Friday, November 25, 2016

The First Sunday of Advent, Year A

Swords into Ploughshares

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Wake up! Be on guard! Stay alert! Be prepared! We hear that message every year at the beginning of Advent. It is an important reminder to the Christian that our Saviour will come again and that we need to be ready for that day.

Yet it always strikes me as ominous, as a dire warning about my spiritual state. Perhaps that goes back to my childhood to a time when apocalyptic readings meant hell and damnation sermons. The message of Advent is not intended that way. It is not a message that is intended to fill us with fear and apprehension; rather, it is intended to excite us and to fill us with hopeful expectation, the kind of expectation that comes as we prepare ourselves for a visit from a dear friend.

Consider how you prepare for such a visit. If you are anything like me, it begins with a thorough cleaning of the house. I change the bed linens in the guest bedroom and put out fresh towels. I plan meals and do a special shopping. I think about the people who are coming to visit, about what they might like to do. I think about all the things I want to share with them about what is happening in my life. I think of all the questions I have for them about family, friends and work.
That, it seems to me, is a good way to approach the season of Advent. The readings point out the way in which we can prepare ourselves for God’s coming, for God’s presence amongst us.
You can see it in the passage from the Old Testament. Isaiah urges the people of Israel to prepare themselves to be channels of God’s peace in the world. He has a vision of people coming as pilgrims to worship God. He calls them to put aside what kills society and to affirm what gives life. “Beat swords into ploughshares,” he urges them. What a wonderful metaphor for what needs to happen to bring about a state of peace! Instruments of war are converted into farm implements. People are able to live in contentment in their own places, tending to their own lives. Right and wrong are judged, taking away the sphere of oppression. There is no more conflict.

Do we dare stand mutely by as we read those prophetic words from Isaiah? Such words should radically transform our very lives, each and every day. They should bring us to a state of repentance. What are the swords in our lives that could be reshaped this Advent into tools of growth and peace? How can we contribute to peace in this world by our own reconciliation and peacemaking?

On an episode of CSI one of the detectives had to do an investigation in a church. She was reflecting on how it felt to be in a church, and on how rarely she attended any more. "Every time I go," she said making her excuses, "the sermon is about forgiveness." There is no mystery about that. What a need we have to hear the message that we are forgiven! What a need we have to forgive others!

What action could we take this Advent? Is there a conflict in your life that you could amend? It might be apologizing for an offense, or saying a word of appreciation to someone with whom you have a difficult relationship, or reaching out to someone who has offended you.

That is the kind of action that Paul is envisioning in his letter to the Romans. The whole issue of peace begins at a very personal level. It begins with peace within ourselves. That extends into our relationships. Only when we are at peace within ourselves will we find peace at wider and higher levels. "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me, " one hymn puts it. Paul knew that. And so he issued a wake up call. He invited the Christians in Rome to wake up, to offer to God all of their love, an active peace seeking and peace making which can bring day out of night.

Isn’t that what we need in our church? A spirit of reconciliation and love that pervades our whole community so that we look at one another and see Christ! People should be able to smell Christ on us!

Isn't that what we need in our world? We live in dark times, times of terrorism, of ecological disaster. We have come to know a world where we recognize that we live with the possibility of it all coming crashing to an end. Paul offers Christ as the means of changing our life's direction. What a need we have of conversion! Of really living our lives in the light of Christ!

What can we do to bring ourselves closer to God during this Advent season? Can it be a time of renewal through prayer and worship? Can we find ways to put aside the busyness of the holidays and make them the holy days that they are intended to be? There are so many choices to be made in our world. It can be overwhelming. We have to sift; we have to choose; we have to sort out. We have to determine our direction. The sorting out takes place through our choices. These are times to consider our responsibility as good stewards of God’s creation. They are times to use the world’s abundance with restraint and concern for the needs of others. They are times to be advocates for the poor and for the needy. Advent is one of those times in the church year when we simply need to take stock and consider all the good things that God has provided for us, and then determine where God is leading.

The wake up call is there in the gospel too. Jesus speaks with a sense of urgency. He reminds the disciples of the story of Noah and the flood. “That is what the end days will be like,” he tells them. People will be going about the daily routine. “It is up to each of you,” he is saying, “to be ready for God.” It isn’t about being good. We know that we fall short of what God expects. We know too that God is there to reach out in forgiveness. This is not about judgement. This is not a dreadful anxious watching, but a joyful readiness for the signs of the coming of God into our human experience. We can look back at past ages and see what God has done in the world. We can see the signs of God’s presence in the lives of faithful people. The present belongs to God as well. There are signs all around us that God is at work. We experience God in the beauty of nature. We see God reflected in the other people. We meet God in our worship. God is in the future as well. That is why we need to keep awake. That is why we need to be prepared. We need to recognize God in that coming.

I was sitting next to a parishioner when her beeper went off. "Is there a phone I can use?" she asked. I let her into my office and went back to where the women were gathered. Knowing that it possibly meant that a kidney was available, they were already deep in prayer. She came out a few minutes later. "Not this time! False alarm!" And we all went back to our meeting.
It was amazing to me that she could wait as weeks turned into months with such a deep sense of serenity when it meant so much to her. I knew that three mornings a week she went to the hospital for dialysis. I knew the restrictions on her diet. I knew that she carefully measured her intake of fluids. What a trial that is for someone who loves a good cup of tea! I knew that she lived daily with the knowledge that without a transplant she would not survive. Yet she lived each day in hope and expectation. Her deep faith accepted that God would answer her prayer, either with the needed surgery or she would meet face to face with the God she served.

Then came the day when the beeper went off for real. She hurried to the hospital. It was a good match. She had the surgery. Everything went well and day by day she grew stronger. Not that the watching and waiting were over. There were foul smelling anti-rejection drugs to take. (They really do smell like a skunk!) There were still the restrictions on her diet. But day by day the colour came back into her face.
There came the wonderful celebration when she was back at church. At the chancel steps she placed a bouquet of white roses. In the centre of the bouquet standing out from the rest was one beautiful red rose – "for the person who gave me new life," she explained – and one yellow, "for my new life."

As we journey through Advent, let us watch and wait in joyful readiness for the signs of the coming of God into our human experience. It is a time to welcome Christ into our hearts. It is a time to turn the swords in our lives into ploughshares of love, understanding and peace. It is a time for repentance. It is a time for renewed faith and commitment. It is a time to hold fast to the hope that Christ will come again in glory. It is a time to wait in joyful expectation.

Let us keep this promise alive so that we can say at last, "Maranatha! Jesus comes!" What a wake up call that will be!

No comments:

All Saints, Year c

I Have a Dream Propers Daniel 7:1-3,15-18 Psalm 149 Ephesians 1:11-23 Luke 6:26-36 Martin Luther King had a dream. His dream was put in...