A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, 28 November, 2021. Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
Readings for this Sunday: Jer 33:14-16; Ps 25:1-9; 1 Th 3:9-13; Lk 21:35-36
Predicting the future is a difficult business.
Every year at this time, smart people fill influential magazines and journals with predictions for the coming year. To borrow Jesus’ words, this year’s crop of forecasts are full of “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world”.
According to The Economist magazine, in 2022 we can look forward to more tension and rivalry with China, more armed conflict, more Covid, more economic disruptions, more climate change catastrophes, less political stability, more dictatorships, less democracy, and so it goes.
You can tell times are bad when the editorial cartoonists drag our the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” theme, and it certainly seems like those dreaded riders will be busy in the year to come. It can seem tempting to simply tune out the news and hunker down defensively (and truth be told, doomscrolling is never good for one’s mental health).
Perhaps even worse than anticipating a dimly seen future is getting mugged by a totally unanticipated future, lurking around the corner. In his charge to Synod this week, Bishop Andrew noted that in March 2020, all of the carefully laid plans, budgets, and assumptions of our Diocese were thrown out the window by COVID. But guess what? Covid wasn’t the doom of the Anglican Church, which the pollsters and demographers said would be extinct in a matter of decades.
Well, guess what? Since COVID started, we’ve been doing church in entirely new and unexpected ways, learning phrases like “Zoom”, “pivot”, “double vaccinated”, “livestream”, and of course, “you’re still muted”. Unexpectedly, we learned new ways of bringing the gospel to the world outside our church walls. Even throughout this pandemic time, we’ve seen that God has remained with us, showing up in phone trees, Zoom worship, and outdoor activities. In the images shown this weekend at thus year’s virtual synod, I saw a wide variety of young people, of many different skin colours, doing innovative and passionate ministry all over the Diocese.
Why has our church kept going? Our church keeps going because God keeps showing up. God will keep showing up. That’s what God does. That’s what gives the church hope. We have God’s promise that we will get by, even flourish, even in scary times. That’s Jesus’ promise to us in today’s gospel. In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus compares the coming of the kingdom of God to trees sprouting with the coming of summer. It’s hardly a terrifying, apocalyptic vision of the future. On the contrary, it’s a beautiful, reassuring promise that God wants God’s people to thrive and prosper. God’s people are not meant to cower in some shelter. Instead, Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Lk 21.28)”
Today we start Advent, a time of joyous waiting. What do we wait for? This season, Advent calendars not withstanding, is not a Christmas countdown. Bethlehem has happened. The babe has been born. The angel song has sounded and continues to sound. As Isaac Watts wrote long ago, the world “Repeat(s) the sounding joy” of the angel choir. Joy is the Christmas emotion, as the old carols tell us: “joy to the world”, “glad tidings of great joy”, “tidings of comfort and joy”. We don’t wait for Christmas to be joyful. We are joyful that God in Christ is with us in the world, in the church, and in our lives. We are joyful that the babe of Bethlehem will return as the king of life in glory, for as we say in the Eucharist, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”.
As Christians we are called to be a joyful people. Our joy is a gift from God, a sign of God’s work in our midst, and that joy should be a source of inspiration to others. When Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, he asks how he can thank God enough for “the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (1 Th 3.9). Paul is joyful because of the work that he sees God doing in this church, making them grow in love for one another and in holiness.
Note that God’s work is not finished. The church in Thessalonica is not a perfect church. Paul prays that God “restore[s] whatever is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess 3.10). Our joy comes from God’s determination to keep working in our midst, to keep adding to our faith, to keep adding to our happiness, to keep increasing our devotion to our ministries of service to those around us. We are very much a work in progress, but it’s good work, and it takes us in a good direction, towards our completion in Christ, whenever God finishes that work in the world.
Until God finishes that work, let’s not be fearful of the future. Don’t lose hope in where God is bringing us. Don’t doubt God’s ability to increase our love, our faith, and our purpose. Don’t give in to pessimism or fear. God’s people don’t crouch defensively. They stand upright, heads held high, looking to the good future that is God in Christ, who is, and was, and will be. And my friends, here’s a clue for how to do evangelism: when people stand upright, joyous and unafraid, others notice.