the first Day of Advent
December 1st, 2019
Today’s readings are:
Click here to access these readings.
Happy New Year! Well, for the Church anyway. In the secular world, we’ve still got a whole ‘nother month before the end of 2019, but for the Church, our new year begins right now, the first week of Advent. And so, in celebration, we’ve pulled out all the purple vestments and hangings, put up the Advent wreath and candles, and gathered together some readings about the end of days (nice and happy).
As I said in a sermon a week or two ago, the readings at the tail end of Ordinary time and at the beginning of Advent are all about endings. As we end one year and begin another, we reflect on all the deaths we face in life: from the little deaths of having to share that last piece of pie with your sister to our own deaths as we breathe our last – and even to that last great death of the world, when Jesus will come again and make the whole Creation new. But, this morning, I don’t want to talk about what is ending or what will end but what is beginning, and that is the excitingly named Year A of the lectionary (it’s actually cooler than the name implies).
So a bit of info up front: the readings we have here in church are part of what’s called a lectionary. In our tradition, the priest or pastor doesn’t choose what we’ll read each week. Instead, scholars from many different parts of the Church came together and designed what’s called a lectionary, or a plan of readings. This lectionary pulls from how the Bible has been read traditionally to help us hear God’s Word to us in Scripture most fully. The lectionary is designed to work the Bible into our lives like a baker kneads dough, pulling us further and further into a life lived in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
This lectionary is on a three-year cycle, each of which focuses on one of the first three gospels. In the first year (or year A) we read through Matthew, then in Year B we read Mark, then Luke, then back to Matthew again. John gets sprinkled around through each of them. If you noticed, all last year (which was Year C), our gospel readings were from Luke. Now they’re from Matthew, and they will be until next Advent, when we’ll start reading from Mark. And the idea, again, is that we as a community of the faithful, as a church, read through as much of the Bible together, in worship.
So, one of the really cool things about reading the Bible this way is that you come to a great understanding of each gospel writer. Now, we Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God, given to us through grace and love. And that grace and that love was given to us through a person, each of whom was a human being like the rest of us. Each gospel was written by a particular person who cared about different things, who thought differently, and who thought different things were important. They were all of them, each of them, deeply invested in the love of God in Jesus Christ, and they wanted to communicate that love to others around them, but they didn’t do it in the same way.
And so, before we dive into a new gospel, it’s important to pause for a moment and think about whose gospel account we’re reading. Because the gospel according to Matthew is a bit different than the gospel according to Luke. Luke is a pretty formal guy. His Greek is pretty complicated. He cares about the great movements of history. His gospel, and the book of Acts, which he also wrote, is highly structured. And this all makes sense: Luke is supposed to have been a physician, a doctor. He’s a very educated man writing in a very educated sort of way.
Now, Matthew is both different and similar. There’s an intensity to Matthew that is always apparent to me. It’s not like the rush of Mark, whose favorite phrase is “Then immediately after that!”, nor the slow, deliberate intensity of John, who really seems like a baker to me as he works methodically and slowly and lovingly through some really deep theology. Matthew’s intensity comes from a love of his tradition, of his community, and of Jesus Christ, but also a realization that something new has happened in Jesus, something so new and so beautiful that it can barely be contained in words.
You see, Matthew’s gospel is often called the “Jewish” gospel. And that’s not because Matthew was Jewish where Luke and Mark weren’t, but because Matthew must have spent a lot of time in prayer about the past. Some of his most used phrases are things like “as it said in Scripture” and “to fulfill the promises of Scripture.” Or, to put it another way, Matthew focused in on a very important thing that Jesus said: “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish but to complete.” And that “completeness” is one of the specific themes for Matthew.
It is, also, one of the themes of the Christian life, and it’s an important one to consider, well, really at all times, but especially at beginnings and especially at endings. Now, when we Christians talk about “completeness” and how Jesus came to complete the law, we mean that Jesus did what Gwendolyn’s godmother did when I tried to cook dinner for her family once. I’m a decent cook, but man, I messed up this dinner. And the worst part was that I was making them dinner as thanks for letting us stay with them. I was trying to make a rue, and it just kept falling apart. Then, swoop, in comes Isabella with a whisk and wisdom from her mother on how to cook well. And the dinner, which risked failing miserably and turning into delivery pizza, turned out well. Isabella helped me complete something that was barely edible.
This is kinda how Jesus comes into our lives, but while Isabella came to help me with my awful dinner, Jesus comes to help us with our wayward and confused lives. That said, Jesus didn’t come, and Jesus doesn’t come, to some slip-shod world and a messy life, shove us out of the way, and do it himself. Jesus doesn’t look at us and at the Church and say, listen, all this, all this, it’s…it’s just…it’s no, just stop and let me do it. Jesus looks at us, us broken and wayward people, and he says, I can work with this. For we are broken, not ruined; we are lost, not beyond hope. And Jesus comes right into our lives, right into those things that we think are most ruined and furthest beyond hope, and he breathes new life into them and makes them whole. And, importantly, this completeness is not complete in us alone, but is then brought into the whole community, so that Jesus may heal more and more fully those who are lost and think themselves beyond hope.
And this is what healing is. This is what “new” really means. It doesn’t mean a new phone because the old one is out of date or a new jacket because the old one is ripped a little. “New” for Christians really means “renewed” or “made whole beyond all hope.” And for Matthew, as well as for the other gospel writers and authors of the letters, this renewal isn’t just for some but is for everyone and all things. Heaven, then, isn’t just a place where we can be with those who have died, which sounds good enough; it’s even better than that. Heaven, residing with God for all eternity, is where all things are made new, renewed, brought into completeness beyond all hope.
There’s a great short story by J.R.R. Tolkien about this, and sorry if I’m giving away the plot. The story is of a painter who wants nothing more than to paint a great tree to a fine detail. But he is too busy to ever do much painting, and he dies before he can barely begin it. He finds, however, when he comes to the afterlife, that his tree is completed; and not only that but that God has made it into a real tree, set within a real forest, for God has made it alive. All this man had ever wanted to create was just a painting, and what God did for him was to give his painting life. And seeing that tree, seeing it alive and thriving by God’s own hand, it helped turn that man into a real man himself.
Just so, God works on our own hopes and our own dreams, and even we ourselves, so that they – so that you – are living trees. So, as we come into this time of Advent, have hope. All that you do, all that you love and cherish in the depths of your heart and through the Spirit, will be made new in Christ. Truly we have nothing to fear; God is with us, and God is with us always.