Message for Sunday December 11, 2016
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee
Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:2-11 & Isaiah 35:1-10
We are in the midst of Advent. Christianity, like all other organizations in which people of specific beliefs or who participate in a shared activity, has its own language with certain terms and shorthand sayings. You have to be in the know to really know what people are talking about sometimes. If you have been hanging around this congregation for the past year you will have heard terms being used like JNAC, pastoral relations, Presbytery, Conference, General Council, Lent, Pentecost, Advent. We do our best to remember that not everyone knows what these terms and titles mean but sometimes we forget that not all people are familiar with our insider language. Because, as much as we, the United Church in general and here at Symons Valley, no matter how much we think we are being inclusive and welcoming, we can neglect, now and then, to explain what exactly we mean when we use certain words. Even if you know that JNAC is the acronym for Joint Needs Assessment Committee, you might not understand that what it MEANS is that the congregation is doing a review of its ministry and deciding what clergy is required to serve the congregation—which is a rather big undertaking. The expression, pastoral relations is used to describe the connection between clergy that serves the congregation and the congregation itself. Presbytery, Conference and General Council are three courts that make up the denomination of the wider United Church, to which our congregation belongs.
And then there’s Lent, Pentecost and Advent. Three significant seasons of the church year. Church seasons have nothing to do with weather but everything to do with timing. Lent is the time of six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. It is meant to be a time of self-reflection, learning about the ministry of Jesus and understanding better your place in God’s world. Pentecost is the celebration of the birth of the church. It takes place fifty days after Easter, a reminder of the time the apostles gathered together and the Holy Spirit came upon them. And then Advent—taking place last in our secular calendar but it is the FIRST season of the church calendar.
We often hear of other faith traditions having periods of time for prayer, celebration or remembering significant moments in their religions. We know of Ramadan for the Muslims, Hanukah or Passover for Jewish people and Chinese New Years that has no regard for our secular calendar. Christianity is no different. We have holidays, seasons and a sense of timing all of their own. Although, the Western world has set some of its holidays and days off around Christian high holy days, those dates were adopted only in modern time. The high holy dates of Christianity are as old as the church itself.
Advent is the beginning of the church year and is the period of time of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. This year we have the longest possible Advent because Christmas Day is not until the Sunday FOLLOWING the 4th Sunday of Advent—so Advent is a full 28 days long. The season of Christmas does not start until Christmas Day and runs for twelve days—as in the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Christmas lasts until January 6th, which, by tradition, is marked by the Feast of Epiphany and is the day in which we remember the Magi saw the star in the sky and made their long journey to see the baby Jesus. Because the celebration of Christmas is not “supposed” to start until the 25th of December, you might find in many churches a reluctance of worship leaders to have Christmas music and carols sung during Advent because it is not time to celebrate the birth of the baby quite yet—it is still a time of waiting. But, in our modern society, the twelve days of Christmas is not celebrated as it once was. In fact, Christmas Day is not really even a religious holiday anymore. It is a secular holiday. The high holy time of this season is actually Christmas Eve. And, because children no longer sing religious Christmas carols in school, it could very well be that that the only time they hear and sing carols is during the Christmas Eve pageant, because we no longer gather for each of the twelve days of Christmas, which is where Christmas carols would be sung and let’s face it, not many families bring their children to church during the season of Christmas that follows Christmas Eve. And, there is usually only one Sunday between Christmas Eve and Epiphany so that window of carols can be pretty narrow. That is why, here at Symons Valley, we sing one Christmas carol each of the Sundays in Advent once the children return from Sunday School.
But back to the season of Advent. Advent is a time of preparation and expectation for the coming of Christ, the time before celebrating the “joy to the world” that God’s incarnation becomes. In advance of a celebratory Christmas season that follows Advent, this is the time to reflect on the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love, which get us ready for a world that Christ has entered. We, the faithful, remember the story of what God has done and look toward where God is going. In North America, because Christmas takes place at the darkest time of the year, we use the metaphor that Jesus is the Light of the world to mark the passage of time from the 1st of Advent to Christmas Eve. We start Advent with darkness. We take time to consider how frightening it must have been for Mary and Joseph to embark together upon the journey of birthing the Christ Child into the world. From the moment an unwed, young woman mysteriously finds herself pregnant and visited by an angel of God to the dark of night in which Joseph is visited by the same angel urging him not to abandon his betrothed, to traveling a long, long way to Bethlehem at the behest of the ruler of the Empire. Safety and health would have been a concern along the way and then they found themselves without accommodations. And then, in the stable and in the night and without the comforts of home and loved ones, the baby arrives. Like I said, we remember all of this by starting ourselves in the dark, this darkest time of year here in Canada. We start with no candles lit and we light them, one by one, as we move through Advent, waiting, anticipating, expecting the birth of the one who grow to become the Light, the Way the Messiah, the Saviour, the Christ, Most Wonderful Counselor for all who would follow him.
For many people, Advent is marked only by those awesome calendars that dispense chocolate by opening a little door each of the days of December leading up to the 25th. But for those in the know, Advent is most significantly marked by the lighting of these coloured candles and the lifting up of a different them each Sunday. The candles represent hope, peace, joy and love. They are blue—with the exception of Joy, which is pink. Blue was chosen because the royal purple, the most expensive and difficult colour to dye fabric back in the time of Jesus, is reserved for the dramatic journey of Lent from the desert wanderings of Jesus to the desperate final hours of his life. For Advent, deep blue represents the color of the clear, predawn sky, the color that covers the earth in the hours before the sun rises in the east. It is the deep, dark blue that covers us in the dark, cold hours before the dawn. And so, we use deep blue for Advent to shade the season with a hint of expectation and anticipation of the dawn of Christ. The blue of Advent is meant to inspire in us the hope of faith, and to encourage us to keep watch for the promised light of Christ to break over the horizon, changing night into day, darkness into light, and filling our lives and our world with a holy and righteous splendor. There are a few theories of why Joy Sunday’s candle is pink but the one that makes the most sense to me is that we take time in the anticipation and the expectation to acknowledge the possibility of joy and that is not a blue feeling is it? Recognizing that joy is not solemn, the colour pink stands so that the more light-heartedness of the emotion can be seen as well as felt. This is always the fun bit each year, remembering the order of the themes and, most importantly, when the pink candle needs to be lit. This is when it helps to be in the know and have a bit of insider information. I have to admit that I laughed out loud when I found this on Facebook and had to send it to Karen because it seems to be a very church geeky thing—not that she’s the church geek but she always appreciates what I find funny about certain church processes or habits. [photo]
An English lay theologian of the late 1800s and early 1900s named Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote, “Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.” That is certainly relevant today, isn’t it? Hope is not a blissful ignorance or wishful thinking but a subversive cheer that refuses to let circumstance triumph over courage, doubt overcome faith, or adversity conquer compassion. This is not easy; it is not our default setting. When we hit brick walls, the first emotion that naturally arises is generally not hope. Hope requires a strength that comes from focusing on a greater vision than what is wrong. We may not have every problem figured out, but we serve a God who loved this world enough to join us in it. We trust that when Jesus said, “Behold, I am making all things new,” he meant it.
Peace, biblical peace, is a more than a cessation of wars. It is a reconstituting of reality where mercy and justice reign, power becomes subservient to hospitality, and governance is driven by grace. It confronts rulers with a vision: God’s way of life. Advent invites us to see the peace of God as a way of life.
Joy comes upon us unexpectedly. It jumps out at us from behind sunsets, peeks out in the smile of a stranger, and takes hold in a child’s laughter. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit biologist and philosopher, once wrote, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” If this is true, every moment of joy is like a little Christmas in our lives. Advent is not only a time when we hope for the coming of Christ in great history-changing events. It is also a time where we hope for little moments of joy, and invite God to use us as instruments of joy for the world.
In the fourth century, Saint Augustine wrote, “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men.” Advent gives us space to step back and love. By taking the focus off ourselves we are able to see the needs of others.
In our scripture readings today moments of joy are described as eyes of the blind being opened, the lame leaping like deer and water breaking forth from the wilderness. The Isaiah passage builds on what peace would look like from last week. The wolf and the lamb shall lie together and the lion shall eat straw. These would be signs that true peace had entered into the world. In today’s later chapter of Isaiah, the prophet builds upon these images to help us imagine what will happen when God will to put an end to cruelty, violence and hatred. The joy that will come as sorrow and lament flee away will show itself in all manners of ways. This joy is recalled as John sends word to Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, seeking assurance that Jesus is doing what John is pretty sure God has intended for his cousin—to be the Saviour so desperately needed in times of turmoil, economic hardship and oppression of the Hebrew people. He asks, “Are you the One?” To which Jesus replies, ‘the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear’ – in other words, of course it is what you were expecting and hoping for—the time has begun to bring the Kingdom of Heaven into a reality. The roads have been made smooth by John so that Jesus could begin his ministry. This confirmation is, indeed, joyful news. Thanks be to God.