Advent 1 (Year A)
Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
1 December 2019
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery
Today is the first Sunday of Advent and the beginning of a new liturgical year. And, like every new liturgical year, we begin with a 24-day season of anticipation and expectancy. But what is it that we are anticipating and expecting? We wait in anticipation and expectation of the Feast of the Incarnation, where Almighty God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth and all that is, humbled himself to take on human flesh and to live and die as one of us. We wait in anticipation of the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, which means, God with us.
The term Advent as many of you know is from the Latin word “Adventus” which means a coming or arrival. But, it also has other meanings. It can mean develop, set in, and arise. It can also mean an invasion, incursion, ripening, or an appearance. The word adventus is also used to describe military arrivals. In ancient Rome, an Adventus was a technical term for the ‘glorious entry’ of an emperor into his capital city, which often happened after a military victory. In addition to celebrating conquest on the battlefield, the birthday of the royal leader was also commemorated in an Adventus. (Ref. Beale) All of these definitions and meanings have rich implications for us as Christians, as we prepare ourselves over these next 24 days for the birth of Christ, who is our royal leader, and king over all kings. So, what do we need to do first to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the 1st Adventus of Christ? The first thing we need to do is to “Wake up.”
The first two organ voluntaries Joel played on the organ this morning were titled, “Sleepers Awake: A voice astounds us!” And, that is also the title of the very first hymn we sang together as a congregation to open this new liturgical year. It is also the title of the postlude.
Our Scripture lessons tell us this, too. “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” Paul writes to the church in Rome. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,” says a verse in the reading from Matthew. While these verses are directed at the Christian disciples to be awake for Christ’s 2nd Advent, the command is also relevant to us as we prepare for Christmas. And, it is important to point out that in these verses of Scripture, we are not being called to wake up in the physical sense, but rather in the spiritual sense. So, what does it mean to be spiritually awake?
In his book, Being Disciples, which some of you read as part of an adult Sunday School class this Fall, Rowan Williams talks about discipleship as a state of awareness. He reminds us that a disciple, which means student or learner, is not there to jot down ideas and then go away and think about them, like we think of being students day. Rather, a disciple is someone who learns by being in a relationship with a Master teacher, with the goal of being changed. And, that change happens by being constantly in the presence of the Master, thinking, learning, and experiencing life at the Master’s feet. And, when we are changed by that relationship, the way in which we see and the experience the world changes. Williams goes on to say that discipleship as awareness is simply trying to develop those skills that help us not to miss God. (Williams, p. 2)
Awareness in this sense, is having a sense of expectancy. Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through by being in the presence of their Master. Disciples expect that somethings is about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. Disciples expect that the Master is going to speak wisely or show them something. Disciples expect that reality is going to open up when they are in the Master’s company. (Williams, p. 3)
Our awareness, then, Williams tells us, is like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher sits still, poised and alert. The experienced birdwatcher is not tense or fussy. The birdwatcher expects that he is in the kind of place where something extraordinary will suddenly burst into view. Prayer is much like birdwatching, Williams writes. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view. Sometimes it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing much happening. But the point is that to have an attitude like the birdwatcher or the one attentive to God requires us to live a life of expectancy. As we live in awareness, our eyes must be sufficiently open. And our minds must be both relaxed and attentive enough to see that sudden burst of newness when it happens. (Williams pp. 4-5)
As I was preparing for this sermon while I was in Texas last week with my family for Thanksgiving, I asked my brother what caused him to fall asleep spiritually. He said it was just going through the daily grind and routine of life. “It’s always the same stuff,” he said. “Just a different day.” My brother’s comments were similar to those given by some attending the St. John’s weekday Bible study last week, too. The folks in that group talked about how getting into a rut or into the predictable routines of life can lull us into a state of spiritual sleep.
How many of us are spiritually awake right now? How many of us have arrived, poised like the birdwatcher? Do we feel still, and alert, with our minds relaxed and attentive? Are we here expecting an encounter with God? Or are our bodies here, but our minds elsewhere? How many of us if we are honest, would say that we are, right now, really spiritually sleepwalking—our bodies are here, but we are spiritually asleep?
How can we wake ourselves up spiritually? We might think that changing up our daily routine will rouse us into a state of spiritual wakefulness. Perhaps. But unless our fundamental spiritual stance toward the world is that of expectation and awareness of God, it won’t matter what our daily activities consist of.
One of the key ingredients for being spiritually awake is to be more present in the here and now. Most of us go through the days and weeks, reflecting on or reliving the past, or worrying about or planning for the future. It’s too late to experience God in the past and the future hasn’t happened yet, so our only chance to experience God is in the present, in the now. To experience God with us now, we must to be present in the now. If we are looking to the past and worrying about the future, we will miss God.
So, a question that we have to ask ourselves is this: Do we believe that God is always with us? Do we believe that Jesus, also called, Immanuel, which means “God with us” is here right now? Did you come to church this morning expecting to have an encounter with God? If yes, why? If not, why not? If yes, what type of encounter were you hoping to have? Did you prepare yourself for that encounter? If so, how? If you came to church this morning, not expecting to have an encounter with God, why not? Have you had one before, but don’t think that today is one of those days? Perhaps you have never had one? If you haven’t, why do you think that it?
As we think about our encounters with God, or lack of them, who do we blame? God, or ourselves?
Rowan Williams also notes that the basic task of discipleship so that we can experience the presence of God is the simple willingness to be consistently in Christ’s company. And, what that means practically for the Christian today are three basic things: 1) seeking constantly the company of other servants of Christ, 2) seeking the company of the revelation of Christ in Scripture, and 3) seeking the company of the Father and the Son, in the Spirit in prayer. All of this requires of us a certain degree of inner stillness, a sort of poise: the attentiveness of the birdwatcher; attention and expectancy, an attitude of mind sufficiently free of the occupations of our own ego, so that we can turn ourselves with openness to what God in Christ is giving. (Williams, p. 16)
At the most basic level, Williams says, this will mean learning and deepening our attentiveness to the Bible, to the sacraments and to the life of the Body of Christ. Secondly, and arising out of that, it means learning a new level of attentiveness to all persons, places, and things; looking at everything with the eye of expectancy, waiting for something of God to blossom within it; being in Christ’s company, learning attentiveness and practicing this kind of still alertness; looking and waiting for the light to break through. Third, it means being attentive to where Christ is going; keeping company with those he is with. Among them we will find the most unexpected and unlikely characters, the kinds of people Jesus seems to spend so much time with in the Gospels and today. (Williams, p. 16.)
We have a lot of opportunities this very week to do some of these things and cultivate spiritual wakefulness. For example, tonight we have the opportunity to join with a hundred members of this community to prepare 20,000 meals, which will be sent to those who are hungry around the globe. On Monday at 1200 we have the opportunity attend a Bible study. On Tuesday morning we have the opportunity to attend Eucharist at 0700 before we go to work. On Wednesday we have the opportunity to attend Eucharist at 5.30 followed by a meal, and to make advent wreaths for our homes. And, accompanying that wreath will be a book of scriptures and prayers for Advent that can be read in your home, helping us to stay spiritually awake each day this advent Season. On Thursday, we have the opportunity at 1200 to attend a healing Eucharist. We also have the opportunity to adopt a family on our angel tree and help them experience the presence of Christ through our generosity and giving.
And, as this is the beginning of the church New Year, we have the opportunity to make a New Year’s resolution, to recommit ourselves to a daily discipline of studying scripture and prayer. For those of us who journal, and even for those of us who don’t, I recommend that we take time each day to write down where we have experienced God in our day. If we know that God is always eternally present to us then we are more likely to see and experience God’s presence in our lives if we are spiritually awake and are looking for him. So many times when we complain that God is absent in our lives, it is not because God is absent, but we experience him as being absent because we are not spiritually awake to be aware of him and attentive to his work in our lives.
Don’t sleepwalk through Advent. Wake up. Be still. Be attentive. Expect to see God show up in your life in both familiar and unexpected ways. Wake up, so you can prepare your hearts to welcome the Prince of Peace, whose first advent is not that of military victory and conquering emperor, but whose coming into the world will be that of a meek and humble newborn king, who was born to conquer sin and death, so that we might have new life in him.
Beale, Stephen. “The Deeper Meaning of Advent in Latin.” Dec 12th, 2016, www.CatholicExchange.com. Accessed 30 Nov 2019.
Williams, Rowan. Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016.