Advent 1

When I was in high school and active at Trinity Red Bank, my mother was my Church School teacher (so I don’t want to hear any complaints from our kids about their mothers being their Church School teachers). We had a large contingent of kids my age, and among them there were some pretty serious Christians, kids who were intentional about their faith. When you’re a young person who is a Christian or a young Christian, someone new to the faith, you tend to focus a bit on what Christians do and don’t do, and sometimes kids can be a little aggressive about all that, and so some of kids who were more vocal about their faith and values would sometimes run afoul of their fellow students at school. Now, Peter, Paul, James, and even Jesus warned us that when you’re faithful and morally grounded, the world isn’t going to always treat you well, and some of my friends complained regularly that they were being persecuted at school for being Christians. My mother’s first response to these complaints was always the same: she would ask if they were being persecuted for being a Christian, or were they being persecuted for being a jerk about being a Christian.

The readings for the First Sunday of Advent ask us the same question. In our Gospel reading, “Jesus warns people not to be overcome with the pleasures and anxieties of the world but to be ready for his coming. Those who are not ready will practically die of fright when they see him. Well, then, what do we need to do to get ready? The Second Reading in effect answers that question. At Christ’s coming again, we are to be blameless in holiness. And what is that?

“If you are blameless under law, then no one can blame you for any violation of the law of the land. You weren’t speeding, for example, or cheating on your income tax, or violating any other law of the city or country in which you are. If you are morally blameless, then no one can blame you for any violation of the moral law. You weren’t lying, for example, or cheating on your spouse, or violating any other command of the universal moral law that applies to all people no matter where they are.

“But what is it to be blameless in holiness? The answer is in (the lesson from Paul): in order to be ready for Christ at his coming, Christians need to increase in love and abound in it.

“So here’s the thing to see. You can keep all the laws of your land and still be a real jerk. And the same truth holds for the moral law. You can be a priggishly righteous jerk too. Something more than having a great record for keeping the laws is necessary to be ready for the Lord. That more is love.

If you want what is bad for your neighbor, if you curse him in public or even in your heart, if you wish he would just go away, if you tell him in your thoughts or (by your actions) to go to hell—you do NOT love him.  And you are blameworthy with regard to holiness if you don’t. It doesn’t matter how moral or legal your conduct is otherwise.”[1]

Uh oh. Does this mean that being a nice, moral person doesn’t really get you anywhere? Weren’t we all taught that being nice, moral people, is the backbone of Christianity? Well, (maybe cover your kids ears), it’s just not.

It’s the first weekend of Advent, the four Sunday season of preparation before we celebrate the birth of Christ. Why do we have Advent? Why do we prepare for something that has already happened? Why bother with the purple and candles and me trying to tell people to slow down and be prayerful?

We bother with Advent because we forget. We forget the wonder and the majesty and the hardship and the confusion that comes along with the Son of God being born in strange circumstances in a strange time and in a strange land.

And when we forget that, we forget why the Son of God was born for us. Jesus was not born to a human mother so that we could be more moral or, God help us, nicer. Jesus was born so that in His birth, His teaching, His death and resurrection, we would be made free; and in being free, free from sin, free from darkness, free even from death, we are free to love.

Do I want you to be nice, moral people? Yes! But don’t stop there! Because in the end, when there are signs in sun and moon and stars and the powers of the heavens are shaken, it will be your love that marks you as unblamable in holiness before God.

[1] Eleanor Stump: http://liturgy.slu.edu/1AdvC120218/reflections_stump.html

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