Advent 1—Year A
November 27, 2016
Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
As you know clergy occasionally end up leading funerals for people who haven’t been in church for decades. This doesn’t make them bad people and it certainly does not mean they are not loved by God. But it does mean that the liturgical symbols we use in the burial office to proclaim the power of the good news of God in Christ are largely lost on them. I remember one unchurched family in North Carolina where the widow of the deceased was shocked and upset when I told her that when her husband was brought into the church the American flag draping his casket would be taken off and replaced by the pall—which is a large white cloth with a cross on it that completely covers the casket. She understood the symbol of the flag: it represented patriotism and it honored her husband’s time in the military. But this white cloth meant nothing to her.
But for those who are immersed in the symbols of the faith the pall is a powerful reminder of what Paul wrote to the Galatians 3:27: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The pall reminds us that we are in Christ and Christ is in us—we are covered by Christ–and that this is our deepest identity; especially in death when all our worldly identities have fallen away. This is who we are and nothing in all creation can separate us from being in Christ. To cover a casket is to proclaim our true identity is found, not in our failures, nor even in our successes, but in Christ, crucified and risen. And this identity is not something we earn, it is given to us as sheer gift through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It comes not through our behavior but through our new birth by the Spirit of Christ.
Therefore our only task is to live into who we are in Christ. AS Steve McVey puts it, “Our identity in Christ is one of the most liberating truths we will ever understand.” Grace Walk p42
We therefore have a choice: We can wake up every morning and by faith reconnect with our true identity in Christ or we can wake up every morning and reconnect with the hyper-stressed, running to catch up, never good enough, person we thought we were the day before and the day before that. If you’re like me, that choice is best not left to how I’m feeling in the moment, since my default setting is the hyper-stressed, “I’m not worthy” guy who can imagine every bad thing happening. What is required is an intentional prayer, or a scripture verse, that turns the mind and the heart to the reality that “I no longer live but Christ lives in me.”
It is said that when Martin Luther, the great German reformer, was overwhelmed by the burden of his fight with the pope, his wife, a former nun, would ask Martin: “So who put you in charge of the universe?” This naturally led Luther to remember that Christ is in charge and that by grace little sinful Martin Luther is in Christ.
Late 14th century English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich says to us: “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”
Therefore when Paul tells the church in Rome to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” he is simply reminding them to access by faith their true self. If we weren’t already in Christ through the grace of baptism and faith in Christ, then Paul’s command to put on Christ would be horribly cruel. It would be like telling someone with no legs to stand up! Someone with no hands to clap.
I’m afraid many in our churches today think the call to put on Christ is something like this: they think they have to work at, or get good at, or somehow have the right mystical experience to enable them to put on Christ. In other words, they thinking putting on Christ is something they have to do, that it is a work, and not a gift. So therefore too often we Christians live below the privilege of our faith. We work hard to imitate Christ or follow his teachings without first living in the assurance that our life is already hidden with Christ in God.
What Paul expects is that we start each day thanking God for saving us by clothing us in the Lord Jesus Christ by God’s grace and mercy and we end each day in the same way. We start and end with a “thank you” instead of an “What a failure I am, I’ll try harder to be good tomorrow.” And the irony is that as we accept, claim, and surrender to our identity in Christ we will find it easier to live in congruence with Christ than all the effort and self-will could ever produce. McVey again says, “No person can consistently behave in a way that is inconsistent with the way he [or she] perceives [themselves].” Ibid 42
Psychology knows this is truth: If I nurture every day the thought that I’m hopeless I will be hopeless until a thought of hope breaks in from the outside.
But on this first Sunday of Advent we are called to be a people of hope. Not hope in our own cleverness and confidence, but in the presence and healing of Christ. Hope in the God who tells the whole world that one day “nations…shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.”
If we believe it, and live into Christ who is our peace, in God’s time it will happen.
We are living between the first advent of Christ in a manger and the second advent of Christ as Lord of lords and king of Kings of the New Creation. In this in-between time we are called to wake up and remember who we are in Him. Because we are in Christ we are free every day to live a new story. We are no longer trapped in a fixed personality—once a wall-flower always a wall-flower. We are not even imprisoned by our past attachments to sinful desires for in Christ we are now free to live as a daughter or son of God.
All of us have had, and will have, episodes of unfaithfulness, but God in Christ continues to transform us into a person of faithfulness. Because we are a work in progress, Paul tells us to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires of our former identities, because that is no longer who we are. The one who began a good work in us at our baptism will bring that work to completion at our funeral and in the new creation.
It is easy to believe God is not finished with us yet. What is more difficult is to believe that God is in this moment at work in us—as individuals and as the community of All Saints–in spite of evidence to the contrary in our lives.
I like how Billy Graham’s late wife, Ruth Bell Graham, expressed that faith and that hope: On her gravestone is this delightful inscription: “End of construction: Thank you for your patience.”