A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 27, 2011.
First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
It’s all begun, hasn’t it? Put on your seat belt, it’s begun. Actually, it started some time ago, but it’s now in full force. I’m referring to the Christmas holiday season, of course.
I’ve been looking for those of you who may be a bit bleary-eyed from your early Black Friday morning shopping excursions. But I shouldn’t just pick on you folks. There’s also the hunters who still carry with them the characteristic smell of the early morning woods, and those whose voices are hoarse from screaming during the Hogs-LSU game… well, for the first quarter or so anyway. If there was any screaming to be done after that, it was at the defense and special teams… and the offensive line and the…
We all carry our own issues into worship today, don’t we, our distractions and sometimes our depression? This is how we begin this Christmas season. When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty much how we start every Christmas season. We’re exhausted and we still have a month to go.
But you know me. I’m not going to stand here and rail against the commercialization of what is supposed to be a sacred time. I’m not going to try and convince you that it’s just football and we shouldn’t take it all that seriously. I’m not going to try to make you hunters feel guilty about shooting Bambi! It wouldn’t do any good anyway and would only make me come across as looking… let’s see, what’s the word that describes it… petulant? Yes, that’s the word… petulant. Besides, you’re going to “do” Christmas pretty much like you’ve always done it. So let’s simply take a few minutes and reflect on what this holy season means, and see if we can take from our worship this morning a new understanding that will help guide our way.
You may have noticed that our scripture for this morning is not one that you might typically think of in terms of Christmas. There’s a good reason for that. It isn’t Christmas! Not yet, anyway. We are in the season of Advent. Let’s try not to get the two confused. Advent is a time of actively waiting for the Messiah to come. The scriptures chosen for this season have to do with that kind of anticipation. When Christmas does come, that’s when the familiar scriptures telling of Christ’s birth will appear.
And do I need to remind you that the season of Advent is traditionally a time of preparation? It’s getting harder all the time, though, isn’t it? There’s a lot of competition out there… elements that compete for your time, your energy, your pocketbook, your thoughts, your preparation. And it isn’t even December yet.
I like the first Sunday in Advent, though. It’s an in-between time. We haven’t quite yet gotten our Christmas blood flowing while we’re still sluggish from having overeaten this week. So let’s take advantage of the calendar and piggyback off Thanksgiving while the turkey leftovers are still available to us. We’re in between seasons, so to speak, and the sentiment expressed by the Apostle Paul to the Jesus followers in Corinth may just fit the bill for what we need.
Did you hear what he wrote to them? I mean really hear? This, I think, is what are the real nuts-and-bolts of his message…
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:4, 7).
Did you catch that? “I give thanks” (Thanksgiving) coupled with their waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Christmas). That’s exactly where we are, isn’t it? It’s for certain that’s where Paul was, not to mention the people to whom he ministered for the gospel.
Have you ever studied Paul’s writings? I mean, really taken an in-depth look at them? I don’t want you to hear me coming across as a scholar in this area, but I do know enough about it to tell you with confidence that the backdrop to just about all of Paul’s writings, especially his earliest communications, was the anticipation of the early Christian community that Jesus was going to come again… soon. They were, in his own words, waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” For Paul and those he knew personally, it was Advent all year round. They were always waiting for Jesus to come again.
And it didn’t happen. Not as they expected, anyway. So what was the obvious result? Many of them began losing hope. They couldn’t deal with the tension of not knowing with certainty when, or even if, Jesus would come again, and so much of their faith was tied up in such an expectancy they were having some real anxiety about it. When you couple all this with the issues that existed in the church at Corinth, you have a formula for real problems. People without hope tend not to behave well, and that is what is happening to the Corinthians. That is what Paul is addressing in his letter.
