A pretty simple message, really: Advent is a time for discovering our need for God; adolescents beginning confirmation are in an Advent-like period of life, but then again so are we all.
We tried an elaborate “Rite of Consecration” for our confirmands which consisted in a memorial of baptism, an anointing, and ‘vows.’ It was a little awkward, and people apparently think I am a Papist, but I thought it was nice. Comment, please!
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
In the past few weeks, we’ve dedicated our gifts of support for the church, both with money and pledges of participation, before the kingly cross of Christ; last week, we dedicated our festive offerings on this table for the Hanging of the Greens. And today we dedicated or consecrated—the words mean virtually the same thing—our youth before God, sending them on a journey of spiritual growth and intensification. Their dedication of themselves is our inspiration today, an inspiration to us all: they are committing to a period of growth and change, without knowing what they will look like on the other side. That’s faith. They are trusting a very big part of who they are to God, and specifically, to God’s work through us, the church—and especially through Ricky, our youth leader, and me, their pastor. / God help us! Do you know what it means to be responsible for carrying out God’s work on behalf of the young people who place their trust in you? Jesus makes it clear that we should not take such a responsibility lightly: “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Glug, glug, glug. How great our faith must be, the faith of us teachers, to trust that God will work through us despite all our shortcomings and flaws and mistakes; and to trust that God won’t throw us seaward wearing a millstone parachute when we make mistakes.
It has been quite a string of dedications. But the time for this is coming to a close. The liturgical time for focusing on our own calling, our sending, our dedication, our sacrifice is waning. And it’s a good thing! I don’t know what we have left to dedicate to God; we’ve done it all! / Ever since Pentecost, the spotlight has been on us, on what God in the Holy Spirit is calling and empowering us to do here and now. But the season shifted last week, with the start of Advent. We’re done, for a while at least, with focusing on our projects and goals as a church. We’ve made our pledges and our promises for the next year. And we will go about making good on those promises. But in Advent, we ask about not what can we do, or what will I do. Now we consider, what do we need? What do we lack? Or even, what seems impossible to me, and to us? (And we ask this so we can return at Christmas to our fundamental concern: what has God done in Jesus Christ?) We have been thinking about how we will live out our salvation in Christ here and now; but in Advent, we perceive, with the figurative hunger of a fast, that in many ways we haven’t yet consummated our salvation. Not just we, the church; we, the whole world, do not feel fully saved yet. These weeks of Advent are the time for us to perceive and confess that we the church are hardly in a better position than the world, for all our efforts; rather, we need to stand in solidarity with the world and earnestly plead of God: “Come, Lord Jesus!” Come be our savior, the world’s savior, once again.
We know that the commercial world, which is very much a part of us, begins Christmas sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving, and, ignoring the distinctive character of Advent, portrays Christmas as a relentlessly happy time. Seeing this relentless message, people believe they are supposed to feel joyful, though they secretly wonder, “Why don’t I feel as joyful as I am supposed to?” But joy is what is advertised, because if you feel happy and confident, you are much more likely to buy presents than if you practice Advent as we have described it: a quiet, fasting time to consider the ways that our world needs saving. Not savings, as in deals and sales; our world needs, we need salvation. Well, we can’t escape commercialism completely, and sure, buying presents pertains in some way to the spiritual meaning of Christmas; but we can preserve our distinctive, and we should add, authoritative, authentic understanding of Advent as the correct way to prepare for Christmas. / So I know it was a buzz-kill, so to speak, a downer, to end last week’s lovely start of Advent with “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” instead of “Joy to the World.” But I made the case last year at some length, if you want to feel joy at Christmas, don’t look for it in a maelstrom of shopping; instead contemplate with fasting the lack and need in the world for God’s saving hand, and begin to savor, in advance of the great feast on Christmas Eve, how the coming of Jesus will satisfy that hunger. Because you can manufacture real joy by what you do; real joy has to be transcendent; it begins in who God is and what God has done.
And so we have Advent, a time of laying bare the needs of the world before God. What a wonderful time to begin confirmation! It is a time for our youth to discover their need and hunger for God. I know you might think that all great things should begin in an optimistic, can-do, happy mood. And Advent is something like happy and optimistic; at least, in its discovery of need and hunger it is buoyed up with expectant joy. But the full-out happy, joyful celebration will await our confirmands at the conclusion of their confirmation, in the June days of Pentecost.
