The First Sunday of Advent – The Rev. Kyle Oliver

The Rev. Kyle Oliver

The Rev. Kyle Oliver

The First Sunday of Advent: Sunday, November 27, 2016

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

Preacher: The Rev. Kyle Oliver, Assistant Priest at St. Michael’s Church

As most of you know, I’m a doctoral student up the street at Teachers College. It is a seriously inspiring place: a racially, geographically, religiously diverse community united by a desire to serve others and the common good.

In the tumult following the election, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an identified Christian leader in the midst of that community. And while no one has asked me this in as many words, I’ve been thinking about why I am a Christian at all, and what witness I might make in these days. I suspect some of you have been asking similar questions.

I wish my answer were more inspiring and, frankly, more religious. But trusting with St. Paul that by the grace of God I am what I am, let me share with you my somewhat selfish and overly pragmatic answer:

Christianity is, for me, a sustainable, humane way to live in the world and to treat myself and others. To put it another way—and I swear this feels to me like a statement of love and gratitude—I don’t know how I would live my life any other way.

Whenever I find myself adrift, or hopeless, or lonely, or afraid, it’s the patterns of Christian living that, by grace, will lead me home: daily prayer, dependence on others, a willingness to sit with silence, a commitment to letting go of control as often as I can. Oh, and really good art, Christian or otherwise.

My faith—yes, partly my beliefs, but mostly these practices—is how I make it through my days, how I meet the risen Christ in the midst of them and know him to be my Lord.

Of course, I lose track of these practices all the time, and some of them I’m pretty lousy at to begin with. I know we all get separated from what grounds us. This is a sermon about what happens afterward.

In those moments, the Christian tradition has two basic messages for us, in my opinion two ways of exploring the same idea. And two seasons in which to explore it.

One of those messages we hear in the spring: repent, turn back, commit once again to living your life dependent on God’s grace and forgiveness.

The other message is like unto the first, and today is its high holy day. That message is even simpler: “wake up.”

Lent’s call to repentance speaks in particular to the ways we choose to turn from the path. The church’s new year’s alarm clock, this first Sunday of Advent, addresses the reality that most of the time we simply run on spiritual autopilot. We’re asleep at the wheel.

You know what time it is, [Paul writes to the Romans and to us] 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.

There’s also this from Jesus himself:

If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

In other words, life is too short and too full of both opportunities and pitfalls to give it any less than our best, to be anything but keenly alert for the truth that needs telling, the love that needs sharing, the beauty that calls us to rejoice.

I am a Christian because our faith has baked into it a rhythm that I believe can overcome complacency, even in a year when we are numb from the alternating low- and high-grade alarms that tell us we have already slept too deeply and too long.

But what do we do with the anxiety, guilt, or even panic that besets us when we realize we have overslept? I think the prophet Isaiah has a suggestion:

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;

And from Psalm 122, one of the great “Psalms of Ascent” that tradition says were used by pilgrims arriving in the Holy City:

I was glad when they said to me, *
“Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
Now our feet are standing *
within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is perhaps the Hebrew Bible’s grandest metaphor for the place of divine encounter. It is where heaven and earth meet—and in that union can be found the Shalom of God Most High.

Our tradition knows, our God knows, that to wake up is only the beginning of our transformation. We must also go up in the cosmic sense conveyed in these powerful texts. Go up for inspiration, for hope, for the perspective that the powers and principalities of this world do not dictate our destiny.

I hope that for you coming to St. Michael’s is one such place of encounter. But I hope you have others as well. I can tell you that the Met is one of mine. And the walk through Central Park to get there.

I am a Christian because God does not leave me alone and unequipped to handle what I see when I wake up to the reality of my own life and the lives of those around me. But our journey to Jerusalem is not for solace only but for strength, not for pardon only but for renewal. When we gather to experience the Almighty, we are making preparations.

A theologian of my acquaintance calls this idea “baptism as expulsion,” this uncomfortable reality that we are forgiven, inspired, and empowered in order to be sent out for service. Or we might paraphrase the prophet Isaiah by saying we go up to Jerusalem so that we can learn to light up the world:

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

God wakes us up to lift us up and lifts us up so that we can go and do likewise for each other, so that we can teach the life that our Lord taught us, making peace despite our addiction to violence, partnering with others despite the temptation to serve only ourselves.

I myself am often short on the courage for this work and, and, on other days, the goodwill it requires. I am a Christian because God can work through me not despite of these shortcomings but because of them, can work with us not despite our shortcomings but because of them. When we are weak, God’s power is especially present among us, as Mother Kate mentioned in her sermon on Christ our peculiar King.

I am a Christian because the collective genius of generations of the faithful, inspired and emboldened by a God of compassion and justice, has discovered a pattern of living in this world: Wake up from sleeping. Go up to experience the grace of God. Light up a path of gracious living and share that light and life with those around you.

I am a Christian because this pattern of living acknowledges the worst in us yet still expects the best from us. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.