Friend in the Neighborhood

a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent [Year C]

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and Luke 21:25-36

Our five-year-old son would tell you that the best thing about living in our neighborhood is that Samuel, Lucia, and Anna Bolick live there too. As most of you probably could guess, the Bolicks are friends from here at church, the children of Joseph and Sarah. Their house isn’t on our street, but it’s so close—two quick turns away—that you only need to walk or hop on a bike to get there. I’ve often wondered if we live in earshot, but have been too bashful to test it out, and haven’t had an excuse to. COVID lockdowns have made it harder to hang out over the past two years, but now that our kids have got one vaccination shot done, it’s becoming easier to hang out. And not a day goes by when Jasper doesn’t ask to be with them…multiple times. I’ll usually say, “Son, they are busy today and we are busy today so it won’t work out.”

And then he’ll say, “Then text Pastor Joseph. He’ll make it work out.”

Last weekend we had raked up a big pile of leaves and, in fact, Joseph and I had texted about getting the kids together at our house to play in them and on the zipline and swingset. It was going to be so awesome. As soon as Jasper knew that he was out at the curb. He knows not to stand in the street (most days) but he was right at the edge where the concrete forms a ledge, craning his neck to look down the road in their direction. We can usually see and even hear them coming because they are always riding their bikes or pushing a stroller—that’s how close we live.       

They seemed to be a bit detained. Jasper stepped even closer to the road, refusing to take his eye off the corner they would be rounding. “We’ll hear them soon,” I promised him. And closer and closer to the edge of our property line Jasper crept, and as he turned in his impatience to beg me to let him loose he didn’t even see them roll up that day in their Subaru, surprising us all.

That, my friends, is the true Advent posture. More than lighting another candle on the wreath, more than hanging a beloved ornament on a Christmas tree, more than even, we might say,  placing the familiar characters of a nativity set in their creche. We today—we every day of this season, we truly every day of our faith—are a 5-year-old at the curb, standing as close to the edge as possible, hoping, waiting, wondering, and full of joyful anticipation. Stand up and raise your heads, for our friend Jesus will be here soon.

And let us remember we don’t stand on the edge of the curb waiting for an infant Jesus but a fully grown one—we’re not expecting the weak and vulnerable Jesus of nativity scenes but a powerful and commanding one, one who comes to join us and bring to bear the full meaning of his resurrection to us and the whole world.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago about the secret power of reconnecting with old friends, and how “pals from the past can give us a sense of stability in turbulent times.”[1] Advent is waiting for a good friend in turbulent times, a friend we already know, one we’ve already had meals with and conversations with, one who has already sought us out when we were lost like sheep, one whose voice is as familiar as the words of a Christmas carol. This Jesus is on the way, so let us be ready.

If Advent is about anything, it is about remembering again that our lives are situated in a particular story. It is not just any story, and it’s even the story of Christmas. Like doors on a calendar, our lives are arranged within the context of a grand narrative, that God is writing and that one day God will finish. One day that last door will be opened. This is God’s history, the true history of all things, one that that reaches back to the very beginning when light and matter first exploded onto the scene and continues through the particular promises to a people called Israel and now includes, thanks to our baptism, the likes of you and me. Kind of like how New Year’s Day is a time many people use to make resolutions or re-claim some goals and re-orient their habits, Advent is a time for the people of God to re-orient ourselves to God’s story and the person to which it is leading.

This is the way in which Paul speaks words of comfort and encouragement to the church in Thessalonica. They are a church struggling to be faithful in a region that doesn’t understand their beliefs or buy into God’s timeline. Paul had been with the Thessalonians for a while, a congregation he himself had helped to start, but for several years had been pulled away from them by other commitments elsewhere. He receives word that they are doing well in his absence, but that they are worried for their future and what will lie around the corner for them.

