It is the third Sunday of Advent. The time grows shorter. This Sunday is Gaudet Sunday, the Sunday of joy in this season of waiting. What a happy coincidence that the Sunday of joy at the greater proximity of Christmas coincides with the beginnings of vaccinations for COVID-19. Joy is the dividend that anticipated healing pays in the present.
In our lesson for today from Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul, reminds the church at Thessalonica that the time is short before healing comes. The days before God comes to us to set things right in our world, to cure what ails us, to intervene and move into our lives are fewer than ever.
He tells them “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” He encourages them to “keep awake and be sober” so that they will be found ready when the new day dawns.
We are given these lessons at this time of the year to school us in the truth that God will sweep in among us soon. “From thence he shall come to judge the living and the death.” The work begun by Christ will be a work complete by Christ at his coming again. We get advance notice so that we will not be caught wasting our time, doing what is insignificant to God.
The time before the dawn is just about over, now is the time to determine what is essential, what is important and what is to be laid aside as frivolous and insignificant. With the Advent of Jesus Christ right on our doorstep, what must be, has to be, cries out to be, done, even in these challenging days of social bubbles and bending curves?
Coming down to the wire in Advent means we need “a things to do” list. St. Paul gives us one at the end of the fifth chapter of 1 Thessalonians. Three urgent matters stand out:
“We urge you, beloved, admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.”
Let me paraphrase – during Advent some need a push, some need a hug, some need a hand. And everyone requires patience.
First the Advent push: “Admonish the idlers.” In the days before the Advent of Jesus into our world, some of the ‘beloved’ need a ‘beloved’ wake up call.
In my last congregation a young woman, Hannah, actually took this verse quite literally. She would ask people sitting in their cars with the engine running in shopping malls and on the avenues – do you need the car running? She really did admonish the idlers.
Idlers - what a wonderfully graphic word: just sitting there, engine running and wasting resources no forward motion, all cozy and comfortable in a little bubble of a world, unable to get it into gear, feeling a little sleepy. Idlers need admonition, a loving shove, but a shove nevertheless. In a bubble we can protect our own, withdraw from the world, thank God I’m fine, all the while forgetful of those especially vulnerable in a time like this.
On a more personal level, sadly some people live uncalled lives – lives that forego losing life to something larger than our own little lives. This doesn’t mean that uncalled people aren’t busy. In fact, some of the busiest people in the world get busy to avoid their “calling.” I am never productive as when I get busy done what doesn’t need done. It seems that it is very easy to take the sage advice of Mae West: “why put off to tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow.”
Busyness is one way we drown out the voice that calls us to the one thing we ought to do. It is amazing how much fluff and silliness can get done in an effort to avoid a calling. It is too easy to kill time, waste time, put in time, wait this thing out, imagining that “someday, I’ll get on with what I’m made for.” And then, and then, you’re ninety.
St. Paul tells the church at Ephesus to “make the most of the time, for the days are evil.” Buy up every opportunity to get on with what matters. You have all the time there is. Whatever you do, don’t lay back and drift with the current. If you go with the flow, you squander your days. Life is a gift. We aren’t practicing for another time: this is it. And so beware of distractions that anesthetize and numb you to the only life you have. Sloth and inaction and idleness only move death forward into the present. For there is very little difference between an uncalled life and no life at all.
Friends, by the grace of God you have been placed together in this wonderful congregation. Love means that we can’t leave the idle to inaction. Sometimes through ‘admonition’ we provide a person with courage to find their calling and inhabit it. “You are really good at this . . . maybe you should follow it up,” we can say. I know we can’t gather, but we can call. We need your help. “No, it isn’t too late to take that course, try that ministry or bother with a childhood inclination.” Sometimes the daring required to follow a God given inclination comes from loving admonition – a Holy Spirit inspired shove.
In church we aren’t allowed to let one another rest in the easy chair of slothful inaction because we love each other too much. We’re not permitted to adopt the policy of non-interference in each other’s lives, saying, “well whatever, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” Thank God for the people who love enough, who care enough and who are pushy enough to admonish the idler in these days before the day of our Lord.
Life is a gift! Life is too precious to fritter away on the tinsel and plastic, the smoke and mirrors that are so much a part of our culture. Thank God for the people that push – always and everywhere, patiently and with love.
2. Encourage the faint-hearted, the embrace. And isn’t it important to note that in each case, the remedy is suited to the disease. The faint-hearted don’t need a shove, they need an embrace. Idlers need a push. Those on the verge of giving up because of overwhelming need our understanding and sympathy. That is a crucial matter in a world like this!
Care given is suited to the condition of the one who receives it. In church, we don’t always play the same compassionate card. Part of the act of love is to adapt ourselves to the love required of us. It was St. Paul who said, “I become all things to all people that I might by all means win some.” Only Christian love would, could, do this. It is wonderful when the love given accommodates itself to the care needed, since this is what God did in sending Jesus Christ. His love took on the form of the care we required. And so Christians, followers of Jesus, let love take on the form of care that our neighbour needs.
In these days before Christmas, joy, anticipation and excitement all swell for some. In my former church, I could hear the sound of carols ringing down the corridors of the church. I got to cheat toward Christmas listening to the choir practice.
But these days are not only wonderful, they are painful. If something is out of place in life, if there is grief or loss, if you are on your own, this is the hardest season of the year. As we await Christmas some of us wait without a sibling, a close friend, a spouse, a parent. Some of us wait for Christmas wondering what the results of the tests are. If you’re out of work at this time of the year, or estranged from your family, on your own, there is the pain of Advent and Christmas inside a lonely bubble.
Encouragement is an urgent matter in these days for the faint-hearted, the despondent among us. There is just something about the nature of the church of Jesus Christ that doesn’t permit a clinical distance to open up between us. God doesn’t keep a professional distance from us, God gets downwardly mobile to comfort and heal us, and so Christians aren’t permitted antiseptic, arm’s-length love. Time is well invested with the faint-hearted. We are not fellow customers, club members, investors or acquaintances; we are the baptized, we are brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in the church water is always thicker than blood. God has given us each other because some burdens are just too large for one person to bear alone. “Bear one another’s burden and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
We are free this Advent to stop, look and listen for the one who needs the advent embrace. What a happy Christmas congruence when those who celebrate a God who could not keep a distance from the world, find clever ways of coming close without physical contact in a time like this. Both of those - coming close and avoiding contact - are acts of love. When that happens, we understand what it means to claim God as parent, and Jesus Christ as older sibling.
There is the advent shove, the advent embrace, and finally, the advent hand. “Help the weak.” It is quite clear that the weak are those without strength or power and who are, therefore, dependent on the assistance of others. “Give support to the vulnerable,” would be a fair translation.
Advent adds urgency to the plight of the weak. In this part of the world, we don’t always clearly understand that sayings like ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “God helps those who help themselves,” are actually perverse. There are people in this world who have no boots and no straps. No sinks to wash their hands in. No structure within which to have a ‘bubble.’ There are people in this world who will only come to know that God loves them because for God’s sake someone reached out.
A few years back I was the guest preacher at a Church in Calgary. The sermon was a dialogue sermon. The texts for the day included the story of St. Paul's conversion. You know the lights and the voice and the conversion.
The minister of that congregation said in front of everyone with just he and I sitting on the platform: 'hey Richard you're a theologian what do you make of this conversion stuff. Well, I stuttered a bit at this question. Then gave an answer from Bob Dylan - 'you gotta serve someone.' It isn't a matter of whether you converted, it is a matter of whether what your converted to is worth your life. He said, “yah, thanks for that.”
And then, Robert came to the mike. Robert wore a t-shirt that was a little too short to cover his stomach; he looked a little unkempt. He went to the pulpit and started to read dead-pan from a hand-written half sheet of paper. 'I used to live on the street, I was violent. My brother and I used to roll people. And then I stumbled into a church coffee shop. The people there we kind to me and my brother. They helped me kick drugs and alcohol. It took a while, it wasn't easy for them or me. Now I live in a house. I have a dog. I'm engaged to be married. I guess God helped me. That's it, that's what I got to say."
My friends in Christ: time is short. And when the time is short, the Christian church is called to help the weak.
There is real urgency in this season, this third Sunday of Advent.
St. Paul says, even in times like these, here’s your to do list:
“Admonish the idlers” – give a loving push,
“encourage the faint-hearted” – give a compassionate hug,
help the weak – “give a hand.”
And be patient with all of them. Amen.