Sunday, December 01, 2019

Advent I

Romans 13
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.


Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.

If this sounds like your last office Christmas party, you might need a new job. Meanwhile, over in the Colossian office, we get this: “fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3.5) None of this is good. But if the question is ‘who takes the cake,’ then look no further than the Galatians, seemingly given to “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (5.19-21). What other things? What else is there?

If just now you trying to figure out the difference between debauchery, concupiscence, and licentiousness, let me save you some time—they all mean the same as lasciviousness. This is obviously the last time you’re coming to church without a dictionary. So what are we to make of St. Paul’s comprehensive collection of lists? What can we conclude?

I think it’s safe to say that Paul had an issue with sex, but that’s not the topic we’re looking at today. Interesting and controversial sermons are set aside for low Sundays, say the one between Christmas and New Year’s, and certainly not the first Sunday of Advent. Still, we can assume these questions were top-of-mind for Paul.

The more important conclusion is that Christians ‘in here’ are supposed to act differently than the world ‘out there.’ And we can see that more clearly if set aside all the concupiscence and lasciviousness, and go with the garden-variety sins: carousing, covetousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. Tipsy sorcerers who angrily covet what others have, whether in a pugilistic way or not, seem to have no place in the church.

Still, I think it’s safe to assume these things were present among those who gathered in the Roman church. With a concordance and an hour we could compile a list of all the ways Paul’s flock were failing, but it might be enough to say they were human. Yes, they were saved by faith and given access to grace (5.1-2) by which they stood with Paul, but they were still human. Yes, through baptism they died with Christ and were raised to live in newness of life (6.3-4), but they were still human. And yes, all things work for good among the people who love God, called according to his purpose (8.28), but they’re still human.

And human they remain. But for today, they are Advent human, and for this we need more Paul. Just moments age we heard this:

Understanding the present time, the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.

In other words, we live between 'the hour has come' and the challenge of living in the present time. We have entered a liminal space, a space where the ‘soon and very soon’ meets the not yet. And how do you live in such a space? You might say the danger is implied in the season.

Another way to say ‘the hour has come’ and ‘not yet’ is Black Friday. Somehow this abomination has been thrust upon us, where the pent up desire for shopping meets Christmas gift giving, where acquisitiveness and consumption define us rather than the season of reflection we enter today. (Note, nothing I am saying applies to our pop-up market place, which begins at 12.15 in the Activity Room. Please bring small change).

Sorry, where was I? We have entered a liminal space, a space where the ‘soon and very soon’ meets the not yet. And in most ways, this describes the churches founded by Paul. Waiting for signs of Christ’s return, given to slumber and sleep, needing constant reminders about the nature of new life in Christ—all these things were happening at once. But salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, nearer as the calendar leads us ever closer to our destination.

But that doesn’t make us any less Advent human. So let’s take just one example: in my compendium of careless human behaviour, envy appears three times. In three ways: Paul warns us against envy, jealousy, and covetousness. Really, three sides of the same coin. And say something often enough, or raise a matter three ways, and it’s a safe bet it was a problem. The church in Paul’s day were mostly people at the bottom in terms of wealth and power: slaves, ex-slaves, women. These were people who might experience envy, not having to look hard for people up a rung on the ladder.

In our day, it’s a variation of the same. Impossible expectations abound, with constant reminders that somehow our affection should be proportional to the money we spend. Or we’re invited to spoil ourselves, since advertising always has a selfish subtheme. Again, we’re Advent human, because we live in the world and the world hardly seems to change.

So where is the hope? What are the signs of this new age, this age of love and mercy for which we wait? Well, the great thing about a list is the opportunity to make an anti-list, a compendium of caring or consideration:

Instead of covetousness, we covet generosity.
Instead of idolatry, we see God in others.
Instead of sorcery, we look for the magic of the season.
Instead of enmities, we imagine everyone is a brother or sister in the Spirit.
Instead of strife, we say ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all people.’
Instead of anger, we have some healthy indignation, for the inequality that only seems to grow.
Instead of quarrels, we work together for peace.
Instead of factions, we agree that unity is more important that whatever may divide us.
Instead of jealousy, we jealously guard the time we have together.

In other words: hope, peace, joy and love, the reason for the season before the season with the reason arrives once more. We carry these themes through Advent because of our humanness, themes that provide shelter, maybe a bit of a shield, and certainly the four corners of this place. Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, described in this moment as hope, peace, joy and love.

I want to give St. Paul the last word, speaking words for waiting, words to lead us home:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit. [We] groan inwardly while we wait for adoption...for in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (8.22-25).

Amen.