his sigh. He looked at my mom and said:
“I’m tirrrrred, Aunty Fran.”
“Why are you tired?” she asked. We hadn’t done anything particularly strenuous that day.
“I’m tirrrrrrrred of waiting for my birthday.”
It was July. His birthday is in October.
This month, especially in church, but also in songs in on greeting cards and I think in our hearts, we will repeat the promises that we hold so dear. Promises of God‘s presence on earth–a tangible presence that somehow is going to fix things, a presence that will heal the people who are sick, a presence that will forgive the people who are ashamed, a presence that will bring peace to people who are at war. And yet every year–every year for 2000 and some years now–that promise hasn’t all the way come true. And it’s hard to wait. It’s hard to be in the between times. Between one promise that did come true–a child will be born for you and you shall call him Emmanuel–and one that hasn’t yet–Christ will come again in glory.
We don’t talk too much about the second coming–ever really–even though it’s an important part of our scripture. An important part, I think, of our faith. We prefer to focus on the promise that has already come true and that makes all the sense in the world. It’s easier to believe in something that we know happened, but God‘s promise is that Christ’s work is not done yet. That there is still a time to come when peace will be on earth and death and sorrow and sighing will be no more and every tear will be wiped from our eyes. The early Christians expected The same Jesus they knew to return, perhaps with better clothes and shiner hair, but that same guy they knew and loved to descend from the clouds and make it all OK again. I don’t know what I think the second coming might look like–if it will be that same Jesus we know and love from our storybook Bible’s or whether he will look very, very different, but I do believe with all my heart that God’s work is not done and that there is a brighter day coming. I believe God keeps God’s promises, maybe not on the schedule I would like, but that always keeps God’s promises.
It is hard work though, keeping the faith. Hard work keeping the faith that one day everything will be beautiful again when I send a bereavement card to another friend who just lost her mother in a car crash, when the news inundates us with pictures of gunshots and teargas bombs and wild fires and earthquakes, when I know that while I shop for Christmas for pretty things to make my beloveds happy huge parts of the world are just trying to eat or find shelter or escape war. We need Advent and Christmas. We need the lights and the song and the beauty of it all because here in the darkest months of winter–here is when it would be easy to lose faith.
There are times when in my prayers I think I sound as petulant as my cousin Scott did: I’m tired, God. I’m tired of waiting for you to come back and fix all this. Tired of singing of peace and joy and love and seeing little of it in the world you made. When are you going to keep your promises?
I’m not the first to wield that prayer and I won’t be the last. Of all the people of faith who came before us only about 33 years worth of them got to live with the actual presence of God‘s promise, living with that child who was born to them. The rest of us have had to live on faith–faith and signs. Here and there I do see God’s work in the world: smaller glimpses of hope and peace, joy and love, of justice, righteousness, of the spirit shining through. There are signs of God at work all around us if we look for them. But it’s still not the kingdom that we are promised.
And so the question becomes: how do we keep faith? How do we keep hoping in a promise when it’s taking so long to come true? As I looked in our scriptures today I think I see two small things. Small things that help us keep faith.
The first seem so simple, so obvious, but it is so easy to forget. It is prayer. Our Psalm today is a prayer by someone who was exhausted, who does not think the world is the way it should be, and yet that person does not turn against God but to God, lifting up a prayer for help, for guidance. God, teach me your ways, do not let me be put to shame, guide my footsteps. That person is not waiting for God to be right there in front of his or her face. For God to be big and loud and obvious before they are willing to admit that God might have something to do with their life. The psalms are an amazing source of longing, but also of trust. Trusting in a God they cannot touch, but can see all around them.
The second is also simple—the gift of God seen in community. Paul writes to the Thessalonians how much joy he takes in them, as one of the first Christian communities. Their faith is not perfect—they aren’t perfect—but they’re trying. They’re trying to live out what it means to Christ’s body in this world. And Paul rejoices in that. It bolsters his own faith. When I am tired of waiting for someone—someone—to feed the hungry and forgive the enemy and welcome the outcast—I remember that there are people who are already doing just that. Here in this church, and in churches and mosques and temples and community groups all across this world. It is not the big, final miracle of a world transformed. But our congregations are a million points of light across the world, a landing strip for Christ to touch down when the time comes.
So when the exhaustion hits and I feel my faith growing thin, a little time spent in prayer and a little time spent with y’all fills my cup. Remembering that God will keep God’s big promises eventually, but in the meantime, I can see the little promises kept in a million ways—in a conversation with a friend, in the group that gathered yesterday to make this sanctuary that much more beautiful, in the gifts and boxes of food that will go out to our neighbors in a few weeks. I’m still waiting on the day the world will be transformed, but every day I can witness lives being transformed all around me.
This is the work of Advent: waiting, but idly. Waiting, but not impatiently. Waiting, and not giving up. Working while we wait, working in ourselves, to keep faith, working with others, to bring hope, working for others, to be the signs of God’s presence that help them keep their own faith.
I’m tired today. Maybe you are too. But I’m still hopeful. Hopeful because even in these dark months the light is shining all around, and if I keep my eyes adjusted to it then one day I know I will see the light of Christ, coming again in glory.
This Advent, keep faith. Whether in two days or two thousand years, God keeps God promises. This I believe.
Glory be to the God who was and is and ever shall be.