Sunday, November 28, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
First Sunday of Advent
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 21:04; sermon starts around 26:55)
A few weeks ago, I joined the club that no one really wants to be part of: I tested positive for Covid. (Most of you probably knew this already – it’s why I wasn’t in worship a couple of weeks ago.) I was fully vaccinated earlier this year, so my case was one of those “breakthrough” cases, but I still got pretty sick. It was mostly like a really bad cold – congestion and sore throat and runny nose, headaches and body aches, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, and so on. And, in classic Covid fashion, I completely lost all sense of taste and smell.
Honestly, I’m thankful that it wasn’t worse; I’d hate to imagine how much more serious it might have been had I not been vaccinated. This was plenty bad enough. And several people had cautioned me to be on guard especially during the second week of quarantine, as Covid is known for sometimes taking a turn for the worse just at the moment you start to think you’re getting better. So even when my symptoms started to improve after a few days, I stayed alert and on guard. I bought a pulse oximeter so that I could keep an eye on my blood oxygen levels – which I did almost compulsively, at least once an hour. I likewise kept my thermometer handy so I could keep checking my temperature. I kept getting up and walking around to get a little exercise and keep the blood flowing. And I kept sniffing random things around my house to see whether my sense of smell was coming back yet or not.
I was anxious and a little scared about suddenly getting very sick, especially living by myself. I was very attentive to the symptoms I was experiencing. But once it seemed like I really was getting better, I was instantly impatient to be all the way better. Especially with my trip to California coming up, to go visit my brother, I was eager to be healthy again, to be able to smell and taste again. And truth be told, I’m still not 100%. I still check my blood oxygen from time to time, because I am still tired, and I get that old Covid brain fog. And I still can’t smell or taste much of anything. I spent Thanksgiving aggressively sniffing everything on my plate, trying to convince myself that I could taste at least some of it – because I’m just so eager to be whole and well again.
It’s so hard to be patient when it comes to something like this. I generally have very little patience for being sick. It’s hard to wait patiently when you’re truly longing for something. I imagine each of you can think of times in your own life when you were waiting impatiently for something, longing for something that seemed like it was taking forever. Can you think of some times like that? Maybe for you it was also getting over Covid, or maybe it was something else. Maybe you were waiting for something bad to end, or maybe you were waiting for something good to start.
What was that like? What did it feel like to wait? Where did you feel it in your body?
It’s hard to wait patiently for something we truly, deeply long for. And a lesson that I seem to keep learning about myself – in ministry and just in life in general – is that patience is not really one of my virtues. I am impatient about so many things. I’m often impatient with myself when I make mistakes. I’m impatient and passionate to see the seeds I plant grow, impatient to see the world become a better, kinder place. I am impatient to have more patience. (I have more than once prayed the prayer: “God, give me patience – and do it right now!”)
But as I was reading our readings for this week – especially our gospel reading – it suddenly struck me that maybe this sense of impatience isn’t always a bad thing.
Today we begin the season of Advent, and a new liturgical year. (Happy new year!) Advent is a season of waiting – a season of waiting in darkness for the light of Christ to shine. And I realized, thinking about it, that I have always associated this waiting with patience. I’ve always thought of this as a season in which we are called to patient waiting and quiet perseverance, to stillness and contemplation. And certainly there is an important element of all that to the season of Advent.
But reading our gospel reading for today, the tone of Jesus’ words is very different. “Be on guard,” Jesus says. “Be alert at all times.” Pay attention; notice the signs and know how to interpret them. Rather than patience, Jesus has a tone of urgency; he is exhorting his followers to be vigilant and watchful. This waiting for the kingdom to come isn’t passive or indifferent – this is a waiting that is eager and engaged and active. This is the waiting of Advent.
Jesus almost seems to be telling us to be antsy, to be impatient. He seems to be telling us to be constantly sniffing for signs of the kingdom drawing near like we’re Covid patients trying to recover our sense of smell. And he cautions us to stay sharp; he says: do not let your hearts be “weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” Don’t let that stuff get you down. Don’t doze off or zone out or just let yourself go numb, but stay awake and alert.
This is easier said than done. Zoning out is a temptation that’s often hard to resist. It’s easy to get discouraged and lose hope and just shut down. It’s really easy to eat and drink our cares away. It’s easy to immerse ourselves in work or in our hobbies or whatever. I see this happening a lot right now. Most of us have gone back pretty much to life as normal, even though Covid case numbers are surging all around us and breakthrough cases like mine are becoming increasingly common. This pandemic is still far from over. It often feels like when we pay attention these days to what’s happening in the world, the news is always bad: lots of people are getting sick, the climate crisis is getting worse, the division and polarization in our nation keeps getting deeper and deeper. It’s easy for us to start feeling disheartened and discouraged and to want to disengage.
But we know from scripture, from the faith handed down to us, and from our own personal encounters with God, that this is not what God desires for the world. This sickness and suffering, death and division and disaster, this is not what God intends for us. God has promised us much greater things. We inherit the promise that God made to our ancestors in the faith: a promise to usher in a kingdom of justice and righteousness, of peace and safety and love; a kingdom where creation is restored to life and health, a kingdom where every last person is fully welcomed as a beloved child of God. That is the hope that we carry. And that is what God desires for the world, what God has promised for the world.
When we keep awake and watch and wait for these things, when we long impatiently for these things that God has promised to be fulfilled – it is an act and attitude of faith. Our longing and impatience are signs in and of themselves that we truly believe God’s promises – because we are waiting for them. We truly believe that God is at work in the world for the good – and that we will see it and hear it and even smell it if we are on the lookout for it.
Because as Jesus says, God’s kingdom is not far off; it is near, even now. It is breaking into the world all around us, if you pay attention and know how to read the signs. Wherever there is love, wherever there is compassion and mercy, the kingdom is there. Where there is care for creation, where there is forgiveness and redemption and reconciliation, where there is peace and justice, the kingdom is there. All these things are signs of the kingdom drawing near to us, signs of Christ our King at work – our king who was and who is and who is still coming into the world.
So keep awake. Be alert at all times; be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with complacency and disappointment and worry. Believe in the good things that God has promised to us – and allow yourself to long for it with all your heart. Be impatient for it. Let this be a season to practice some holy impatience: to keep our eyes peeled, our hearts open, and our noses sniffing for signs of the kingdom coming near.