A sermon drawn from Ephesians 6:10-18
As we know, we’ve entered the season of Advent once more – today is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of another liturgical year.
The word “Advent” comes from a Latin word that means coming, and while we’re probably already thinking about the first coming of Jesus Christ, the one we celebrate at Christmas, Advent is also a time for remembering that we are still waiting and preparing for the second coming, and the “world to come” – the one described in various ways in scripture, as in the verses we read from Isaiah earlier, with its vision of weapons of war converted to tools that promote growth and life. According to our Book of Common Worship,
The season of Advent begins with an emphasis on final things (eschatology). We watch and pray with expectant hope for the establishment of God’s justice and the return of the Prince of Peace.Book of Common Worship 163
So during Advent, we often talk about how we are “waiting” for something, “waiting” and “watching” and “keeping awake” – the last verse in our text mentions that, keeping alert, literally “not going to sleep,” but praying faithfully for everyone.
But usually, when we think about “waiting,” we think about something that we will experience the end of. We wait for things we bought online to arrive in the mail, so we can wrap them up and give them as gifts for Christmas – a lot of people will be doing that in the next few weeks. We wait to hear the results of medical tests, hoping and praying for good news for ourselves, or our friends or family members. We wait at the car dealership while we’re having our oil changed, or in line at the grocery store, or in traffic … most of the time when we use that word “waiting,” we are talking about something we expect to happen in our lifetimes.
And that was how the earliest Christians seemed to think about Jesus’ return, too – we think that the earliest Christians expected Jesus’ second coming momentarily. “Soon” in ordinary human terms.
But we think the letter to the Ephesians from which we just read was written to Christians who were starting to realize that Jesus’ return to bring about the final victory of God was likely not going to happen tomorrow or next month or possibly not even in their lifetimes, and was written to help them understand that, and to live with it.
Because it was one thing for Jesus’ followers to be “waiting” and “watching” and “keeping awake” for the bridegroom’s return if that was going to be so soon that they shouldn’t even bother to get married, or to think about changing jobs, or to decide how best to provide for their children’s future. But as the first century had worn on and Jesus hadn’t returned in the year 40, or 50, or 60, or 70, or 80 … people were having to get used to the idea that “soon” according to God means something very different from “soon” according to people. And as a result, people also had to begin to revise some of their ideas about what it meant to live as a Christian, to be loyal to Jesus, what it meant for Jesus to be Lord – what it meant to make “waiting” and “watching” compatible with living … to make it a way of life.
And that challenge, which they were facing with new awareness, and which we share with them, probably needs to affect how we understand the instruction to “put on the whole armor of God” – literally, the “panoply,” which we probably think of as meaning “a whole big collection” of something, but which originally referred to the set of armor and equipment that a citizen-soldier of a Greek city state would have purchased and kept in case he had to help defend his city.
Because our author seems to be trying to orient the Ephesians – who are like us in this way – to the need for a long-term commitment, in which they are going to have to hold out against hostile forces – to “stand.” We’re going to need the strength to do that, he says; that strength is going to come from the Lord himself; it’s going to come from the new way of life the Lord makes it possible for us to live; we could think of that way of life as armor – as a uniform and equipment that will protect you in this long-drawn-out struggle against … darkness.
Because a struggle like that is going to be hard.
Something we might have noticed about Advent – if we’re the kind of people who are interested in calendars, and some of us are – is that, for the entire season of Advent, in the Northern Hemisphere anyway, the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer, right up until the winter solstice, right before Christmas. So we keep reminding ourselves that hope and joy and peace and love and light are coming, are on the horizon, at a time when, objectively, there is more and more darkness in the world around us.
That’s exactly why we need the reminder, because objectively there is more and more of the night, not less and less. We need the reminder that “this won’t last forever,” and we’ve been through enough years of this seasonal change to count on that. We have plenty of confidence that light will overcome darkness this year, just as it did last year and the year before that …
And we need some of that same confidence when it comes to facing those “eschatological” themes, those “final things” we are thinking about on the First Sunday of Advent – which we don’t have personal experience of.
Because Christians are, objectively, engaged in a long struggle against the ability of spiritual darkness to convince people that there is nothing except darkness and meaninglessness and self-interest and suffering, that reality is nothing but that.
That’s a relentless, demanding struggle to be in, because the forces of darkness are, again objectively, extremely convincing.
I haven’t checked today’s headlines, so I may already be out of date; I only know about the three most widely publicized mass shootings this month: the killings at the University of Virginia, the shooting at a nightclub in Colorado Springs, and the murders at a local Walmart, much like mine, in a small town in Virginia. And I only say that because I’m afraid we all know that all year long, every year, in the United States, the morning’s newspaper is likely to include a story about one or more of the 600+ mass shootings that occur every year in this country, or perhaps of one or more of the other shootings, the more ordinary accidental or suicidal or individual ones … and that is just the specific murderous violence related to guns, that has become commonplace in contemporary American culture. That’s not to say anything about other forms of murderous violence, or lesser forms of human unkindness or depravity …
If we chose, and some people do choose, we could fill our minds all day long every day with stories of terrible things that are going on in the world this minute. To the point that it would be easy for us to agree with the philosopher Immanuel Kant that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made” or ever can be made, and that there’s no good in the world that evil can’t erase.
And the only way we can stand against that kind of relentless, consciousness-warping pressure is to be forearmed with the truth and righteousness and faith and the message that stands up and says: that’s not all there is to this. There’s more. Truth is bigger than that – as big as God’s plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ. Righteousness is real, as real as the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, and makes a difference – it supports a whole new way of living in the world.
The good news – the good news we have, that we stand on and run with – is that peace isn’t just on its way. It has in fact already been here, and is already at work in the world. And by peace we don’t just mean the absence of violence and conflict. We mean Peace with God that comes from Forgiveness. We mean Peace with our neighbors, that transcends differences that people make into causes for hostility. We mean the peace that passes understanding that gives us the strength to reach out in love even to people who declare their hatred of us. We mean God’s shalom: complete well-being. The peace that is ultimately going to render all these other weapons obsolete, that is going to make it possible really for us all to beat all our swords into plowshares, our literal physical ones, and our figurative ones of hostile or contemptuous words. We mean the Peace of Christ.
This “whole armor” that the author tells the Ephesians to “put on” while they are “keeping awake” – keeping alert, not falling asleep – and praying constantly in the Spirit during these ongoing times are actively spiritual qualities, the qualities of a way of life that reflects and reinforces the presence of the full reality that we are actively waiting for.
That is, it already shares the substance of the new world and the new life that Christians enjoy and that opposes the present darkness. Truth. Righteousness and justice. The gospel of peace: peace with God and with one another. Faith in all that, a faith that neutralizes the attacks and doubts raised by the operation of ignorance and evil in the world. Salvation – the salvation from the old way of death that which we enjoy by the grace of God. The Holy Spirit that communicates the Word of God and its truth to us at all times, and that has the power to really actively oppose the activity of evil.
This armor – this way of life – reflects the truth of God. It shines with the new life of God. It draws its power from the same mighty power of God that raises Jesus Christ out of the dead. (See Ephesians 1:19-20) So ultimately, this waiting and keeping alert that we have to do is an expression of our active connection with the presence of God.
We might not always recognize that connection for what it is. We might be looking for something more dramatic than what we experience in the course of an average day, something like a visit from an angel, or even the appearance of a new star.
That is another reason we need the reminder of the season of Advent, to help us see once again that small lights, like candles, are still lights.
And the small and quiet operations of the Holy Spirit in our lives are still the presence and the activity of God. Whenever we choose kindness over unkindness, which we have to do every day, we are acting in the strength of God. Whenever we refrain from dismissing someone made in the image of God as useless, and extend the generosity of assuming that others are trying to do the right thing – even if we think they’re mistaken about that – we are standing in the strength of God. Whenever we tell the truth, ask for the truth, seek the truth, value the truth, and turn away from lies, even when they are appealing, we are living in the light of the Spirit.
These are expressions and apprehensions of the activity, the gracious activity, and the presence of God, in our lives and in our world.
So, on this First Sunday of Advent, we remind ourselves that we are waiting. We are waiting through what the author of Ephesians calls “this present darkness,” and the night is long; from what we know about Advent, it may even grow darker before it grows lighter. But we have armor – a way of life taught and modeled by Jesus, shared with us, and supported by God’s grace. So we can have the strength to “wait,” and to “stand,” and ultimately to prevail in this struggle that is not against blood and flesh but against that array of spiritual forces of evil and darkness.
We are waiting for the day that the world envisioned so long ago by the prophet Isaiah finally comes to be, in all its fullness: when nations shall not learn war any more, and everyone will walk in the light of the Lord.
And the waiting we do is also a living into that world to come, because as best we can tell, the whole armor of God just is our new life in Jesus Christ. Supported by truth. Devoted to righteousness – justice. Reassured by the gospel of peace, and ready to share that reassurance. Secured by Faith and Salvation, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit who nourishes us with the Word of God. It may be night. It may even be getting darker before it gets lighter. And yet, we carry our light with us: the light of the world, Jesus Christ, in whom we have the strength to stand, and wait, even through the longest night.
Awake, Awake and Greet the New Morn
Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons