Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 5 Dec 2010.
2 Advent (Year A)
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
Sister Madonna Buder is known in some athletic circles as “The Iron Nun” because in addition to being a Roman Catholic sister, she is also a champion triathlete. She holds many medals and titles in her age categoryfor international events such as the Hawaii Iron Man competition. For the record, an iron man event includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run.. In her pictures she looks young for her years, lean and wiry, as you’d expect an endurance athlete to be, but what really catches your attention is her megawatt smile. I just know that if I was sucking wind around mile ten and I saw her smile at me, I’d get right back in the race.
Reading this book, I am continually impressed by what a big part encouragement plays in her story. Buder begins with a memorable story of how she was encouraged to finish the 2005 Kona Hawaii Ironman by two spectators who ran with her and urged her on to the finish line when she didn’t think she could do it. She did, and thanks to her “angels” finished hust 57 seconds under the cutoff time.
Another story about another Kona Ironman involves describes how Buder in turn played the role of an ecouraging angel when she learned that a priest was in the race. Buder was already out because she had missed the cutoff time on the swim portion, but she got back on her bike and accompanied the priest, who was clearly struggling. Buder rode up beside him, shouted “You can do it, Padre”, and safely guided him through some crowds where his inexperience might have led to a crash. Left to his own skill and endurance, he probably would have failed. With his skill and endurance, plus Buder’s encouragement, he successfully finished. Buder gave him the hope to go on and finish.
Advent is a season with many facets. Last week we discussed how Advent is about the Coming of the Saviour at an unforseen hour, and thus about and our need to make the best use of the time given to us as followers who are accountable to Christ for the use of our time, talent, and treasure. We hear some of that in Matthew’s Gospel today in John’s preaching, when he talks about bearing worthy fruit. Advent is also about the righteousness of the Son whom God has appointed to judge the world, ad we saw some of that the week before Advent during the Feast of the Reign of Christ. Advent is the assurance of the righteousness of the King who will come to restore the reign of God’s justice and mercy, and in a world of Wikileaks and of stolen elections this week, we need the assurance that there is one king who is righteouss and incorruptible.This Sunday is about another aspect of Advent. It’s about hope and encouragement for God’s people that we are not forgotten, for our King and Messiah will come.
Hope is a fragile thing that keeps us going. The military historian, B.H. Liddell-Hart, once said that armies lose battles only when they lose hope. The same is true of sports, marriage, business, or any other significant part of the human condition. Hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning. The hope that things will get better, that some happiness or prosperity will be found, is what leads us to marry, to have children, to change jobs, to go back to school, to emigrate, etc. The hopefulness of leaders can inspire us, as we saw when Barack Obama was elected and his book, the Audacity of Hope, was a bestseller for months. But when things fail to improve as quickly as we would like, hopefulness can seem deluded, even foolish, as Sarah Palin implied when she taunted Obama with the question, “how’s that hopey changey thing working out for ya?”
In our second reading , we hear Paul write to the fledging church in Rome that “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4). This statement deserves some thought, especially if we are used to thinking of Scripture as being about doctrine, or being a collection of metaphors and stories. Paul is saying that the purpose of scripture is to give us hope and encouragement. This thought is worth hanging onto when we feel overwhelmed by circumstances, whether we’re despairing about the fate of the world or the church, or we’re just overwhelmed by the ordeal that Christmas has become, or whatever our circumstance might be. Paul is encouraging us to hear a message of hope.
In our readings today, hope is Isaiah telling an Israel broken by invading armies that it will be come an earhly paradise of peace and healing for all nations. Hope is John the Baptist in Matthew saying that in the wilderness of their hearts it is still possible to turn to God and be made new. Hope is Paul telling a ragtag collection of slaves and free people, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, that in the heart of the mighty a mighty empire built on power and slavery and rigid class and gender divisions, ruled by a supposed man-god emperor, that these disparate people will become a new community through the word of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.
That Paul is writing to a new community formed by grace underscores the second point about Advent hope. Paul writes that the purpose of God’s encouragement in scripture is so that we may “live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” (15:5). This new community will come together in worship and praise, and its members will show the same grace to one another that they have received from God: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7). Note that Paul isn’t speaking to individuals. This isn’t a message of hope in personal prosperity or enlightenment. Rather, it’s a message of hope that we in the community of believers in Jesus Christ, we can find a foretaste of heaven in our common worship, love, and welcome, one of another.
At the end of her story about the race angels who helped her in the 2005 Kona Ironman, Sister Buder describes how she corresponded with them and thanked them for coming aside her and encouraging her. One of the wrote back and said that she did it because in the running community she has found a greater unity and spirit of caring and mutual support than she has found anywhere else. It’s wonderful that people can find such rewards in communities dedicated to a specific practice or pursuit. How much more wonderful would if be if more people could find even greater rewards in the church.
This year at Advent, this base chapel is learning about something called the Advent Conspiracy. It’s a challenge to step out of the consumer-driven pressure of a false generosity and to turn outwards, so that our presents become presence to one another and to the world. The theme of this year’s campaign, clean and safe water, is a concrete example of how Christians can share God’s love with a wprld where many lack clean water. It’s one way that we can rediscover that great theme of Advent, the theme of God’s hope and encouragement to be his people and his community for the world’s sake.