181202 – Strengthening – Advent Hope

Yr C ~ Advent 1 ~ 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

It reads like a love letter from a minister to their congregation. It’s warm, and complimentary, and joyful. You can sense the pride this minister has for these people. A few verses before our reading starts the minister talks about how they sent a representative to check up on the congregation to make sure they weren’t falling away from their faith, and that the persecutions they were experiencing weren’t knocking them off the Way.
The report back was glowing. The congregation was exemplary. The pride is palpable. The minister is gushing over them.
It’s nice when a minister can do that! [smiles]

Now, let’s just pause a minute. The minister here in the reading is none other than the apostle Paul.
Paul! You know, the guy who’s always wagging his finger, and chewing people out, exasperatingly correcting their behaviour.
Paul has a reputation as a strict disciplinarian and stern task-master.
Perhaps more people should read 1 Thessalonians so Paul gets some credit for being a loving pastor too!

But none of this should really surprise us. Every one of us has experienced parenting (either giving it or receiving it!) and we know that the role of the parent is to sometimes be stern disciplinarian and sometimes be gushing supporter.
Sometimes it’s tough love, sometimes it’s soft love – but it’s all love. Parents hold those two things in tension all the time.
On one level it might seem like the two things are incongruent – but they’re actually just two aspects of a great love.
We hold them both simultaneously because they’re both true.

I’m pushing this metaphor because we’re now in the season of Advent. Advent is all about waiting, anticipation, birth. We spend the whole month going on about the coming of the Christ child and the light of the world shining in the darkness. And we do that as people who have been celebrating and honouring the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of that child for a couple of thousand years!

Jesus is already here! Jesus lives in our hearts.
Jesus is coming. Let’s wait for Jesus to be born!

On one level it might seem like the two things are incongruent – but they’re actually just two aspects of a great love.
We hold them both simultaneously because they’re both true.

One theological way to express this is to speak of the “already and not yet.” Another is to say that Jesus “has come and is coming.”
So every December we play this theological game. We speak about how we’re waiting in anticipation for the child to be born – even as today we celebrate the sacrament of communion that commemorates the ending part of his life.

It’s a good thing to rehearse and relive the drama each year. It speaks to how deep and powerful the story is.
And it speaks to how we still have a yearning for the newness, the light, the potential for a fresh new start.
I’ve been following Jesus for a long time – but maybe I’m not always doing it the best I could – so along comes Advent and I get to think about how having Jesus born anew gives me a chance to have my faith born anew.
Over and over, if necessary (and yes, it’s necessary)!

It’s curious then that the readings for Advent aren’t more about the birth of Jesus. In fact, we don’t even get much of that story until Advent 4 with Mary’s pregnancy.
So if Advent readings aren’t about the coming of the Christ child, what are they about?
Well, mostly they’re about preparing our hearts and spirits for the coming of Jesus – but not the first coming, the second!

The scripture reading from 1 Thessalonians isn’t talking about Christmas at all. It’s talking about the second coming of Christ.
And I know that the moment I said that some folks in this room started to squirm.
The problem is that that “second coming” language has been so thoroughly coopted by fundamentalists that many of us can’t hear it without thinking we’re going to get hammered with damnation and the end of the world stuff.
I assure you I won’t do that to you. But I will speak about the second coming of the Christ for a little bit.

1 Thessalonians is the earliest bit of scripture that we have. It was written less than 20 years after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – so in the early 0050s. There were still folks around who knew Jesus personally. None of them lived anywhere near the Thessalonians, but still, Jesus and his life were recent memories.
Remember, there was no Christian scripture yet.
This letter was the first!
Of course, they didn’t know that at the time. For them it was just an encouraging letter from their church planter.
All they had was Paul’s passionate sharing of the Jesus story. There were no gospels yet.
If there was a birth narrative about Jesus in the 50s it was never recorded. Those stories didn’t get written down until the 70s and 80s.
My point is that the Thessalonians weren’t thinking about the birth of Jesus like we do – they were fully expecting him to return at any time! They were all about the second coming. In those early years of Christianity there was a significant expectation that Jesus would return and lead them all into a new realm.