In order to spur them along, he praises them and reminds them of their place in God’s story. Paul reminds them that God is, despite the troubles they face, despite the separation they are living with, the real author of time and is still moving the plot along. Despite the uneasiness they are feeling, in spite of the fear, God has used them to bring Paul so much joy. In admitting that he prays night and day most earnestly that he may see them again face to face, he shows them and us that meeting together is the goal. There is no substitute for it when it comes to following Jesus. A livestream of worship is good, a Zoomed Thanksgiving is preferable to none, as we’ve all learned, but actually being in each other’s presence is the goal. Jesus’ followers, Paul says, will continue to increase and abound in love toward each other and for all, and they will one day soon stand blameless before God when Jesus arrives again. When you are part of God’s story in Jesus, the future is always ultimately hopeful, the future is always ultimately good, because it is centered on the Bethlehem star, Jesus Christ himself.

This is difficult to remember when the world is constantly trying to center us on so many other things and trying to give us so many other stories. An ominous new coronavirus variant seems to threaten our progress towards this pandemic’s end. Countries rattle sabers and position troops at borders, challenging our beliefs that peace is possible. Things like small town Christmas parades become scenes of death and loss and unbelievable sadness. Media coverage of court cases and crimes try to convince us that humans are destined to be torn along lines of race and class and ethnicity and political persuasion.

The narratives of our brokenness and divisiveness and anger and disgust are out there, and they are in and around us. It is so tempting to hear them and give into them so that our hearts are weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, to get despondent and doubt God’s power to save. It is tempting to turn to conspiracy theories and fall prey to con artists.

But in Advent we remember That Story—how Jesus first came into a world rife with conspiracy theories and con artists. That’s kind of what he does. It’s his thing. He is first born in a backwater town under oppressive military rule. He is a righteous branch of David that grows up and blossoms in a thorny region that is a geographical and ethnic hodge-podge of loyalties. And he eventually dies at the hands of the emperor’s henchmen when there is all kinds of distress among the nations. His defining moment is when everything is falling apart, even for him. Jesus comes speaking peace and love and service to the neighbor and these are words that do not pass away. The world will become shaky and unsteady but these things he shares and lives are the firm foundation.

A few weeks ago it dawned on some of us that the restrictions and challenges of pandemic living will once again put a damper on many of our congregation’s Advent traditions of telling and sharing this word. Even with child vaccination rates on the rise we are reluctant to let our guard down fully and group children in large crowds. To be honest, we were a little discouraged and disappointed. On top of this, a few of the people who have typically been instrumental in helping us prepare for Christmas have moved away or are not available this year.

We sent around a few emails and called a quick meeting of people who might be interested in helping out with some Advent decorating and immediately the joy and excitement was palpable. People had creative ideas and were eager to share them. They are ready to help tell the story.

the outdoor Christmas display in 2017

Russ Johnson and Bruce Garringer unearthed elements of the outdoor nativity sets and started to repair the lights. Le Lew has already put the characters in place. Ken and Linda Reckenbeil, Cathy DesLesDernier, and Bonita Wyatt all came up with ways that children and families could be safely involved in decorating the tree and learning about Chrismons. Beth Barger and other staff members are already considering ways the Christmas Eve children’s tableau could be engaging for children and safe at the same time. As we finished our meeting and seeing their faces I could not help but hear Paul’s words to the Thessalonians ring in my head: how can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we feel before our God because of you?

It is a grace to know this story and a joy to be able to tell it. It is a relief to hear ourselves once again in the midst of God’s great story where everything is repaired, and where and emphasis is always made on including the vulnerable, where a final door will be opened to reveal to all what we already trust—that on the cross, God does win.

It is a privilege to be the ones who stand in a fearful world grounded in the word that does not pass away. To be the people who stand on the curb, our heads lifted. To be the ones who say that the best thing about living in this neighborhood called creation is that we know God loves it so much his Son has died to release it from its bondage. He’s coming any minute. He is the Great Friend to all and he’s right around the corner and he’s coming any minute to show us all the full power of his love and forgiveness.

Just you wait.

It’s going to be so awesome.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Secret Power of Reconnecting with old Friends,” Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal, Nov 16, 2021

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