December 4, 2017

Early Gifts


Text: 1 Corinthians 1:7: “ are not lacking in any spiritual gift
as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The first Christmas gifts are in the house. They arrived in the mail this past week. It always happens this way, because Judy’s sister lives in Germany, and I have a feeling that as soon as the Christmas markets open in Stuttgart there is an expatriate American marching through them punching through the entries on her Christmas list.

The only problem with this first arrival is the obligatory customs label on the outside of the package, because it pretty much ruins any possibility of surprise when the gifts are opened. And yet Expatriate Sister wraps each one of them with great care, hoping maybe that the letter carrier will thoughtfully remove the customs label before putting the package in the mailbox. No such luck.

You used to think that we wouldn’t hear Christmas carols in the stores or on the elevators until after Advent has started. But now we don’t go stores, we shop online; and the elevators start playing Christmas music pretty much the day after Hallowe’en. So take it from me; Advent is here. Today. Right now. We officially launched our season of eager, hopeful expectation.

When we were younger maybe we were lucky enough—or rather, maybe our parents were lucky enough—to have instilled in our mind the idea that Advent was about waiting and the fact that Christmas was coming. And so we had a kind of church-sanctioned reason, a holy excuse, for being good at waiting. After all, we were waiting for Christmas. We were waiting for the great feast, the happy day, the Christmas haul. Advent gave us something like an explanation for why we had to wait. Advent is the church’s first great lesson in delayed gratification.

Many of us never really get much beyond that idea of Advent. Maybe we think of it as a time of expectation, of anticipation—but what we think we’re anticipating is, well, Christmas. Family and feasting and holiday parties, and most of all, the gifts. We’re waiting for the gifts.

But Advent isn’t really about that. Sure, Christmas is coming, and it will be great when it gets here. But Advent is about waiting for something else. It’s about waiting for the next Christmas. It’s about just what the collect of the day talked about—not the coming of Jesus in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, but the coming of Jesus into the whole world at any moment. In fact, at any moment so soon that—who knows?—it might already be happening now.

So really what Advent is about is God’s mercy toward us. Because I don’t know about you, but I have a lot to get organized and put together before the next Christmas. When the next Christmas comes we’re supposed to have something to say for ourselves. We’re supposed to be prepared to offer an account for ourselves. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready for that.

But there is good news here. There’s good news even if Advent isn’t about waiting for Christmas in twenty-two days—twenty-two days!—and it isn’t about waiting for the gifts under the tree.

The good news is, we have already received the most important, the most precious, the most valuable, the most amazing gift we’re ever going to get. We already have it. We already have everything we genuinely need. Maybe not everything we want—we’re funny that way. We want a lot of stuff we don’t need. But what we need—well, that we have right now, right here, right on the very first day of Advent. It is the gift—the gifts—we received when we were baptized.

What Paul writes to the church in Corinth is just as true for us as it was for them: we are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the revealing of Jesus. We lack nothing.

And it gets better; if we just think for a moment about the gifts we have received from God, the gifts of faith and the means of grace, the possibility of reconciliation and the transforming power of love, it doesn’t take long for us to realize that we among all people are truly rich.

So what we’re waiting for isn’t a gift of something we lack. We’ve received our gifts already—our best gifts. What we’re waiting for is the moment at which we will offer to the giver of those gifts an account of what use we made of those gifts—the moment when, like those fig trees, we will be able to show what fruit we have managed to bear with the gifts entrusted to us.

Cyril of Jerusalem, a bishop there in the fourth century, taught his people about Advent with these words:

At the first coming Christ was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. At his second coming he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In the first coming he endured the cross, despising the shame; in the secondcomingn he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels. At the first coming we said: 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.' At the second we shall say it again; we shall go out with the angels to meet our God and cry out in adoration: ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord....’

His first coming was to fulfill his plan of love, to teach us by gentle persuasion. This time, whether we like it or not, we will be subjects of his kingdom by necessity.

Sure, Christmas is coming. But even better, and even more shocking, Christ is coming. Christ is present among us whenever we celebrate the Eucharist; Christ is present among us whenever we gather together in his name.

But the day is coming when Christ  will be among us, in words we can only imagine the full meaning of, “in power and great glory.” And in that day, we will receive one last gift; the gift of being gathered together with all the faithful throughout all history to overcome once and for all the gathering darkness of this world to live in the light of God’s transforming, transfiguring love. Amen.