On a very basic level, that was a very hopeful expectation because they were living in a time and place where persecutions and oppression were commonplace. Their need for deliverance from harsh life circumstances was very real.
In a moment I’ll do some fancy theologizing for you and hopefully help you see another way to interpret this – but there’s no escaping that for the early church the idea of Jesus coming again soon was a significant part of their faith.

1 Thessalonians 3:13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Strengthen your hearts in holiness. Be blameless before God.
That means to have a pure heart, to be spiritually open, and honest, and vulnerable.
It doesn’t mean you have to be perfect and never make a mistake before Jesus will come back – it means that Paul is encouraging them to live the very best version of themselves that they can.
And the reason for all that strengthening is because the return of Jesus means to be more fully in the presence of utter holiness – and only goodness can stand before holiness.

If you had someone coming to your house for dinner wouldn’t you tidy up the place before they arrived? Not because they would turn around and leave if you didn’t pass the white glove test, but just because you want to put on your best for guests.
If I told you a famous person or dignitary was coming to worship here next week wouldn’t you probably make sure that was a day you didn’t have spaghetti sauce on your shirt!

Jesus is coming! We want to be ready!
Instead of tidying your house or putting on a fresh shirt we work at allowing the Spirit to strengthen our hearts in preparation for encountering such holiness!
Did you notice that language?
We work at allowing the Spirit to strengthen our hearts in preparation for encountering such holiness.
We don’t fuss ourselves pure – we yield, and open, and surrender to allow Spirit to purify, and strengthen!

Jesus is coming!
But when that didn’t happen for them in overt, physical terms the idea needed to be rethought and recast theologically.
As decades passed it seemed that maybe Jesus wasn’t coming after all.

Or maybe it was that people of faith needed a less literal and more spiritual way of understanding Jesus’ return!
An understanding that I think is truer to Jesus’ teaching.

As usual, looking deeply at the language can help a lot!
“At the coming of our Lord Jesus” – the word rendered as coming here is parousia. Parousia means to be present, to arrive and to enter into a situation.
Well, we speak of God’s Presence all the time but we never mean that we’re expecting an old man with a long white beard to appear.
The presence of the Christ, the presence of the Spirit of Jesus, arriving, becoming known, being revealed and “entering into our situation” – entering into our consciousness – entering into our hearts!
And suddenly, we don’t need images of hero Jesus riding in on a stallion from the clouds – we have a really helpful image of the parousia – the presence of the Christ becoming known and entering into our hearts!

Now hear 1 Thessalonians 3:13 again – And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

We work at allowing the Spirit to strengthen our hearts in preparation for encountering such holiness being Present around, between, and within us!

Strengthen your hearts in holiness – Jesus is knocking!
Isn’t that exactly what “advent” is all about?

Strengthening your heart for a purpose – increasing in holiness, loving-kindness, compassion, openness – strengthening as preparing, building up, getting ready for.
Putting it all in the shape of a story about a tiny baby being born just adds to the beauty of it. It helps make an abstract theological concept more tangible.

One last word.
The theme of the first week of Advent is hope. How is this reading and this teaching an example of hope?
Well, hope doesn’t mean wishing for something that might happen if you’re really lucky. It’s not like a lottery ticket. That’s just pure wishing – there’s no hope!

Hope means the expectation and anticipation you feel when you’re looking forward to something that you are expectantly confident will happen!
The coming of the Christ – whether tiny baby, or spiritual Presence – is a sure thing!
But, of course, we can’t just snap our fingers and swoosh out it comes! (or in it comes!) There needs to be preparation to receive such a holy gift.
Our hopefulness knows it’s coming – our strengthening of our hearts prepares the room to receive it.

Such is the promise of Advent – the anticipation, the expectation.

May your hearts be strengthened, to prepare for the coming of the Christ!