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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Welcome to the Mountain

Key Passage: Isaiah 2:3

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: advent, beginnings, mountain, vulnerability

December 1, 2019  +  First Sunday of Advent

Saint James's Church, Florence

I have come this morning to proclaim a new beginning.
I have come this morning to announce to you that old ways are being left behind, and new things are coming to pass. And I am here to warn you, as your pastor, that whatever is coming, whenever God begins a new thing it surely means there will be challenge, and change, and plenty of surprises.

Now you may well be wondering—who are you to say all that? What gives you the right to come into this beautiful old place and proclaim new beginnings? Just who do you think you are, anyway?

Well—the answer is not what you might think it is. I don’t get to say those things because I’m your bishop.

I get to say those things for two reasons.

The first reason is the calendar. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. A new church year is beginning. And if we accept Advent for what it’s really meant to do for us, then we make ourselves willing and ready to watch for what new thing God is doing right around us—no matter where we are—and to make up our minds to be part of it.

When I was very young and growing up in the church, I always thought somehow that the whole point of Advent was to anticipate Christmas. That each next candle that got lit on the Advent wreath at home brought me one week closer to my presents under the Christmas tree. I was not a very pious child.

It was only after I got quite a bit older that I realized Advent has nothing to do with getting us ready for the birth of Jesus. Jesus has already been born. He has already done his ministry, healed the sick, called his disciples, taught us how to be followers of the way of love. He has already been crucified, buried, and resurrected. He has already been seated at the right hand of God. And he is already alive right here, right now, as the church—which Saint Paul tells us is the living Body of Christ.

So Advent is not about getting us ready for something that has already happened. God would not waste our time with that.

No, Advent is about getting us ready for what God is going to do next. This season reminds us of how God’s promises were fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, but it does all that to make a point—and the point is, God is still fulfilling God’s promises.

Now, here’s the challenge. The people who lived in Jesus’s day thought they knew what to look for. They had very clear ideas about how God was going to fulfill those promises. They had such a clear idea that pretty much every week they told God what they expected God to do.

And they were about as wrong as they could have been.

They didn’t get a king; they got a teacher. They didn’t get someone all-powerful; they got someone completely vulnerable. They didn’t get someone who cast out the people they didn’t like; they got someone who drew the circle of love around all people.

So what will we look for?

We can put our faith in our possessions, in our beautiful things, in the loveliness of this world—but then we will miss the Jesus who teaches his followers to lay up their treasures in heavenly things, not the things that break and fall part and crumble and get stolen. That stuff doesn’t point us toward what new thing God is doing. Can we risk following that God?

Or we can put our faith in our certainties, in the things we know God has ordained are righteous. But then we will miss the Jesus who changed his mind when he was confronted by the gentle wisdom of a Caananite woman. Can we risk changing our minds?

Or we can put our faith in our power, in our strength, in our defenses against the risks of a world where evil is always stalking us and danger is never far from innocent people. But then we will miss the Jesus who conquers death, not by power, but by vulnerability—so much so that it is his willingness to accept even the naked vulnerability of the cross that is the most profound new thing God has ever done. And practically no one saw what that meant—even though they were looking.

Can we risk being even half that vulnerable?

That is why Advent is three parts anticipation and one part apprehension. That is why Advent teaches us to look forward in hope—but not without a reminder that we can get those hopes wrong, that we can put our faith in the wrong things and then miss the chance to see what God is doing.

And that is why this whole season is going to end with the angels making their announcement to the shepherds. And what are they going to say? “Do not be afraid.” Sisters and brothers, when the angels say that they are not giving words of comfort. They are giving words of command. Do not be afraid! If you want to be part of what God is doing, the first thing you need to do is to set aside your fear.

Now, I said that there were two reasons I had the right to proclaim new things here today. The first is the coming of Advent, this reminder to look for what God is doing.

And the second is about what God is up to right here, at Saint James’s.

Think about how you felt at this moment last year. On the first Sunday of Advent last year. Think about what you were worried about, or maybe hurt by. Think about what you were hopeful for. Think about what you were anticipating, what you were looking for.

And now think about how much has changed in that one year.

We begin today a new year of grace, and in the year ahead of us Saint James’s will search for—and will find—a new priest to come and be among us as a pastor, a teacher, a colleague, and a guide. That person is already out there somewhere. They don’t know who they are yet, and neither do we.

But God does. If we will listen.

If we are willing to put our heavenly things above our earthly things. If we are willing to have the prayerful discipline of opening our minds, and our hearts—and just maybe changing them. If we are willing to take up our cross, as Jesus asked his followers to, and follow him into a place of setting aside our defenses and accepting some vulnerability—because only by being a little more vulnerable can we be open to God’s working on us.

You know what time it is. That is what Saint Paul writes to those Romans. He is writing it to us, too.

You know what time it is. Isaiah is preaching to us that it is time for us to go to the mountain. It is time for us to get up higher, so we can get a better view of where on our horizon God is doing a new thing—and then go, as fast as we can, in that direction.

Sisters and brothers, the mountain is not going to come to us. Isaiah is not telling us to wait patiently right here in our beautiful house for the mountain to come knocking at our gates.

You know what time it is. It’s time for us to go, together, out into the world and up the mountain, seeking the new thing that God is doing. Looking for the signs of the new life God is calling us to embrace, the new chapter God wants to write with us, the new work God is calling us to.

So welcome to the mountain, sisters and brothers. Welcome to this path before us. Advent people are people who climb, together, up to the mountain top, holding on to each other in the darkness, helping each other along—so that we can be ready, when the dawn breaks, to rejoice that God’s new day is beckoning us on. Do not be afraid. Let’s go. Amen.