It is a tradition when we start a new calendar year to make resolutions about how we would like to make changes in the new year. Sometimes it has to do with exercise or healthy eating or improving our relationships or keeping our temper or being more organized – or any number of other ways we feel we need to act to get our lives under control and on a better trajectory. Has anyone here ever done that?
Well, today is the First Sunday of Advent, the start of a new Church year. And we have begun by taking a good look at ourselves – us as individuals, and humankind as a whole – through our praying of the Great Litany. Some people don’t like the Litany, but then self-examination is always hard, uncomfortable; we want to skitter away from it when we can. It is no accident that in Twelve Step programs one of the big springboards to health and healing and recovery is the Fourth Step: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. To do so clears away the rocks, the underbrush, the gunk of our lives. We take stock of who and what we are and offer it to the light of day and the light of Christ.
In the Litany, of course, we not only pray for ourselves, but for “all sorts and conditions” of humanity. We acknowledge that we are part of the world that God has made, we have a stake and a role in it, and both the trials and successes of our fellow humans have an effect on us. As the Anglican priest and poet John Donne wrote as part of a longer meditation: No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
So we come together at the start of Advent and we acknowledge the truth about the world and ourselves. But God doesn’t leave us there. In fact, praying the Litany sets the stage for us to hear God speaking to us in the Scriptures, to hear the promise that is made through the words of Jeremiah. God promises that his own righteousness and justice will come to fruition in the land and among God’s people. God uses the image of a branch or a shoot growing out of a tree root or stump to describe the new life that is surely coming with the Messiah, the Anointed One in David’s family tree.
In almost every yard and along every roadside this December we can find stumps or broken trees, and in this winter season they seem dead and desolate. But come spring we know that those tree roots will send out new shoots that will begin to grow again. While we look towards that season of renewal, we have to wait, be patient. It’s the same with God’s action in our lives. We have to wait for God’s time. We have to be patient; an active patience that is filled with hope – hope that God will indeed keep his promise.
The promise is that righteousness and redemption will come from God; that we will not be left in sorrow and sin, in grief and fear, in loneliness and injustice – but that God himself will come into human life - into our lives - and make a way, be our light in the darkness, and one day remake the world for the benefit of all creation according to God’s loving intent. This is the promise God has made to us, and we know it has started in Jesus. We also know that the promise is not yet complete. God is with us, but sin still exists. The redemption of the world has begun, but there is still a long way to go. The gift has been given, but it not been completely unwrapped. That will happen at the return of Christ, the day we proclaim in the Creed: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end; what we sometimes refer to as the Second Advent.
And in the meantime? We are here, taking stock of our lives, remembering God’s promise, claiming the hope of God’s presence with us even now, practicing Advent. And we need to do that. We need to practice waiting with hope, steeping ourselves in the knowledge and love of God, knowing that as surely as we will celebrate the coming of God into human life on December 25th God will one day complete his promise to us and to all creation.
The world needs us to practice Advent - because our faith is not for us alone. God’s vision is for a world redeemed, restored, whole and complete, reflecting God’s vitality and glory. When we practice Advent, when we live and work and pray with hope and with patience, we open ourselves to be God’s servants, God’s channels, God’s representatives in a world that needs hope and light and peace and goodness and comfort and justice.
In the Collect we prayed for God to give us the grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light. That armor is not so much a hard shell that will shield us as it is the force of Christ’s light and love within us that shines out into all the dark places. And while we live in this Advent time – not just the next twenty-three days but in the years before us – we know that God’s promise is true and strong. He will never leave us, nor forsake us; on that we can depend, and that we can proclaim - in the depths of our hearts and to a world in need, to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2012