Sermon for Williamstown
The First Sunday of Advent, 29th of November, 2015
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Happy New Year!
Today is a day of beginnings. It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and today the church begins a new liturgical year. If you look at my stole you’ll see we’ve changed liturgical colours. Today and for two of the following three Sundays, the Sundays of Advent, our liturgical colour is purple, the colour of preparation, the colour that the church also uses in Lent, and as we light the purple candles in the Advent wreath we’re reminded that we’re on a journey that will take us to the joy of Christmas.
Today, we also baptise Zoey Craig. Four weeks before Christmas we’ve gathered today to celebrate another joyful event centred on the great love of God shown in the life of a small child. Today the Christian year begins, and today Zoey’s Christian life begins as she becomes a member of the Church.
The sacrament of baptism and the season of Advent both begin journeys. In many ways, they’re the beginning of the same journey, the life of faith, because Advent is meant to prepare us not just for the birth of Jesus, but for the second coming of Christ. This is why the gospel reading at the beginning of the Church’s year comes from near the end of the gospel, from the last public teaching that Jesus gives in the Temple.
Although today we are begin our journey towards the joy of Christmas, today’s gospel reading is not a particularly joyful one: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’ At the beginning of Advent, on the first day of the church’s liturgical year, as we start getting ready to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus some two thousand years ago, our gospel reading takes us to the very end of time itself. This is because, as I tell you every year at this time, the season of Advent is meant to prepare us not primarily for the birth of Jesus, but for the second coming of Christ, when we’ll see ‘“the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory’.
Luke records Jesus as saying: ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.’ When Luke wrote this story down, his community knew that this was untrue in any literal sense. By that time, the church had been waiting for seventy-five or eighty years for the return of Christ, the first generation had passed away and, as William Willimon writes: ‘It’s difficult to maintain a sense of crisis for 80 years’.
Yet in some ways a sense of crisis is exactly what the early church maintained, because there were, and continue to be, two ways in which what Jesus said is true. The first is that for each of us, there will come a last day, a day when there is no tomorrow. There is for each of us a day when our world will end. We don’t know when that will be, but we do know that it will happen and that we need to be ready for it. So Advent, like Lent, is a season of preparation, a time to get ready. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, in which we’re reminded that we’re made of dust and to dust we will return. Advent begins with this Sunday, in which we’re reminded that one day we will stand before the Son of Man.
The second way in which Jesus’ words are true is in the idea that ‘the kingdom of God is near’. This is the good news, the life-giving assurance of the gospel, that the kingdom of God is not far off; it is not waiting; it is not an undiscovered country; it is right here in Son of Man, and in his proclamation. Advent prepares us for this by reminding us of the way that kingdom drew near in the first place, in the birth of a poor and obscure baby born to an unwed teenage mother. And the four weeks of Advent also prepare us for the second coming of Christ, for the Parousia, the day when, in the words of Jeremiah, God ‘shall execute justice and righteousness in the land’ and we will see God’s kingdom in all its fullness.
This season of Advent tells us again that everything that Jesus said and did during his time on earth remains life-giving as we live in the time between his first coming and his return. The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union describes us as living: ‘between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring’. In this in-between time, we’re called to live lives of justice and righteousness; lives that reflect and are modelled upon the life of the one whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.
It’s this life of justice and righteousness that Zoey is invited into as she’s baptised. Zoey is baptised into both Jesus’ death and into his life. In baptism, Zoey dies to all that Christ defeated on the cross: violence and oppression and hatred and darkness and death. She’s reborn to all that the resurrection brings to birth: peace and justice and love and light and life. Zoey makes no vows today; she is welcomed into the community of Christ without preconditions. But her parents, godparent, and all of us, are asked to teach her the way of Christ; that way of hope, peace, joy and love.
Zoey’s entry into the Christian community, like Advent itself, reminds us all of what it means to be Christian. Today as we celebrate Zoey’s baptism we promise that we, too, will live out our baptism as a loving community in Christ: nurturing one another in faith, upholding one another in prayer, and encouraging one another in service, until Christ comes.
Today Zoey becomes a new creation, cleansed of her sins, welcomed into the church community, acknowledged as God’s beloved daughter, alive in Christ. Zoey won’t remember today, and Vesna and Ashley and Zoran and all of us will have to remember it for her. But it’s one of the most important days of her life. As we celebrate it, let’s remember our own baptisms, and the Advent lives of hope, peace, joy and love that we too are called to live. Amen.
 Basis of Union paragraph 3.