Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent; a season of waiting and listening; of hope and anticipation. Over the next four weeks we will carefully listen, to all that God promises us; we will wait, in hopeful anticipation for the birth of Christ …but equally important and often overlooked… we will begin to prepare ourselves for all that is about to unfold.
In this morning’s reading from Thessolonians, Paul stresses that now is the time of preparation, for Christ’s coming: by strengthening our hearts and growing in holiness. Hmm…
This certainly doesn’t seem to be the typical first-Sunday-in-advent reading – or does it? Perhaps a bit of background would help to give this reading context and tie it into this season of Advent.
This passage of Biblical text comes from one of Paul’s earliest epistles, likely written around 51 AD. He is writing after a very brief ministry and the setting up of a new church in Thessalonia, from which Paul, was abruptly, called away. He’s been gone for several months at the time of the writing of this letter to Timothy. As a devoted pastor he is extremely worried about the well-being of his new faith community, back home.
As he begins his long journey back to them, he wonders, as one who has been torn apart from someone they dearly love: Do they still remember me? Have they remained faithful to my teachings while I was gone? Paul’s heart ached to return to them and to know how they were doing.
Paul writes to Timothy and asks him to, ever so-discretely, go behind the scenes and check things out! Timothy happily reports back that faith abounds!! in the Thessolonia community; indeed, they remember Paul, with great fondness. Paul is ecstatic and rejoices, to know that his little flock are standing firm in the Lord. He can hardly wait to be reunited with them!
So Paul prays, unceasingly, that Jesus will continue to direct their way to God; that the Lord will make them increase and abound in love for one another and that the Lord will strengthen their hearts in holiness.
Well? That gives us insight into how the text came about, but what’s in it for us?? For many people, Advent is a time for special activities, like the making of Advent wreaths, following an Advent Calendar or Devotional readings.
Going ‘home for the holidays’ and reuniting with family or friends is another common activity – and it’s often the theme for holiday movies. There’s something about getting together, after a long absence, that warms the heart. There’s also the hope and anticipation, as we prepare for the home-coming of our long-awaited guest.
But the weeks leading up to Christmas can also be a depressing time, a time of great stress, loneliness and disappointment. Many of us keenly feel the loss of loved ones, lamenting “that empty place at the table,” and looking forward to that day when we are re-united with our dearly departed.
It can also be a time when our conscience give us a ‘dutiful push’ – or there’s external pressure - for us unite with folks in our lives where relationships are entangled. I’ve been there; it can be most uncomfortable. We remain frozen in time and don’t have the strength to move forward. We often can’t get beyond old memories or expectations; we’re unable to let go of old hurts and resentments.
However, Paul reminds us that we should use this Advent time to prepare for the coming of Christ. A time, through prayer and reflection, to offer up our hurts and disappointments to God; to help us “clear the way” forward. To help us reconcile our differences. In this way we are answering Paul’s first prayer: by opening our hearts and creating a pathway, for spirit, to direct our way to God the Father.
Paul also knew that in a loveless world its difficult for us to grow in love. So, in the light of Christ’s return, Paul prays, that we will ask Jesus to make our love increase. Instead of focusing this Advent on presents and parties and materiel things, we are encouraged to give, God’s gift of love, to each other, in abundance – just as God loved us. So this, abundant giving of love, is the second way we can live out Paul’s prayer for us.
Paul also prayed that Jesus would increase our love in order that he might strengthen our hearts, so that we could be holy. Holy? Whatever does Paul mean about being holy –isn’t that all up to God? Holy because holiness matters to God. Holy because we will one day be in the presence of our God and Father. Holiness is loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul. Holiness is also loving, your neighbour, as yourself.
So, my prayer for you is that you will turn the days of Advent into holy days. Days in which you focus not only on enjoying the worldly holidays, but also on growing in love and working to smooth out the rough spots in our relationships that block your way to God the Father. We may not know the day or the hour, but our Lord Jesus is coming, with angels, and the saints who have died and gone before us.
So, let’s take Paul’s advice and use this season of Advent to focus on holy living, and sharing that abundance of love that resides in our hearts, so that we won’t feel out of place when Jesus comes in all his glory. …and may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
By The Rev. Juanita Clark