From their perspective the question is simple: if God is not present, why bother acting as if God matters? Later, when people talked and thought in the Latin language, they came to know this as Deus absconditus.1 Did you catch that? Just in case, listen to it again: Deus absconditus. Deus, of course, means “God.” You can pretty well figure out absconditus, can’t you? It is the word from which we get abscond. It means “hidden,” “gone,” “vamoosed” (wait a minute, that’s Spanish, isn’t it?). God has absconded, taken off for parts unknown, never to be seen or heard from again.
Do you feel that way sometimes? That you are left to fend for yourself? If so, it may be because you have lost hope. Well, understand that this is nothing new. It’s happened before. Hope is certainly in short supply in the church at Corinth, and because of that the folks in the church are not getting along. In fact, the problems run so deep it would take a miracle to overcome them. But wait, this is the season for miracles, isn’t it?
When you need hope, where do you find it? As simple as it may seem, we might just find it in a candle. We have talked before about how the deeper we move into the Advent season the shorter the days become. It gets dark sooner and sooner every day until, just about the time we celebrate Christ’s birth, the shortest day of the year arrives. Yet, one of the things we talk about most this time of the year is light and how the light dispels the darkness.
The more candles we light, the brighter it gets. But today, we begin the season with just one candle. How appropriate that this one, single candle represents hope, for hope looks forward to that which is not yet. Hope finds us waiting. That’s what we are doing, waiting. Waiting, in the words of Paul, “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Are we doing a good job of it? The folks in Corinth weren’t, not by a long shot. Paul mentioned the word “blameless”… “that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Blameless. Sometimes, it seems that Paul is a better comedian than he is a pastor. I mean, do you know how those people were behaving? If we acted like that, this church would fall apart in a New York minute.
I’ll spare you most of the gory details, but let me paint the picture for you in broad strokes. Weaker, less mature members were being intimidated by those who thought themselves to be spiritually superior. Which, of course, begs the question: who really are the mature ones around here? Evidently, not anybody. You had some folks who were anxious about where they stood in terms of their relationship to Christ, and you had others who were so certain of their spiritual status as to be downright cocky about it.
They were behaving like people who had lost all hope. They had given up. When it came to waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” they were doing a really lousy job of it.
At this point, I could say the same about us, how we’re not doing so hot either. By that I don’t necessarily mean us, don’t you know, but the world in general. Just as I could give you a litany of what was wrong in Corinth, I could do the same thing with the times in which we live. But then I think of Paul. When he writes this letter, he’s probably in prison somewhere. Word comes to him of what is going on in the church, giving him all the reason in the world to write them a scathing letter that in essence tells them to straighten up and fly right. From his own personal pain he could have easily inflicted some on them. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he offers thanks to God for them and offers them a blessing.
On this first Sunday in Advent, what do you think the apostle might say to us? I have a feeling he might use the word hope. And I think he might remind us that “there’s nothing wrong with hope in the not yet, but it begins with gratitude for the already.”2
If we are going to be grateful people, we better start now… right now, already. If we are going to be hopeful people, we better realize that such hope begins with gratitude.
May I be personal at this point? Our daughter Emily and her family were with us this week. We went by to visit with my mother in the nursing home. Going to see my mother these days always begins with introductions. We have to tell her who we are. And every visit I have with my mom, I fear, is a picture of how it’s going to be for me some day when my children and grandchildren have to tell me who they are.
I do not say this to you to invite sympathy. To quote a common expression these days, “it is what it is.” Or, perhaps I should say, “it will be what it will be.” It has become a lesson for me, though. It has dawned on me that what I need to do is take advantage of my ability to say thank-you now, already, because there may come a day when I forget how to say it. Any hope I have for the future is based on the gratitude I feel in my heart now and my willingness to express it regardless of my circumstances
On this first Sunday in Advent, the first word from our lips should be an expression of gratitude for what is already. Then, and only then, can we hope for that which is yet to be, which will be revealed to us through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Lord, let us give thanks with grateful hearts, even as we express our hope in that which is yet to be. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1James E. Brenneman, “Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, November 18, 2008, p. 21.
2Christine Chakoian, “Living the Word,” The Christian Century, November 15, 2011, p. 21