To be sure, our youth have been brought up tenderly and carefully in the faith by their parents and by our deeply committed teachers here in church. Their growing years have been their happy, green, ordinary time. But now is the time to recognize that they, that you face a new set of challenges. In these years of your life, you will experience more powerfully than before the strong bonds of friendship, but perhaps also the vulnerability of those bonds, and the possibility of betrayal. (I sure did, when I was 15.) You are coming to know the passions of romantic love, and all the complications that come with it. (For teenage me, the complications were that I never had a date.) You will start to perceive your life as a path determined at times and to a certain extent by your choices and your successful or unsuccessful performance of tasks—how exhilarating this freedom, how terrifying! You will grasp at that confusing freedom, and perhaps resent those who attempt to guide you in you choices and strivings at success. And, as with this recent election, you will become more aware of the larger world that, until now, has served as a dim backdrop for your lives centered on family, friends, community, school, and church; and you will realize that your personal fate is bound up with the fate of people and forces across the globe. The mid-teens is an age when many of us, myself included, discover the need for God’s grace, the need to be a part of God’s life, on a whole new level. It is an Advent time of life, when new needs and new desires for saving grace come upon us, and we anxiously await the Coming One, the Chosen Christ of God, with new expectations and a new urgency. It is a good time to begin con-firm-ation, because there is very little that feels “firm” about being 14 or 15.
Our confirmands are at a period of their individual lives that corresponds to the life and times of Israel awaiting the coming of a messiah. Israel had been through a golden period when God led them by a righteous and dependable authority figure—King David above all, a kind of parent to the whole nation. And then Israel lost those kings, undergoing an exile; they lost their home. They were propelled out far from the promised land, but began to encounter God in a new way. Isaiah in our first reading today expresses, from a place of mourning and loss in exile, a grand hope for a new king. This hope is rooted in the cherished experience of the past: he will come from the “stump of Jesse”—the line of David that had been cut off. But this king will perfect the righteousness of David and his inferior successors: “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” And then Isaiah’s hopes go far and beautifully beyond anything David was able to accomplish. This peace established by this new king will overcome the strife and violence found in nature itself; his reign will see animals like bears and lions becoming vegetarian: “the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Humans and animals will live no longer with strife and violence: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as that waters cover the sea.” Advent is a time for high, soaring hopes.
John the Baptist serves as a herald to Jesus, echoing in his day the now ancient longing of Isaiah. But, pointing to Jesus as the long-awaited King, he offers an alternative take to Isaiah’s vision. According to John, Jesus is not so much a king as a terrifying and apocalyptic agent of judgment, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, chopping down the trees that do not bear the fruit of repentance, and burning the chaff, the husks left over from the wheat harvest. / You see, it is the job of seers like Isaiah and John to imagine what it would be like if God really came down to earth; it is for them to have this as their unlimited hope. In Advent, we should be living with these unbridled hopes; they whet our appetite for the coming One. But human imagination on its own can never anticipate exactly what God has in store for us. Isaiah expects a peace that transforms all of nature. John sees, with equal plausibility, a messiah of fiery repentance and judgment. To the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom John sees as misusing religion for their own gain, John issues a dire warning. And why not? Wouldn’t God in person bring a terrible judgment for those who use the best gifts of God for the worst intentions? Is it I, Lord?
Jesus comes into this time of heightened expectations, a time of wild and divergent expectations and hopes. He came to Israel in the midst of her adolescence, when she knew change was afoot but did not know where it would lead. Advent is the right time to begin confirmation, for it is the season of hopes still untethered, of expectations still undefined. This is the season in which young teens live; but it also fits us all. Look at the times in which we live! Who here knows what to expect? I haven’t felt this 15 in 32 years!
Advent prepares us for this journey back to faith, and for our confirmands’ journeys ahead to faith. It prepares us to return anew to the unrepeatable events of God in Jesus the Christ, who is always the same, but always meeting us afresh. In Jesus, God embraced all of humanity for all times, but humanity is always changing, and always different. And so we journey with our confirmands, returning to the mighty coming of Jesus Christ and to what shall become of him and of us, when he calls us to join him. Godspeed you on your way, confirmands; we are behind you, and leading in front of you, and walking beside you, all the way.