Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

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

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a musician or I just have a quirky thought-processing unit in my brain, but I have songs running through my head all the time, and the silliest things can instantly bring to mind a song. For instance, I see a stop sign, and immediately hear Diana Ross and the Supremes singing “Stop in the name of love before you break my heart.” Or, on our recent trip to Salzburg in Austria where much of the Sound of Music was filmed, just ask Tim how many times I busted out with “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” Seriously.

We have arrived, once again, at the season of Advent, a season of waiting, expectation, and anticipation, and I’ve got songs for that one, as well. Maybe it’s Carly Simon belting out “Anticipation, anticipation, is making me wait, is keeping me waiting.” Or it could be Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank. N. Furter ending his signature song with something about “antici…pation,” in Rocky Horror Picture Show, but that’s enough said about that one.

But the song that’s really in my mind these days is of a more recent vintage:

Life doesn’t discriminate

between the sinners and the saints

it takes and it takes and it takes

and we keep living anyway

we rise and we fall and we break

and we make our mistakes

and if there’s a reason I’m still alive

when so many have died

then I’m willing to wait for it,

I’m willing to wait for it.

If you don’t recognize it – because I am not, after all, Leslie Odom, Jr. – it’s “Wait for It” from the Broadway musical Hamilton. There are some deep theological truths in these words of Aaron Burr, even if that is unintentional.

Life doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. Neither does God, for that matter.

We do keep living anyway, rising and falling and breaking and making mistakes.

And whatever the reason is that we are here, especially in this season of Advent, then I’m willing to wait for it.

These days, Advent is seen as the warm-up to Christmas, the appetizer, the teaser, not the real deal. But friends, Advent is the real deal. It is the main event, because it is when we are reminded that we live in an in-between time.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

In the early days of the church, Advent had nothing at all to do with waiting for the baby Jesus to be born. It was, first of all, a forty-day season of preparation for baptism at Epiphany, much like the season of Lent. It was also about preparing for Christ’s coming again in glory. That’s why our readings are filled with prophecy and portents of the end times. Sometime in the Middle Ages, it was hitched to anticipation of the incarnation, of God taking on human flesh, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But let’s start from where we find ourselves, today, on the 1st day of December in the year 2019. The prophet Isaiah is pointing to a time when God’s reign will be a reality. And what does that look like?

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

And the apostle Paul is telling the believers in Rome to get ready for that:

…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light… (Romans 13:11-12)

This waiting, this watching, this anticipation is active. It is not static. How do we prepare ourselves for this Advent, this coming? By doing the things that make God’s reign present now. Love God. Love neighbor. Practice forgiveness. Wage peace. Care for those in need. It is not that hard.

Those of the “Left Behind” persuasion would use these readings, especially the one from Matthew, to instill fear and anxiety about the future. Oh, yeah, you’ll be at the football game and all of a sudden, you’re the only one left. All those believers got swept up into heaven.

The promise, though, is not that we will be taken up but that God will, and already has, come to us. The new Jerusalem, the reclamation of Eden, happens here. And our hands and our hearts have a role to play. Even when we can’t see a way forward through the intractability of the issues our world faces, God is here. God has come. Anyone who turns God’s love for us into a fear-inducing weapon is just not doing it right.

If “faith is that space between the last time we heard from God and the next time,” then that is where we are as we move through Advent.[1] Faith space. Listening for God. Straining our ears to hear God’s voice. Waiting and watching.

Willing to wait for it.

If you are at all like me, this time of year, people will make small talk, asking if you’re ready, meaning “have you finished your shopping?” In this countercultural thing we call the Church, being ready means something a bit different. There may not be a proper or right way to do Advent, but stressing ourselves out and striving to create the impossible perfect holiday is probably not what God has in mind.

Last year, Church of England priest and journalist Giles Fraser wrote an essay entitled “In praise of incompetence,” an essay directed at priests. In it, he said

…I describe the priesthood as a job for the incompetent: to emphasise the impossibility of standing in this liminal space between God and humanity. And the barefaced cheek of doing so can only be justified by a sense that God might be employing a useless, fickle, lazy, selfish, arrogant person like me…to convey something of His presence. In other words, the job can’t be done and the only way to do it is to fail at it.

Indeed, if you don’t think you are rubbish at this job, then you haven’t properly understood it.[2]

Being a priest may be an impossible task, according to Fraser. But sometimes, so is just being human, because we want to curate our lives in such a way that what the world sees is the good parts and we keep the rest hidden, like a perfectly organized Instagram account. And yet, as Aaron Burr sang in Hamilton, “we rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes.” That’s what it is to be human.

Advent is a good time to embrace our humanity, to let go of those expectations and lies that we tell ourselves about having to conform to the world in order to be loved and accepted. To attend to ourselves and those we love. To offer a hand of friendship to the friendless. To sit quietly and listen for God to speak, and to recognize that, even though we fail at being who God created us to be, we are loved and forgiven anyway.

What is your soundtrack for Advent? As the days grow shorter, are you humming “hello, darkness, my old friend?” Or maybe you’re already strolling down 5th Avenue with “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style” ringing in your ears. God can speak to us in countless ways, including those songs that might pop into our heads, and right now, for me, God’s Advent song is saying

I’m willing to wait for it.

[1] The Rev. Dr. Renita Weems quoted by the Rev. Gail Song Bantum.


ASEPSermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas