Third Sunday of Advent Sermon

December 11, 2022
Preacher: The Rev. Eric Stelle

It’s human nature to care most about what’s closest to us.

We love our own kids more than our neighbor’s kids, and our neighbor’s kids more than some unknown kid in another state or country.

We root for our own nation’s soccer team at the World Cup.

We love what we know. We aren’t God, after all. We don’t have unlimited knowledge. We live and function within those spheres of intimacy that are nearest us. We read about an earthquake in Indonesia and think, “Oh no, how terrible. Those poor people,” and then move on with our day. But if some huge earthquake were to happen here, in Gig Harbor, nothing else would have our attention! We’d fling ourselves on the rubble to rescue the child crying beneath it.

We care most about what’s closest to us.

Which means, as a species, we naturally care most about our own species. We’re human, and so we care about humans. We study humans: our artwork, our literature, our science, our theology – the big common denominator of it all is our insatiable need to figure out who we are and how we function in this world. It’s not to say we don’t care about the rest of creation. We do. We just care more about ourselves than the rest. If I’ve got to choose between saving a cabbage or saving a human child, I’m gonna choose the child, every time.

And so, as humans, our spiritual lives are also rooted in, what we can call, an “anthropocentric priority.” That is to say, our faith principally orbits around the human story: What does it mean to be human? To be in relationship with other humans? To have a human relationship with the rest of creation? To have a human relationship with the God who made us all? And so the Bible itself shares this anthropocentric priority. It was written by humans. It was written for humans. And with this perspective, who is the star player in the whole scope of the Biblical story? Who does it all end up pointing to? To the God who became human: God with us, God like us. God in Christ shows us the face of God we humans can best understand. When we conceive of Jesus as savior, it is Jesus saving us humans from our human predicament.

But if I may, on this third Sunday of Advent, I want us to consider that this future for which we yearn, this future of God’s shalom – God’s universal peace – is not exclusively a human concern. It’s natural that we humans are most attentive to our human experience and our human destiny. But by that same logic, it is natural that God should be most attentive to all that comes from God and is of God, which means God must be equally invested in the welfare and the destiny of everything in God’s creation.

And once we begin looking for it, we discover that the scriptures actually do point to such an all-inclusive priority of God. Yes, the Bible is principally oriented around the human question, but not exclusively:

  • From the beginning, in the first creation story, God concludes each day’s work with the consistent accolade, It is good. It is good. It is good. The plants, the animals, the birds – everything is good. In fact, the human vocation and responsibility in the second creation story is that we are to be care-takers, stewards, of this good Our whole job description as humans was to care for this earth on God’s behalf.
  • In the story of Noah and the flood, (the result of human sin, their failure to be good stewards), God’s instructions for Noah are to save a mating pair of every animal. Why? Because they’re all of value to God, all are worthy of God’s salvation. And when the flood is over and God begins the re-creation of earth and its inhabitants, God makes a covenant of peace, not just between God and humans, but between God and all creatures of the earth. Everything receives God’s redemptive promise.
  • When God chooses Israel and gives them the law by which they should live, it is largely about how to live in community with one another and how to worship God. But it also provides explicit instructions on how they are to care for and honor the land itself.
  • Centuries later, in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he describes how all of creation has been groaning in pain, and that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:18-25).
  • And over the centuries, the church has sought to interpret the Jesus narrative and all that is said of him in the scriptures. And they’ve developed the concept of “the Cosmic Christ,” that the Jesus of Nazareth we know from a point in time of human history, was a temporal manifestation of a Christ whose existence is one with and eternal with God the Father. So of him we say each week in the Creed,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

Which brings us to today, in this season of Advent, a season when we anticipate the return of Christ, and through him, the completion of God’s redeeming. Our hope is that this redeeming will be of a universal nature, a redemption for the entire creation. And so we read in Isaiah,

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the dessert;

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;

the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

I don’t think these are only metaphors. Nor do I think the promise is to redeem a creation simply as one retrofitted for human comfort. The whole earth is groaning under the subject of decay; the whole earth awaits her redemption; the whole earth is child of God and recipient of God’s love.

And so when we imagine a future of God’s redeeming, it must be a future for all of God’s creation.

And especially in these days, with the growing reality of climate change – with species going extinct and rivers drying up – this hope of the desert rejoicing in blossom, is hope indeed.

We cannot know the shape of such a redeeming. But the most consistent (or substantial) testimony of scripture, isn’t that we humans will be whisked away to some ethereal, bodyless sphere of existence. It’s actually quite the opposite, on every front: it’s of a new heaven and a new earth, descending from God. God’s answer to how we are to be saved from the physical sufferings of this life is not to eliminate our physicality; it is to eliminate the evil that threatens and harms our physicality, and then to restore us, in our physicality. And not just ours alone, but this whole, tangible world.

I, of course, cannot conceive a physical world no longer dependent on the Circle of Life and Death. But just because I cannot conceive it, does not mean it cannot happen. I know I’ve preached it recently, and I’ll preach it again: If I’d never seen a tree before; if I had no concept of what a tree was, and you were to show me an acorn, soil, water, and light, it would be impossible for me to imagine those four things merging together to become an oak tree. There would simply be no way to conceive of such a miracle. But these miracles are happening every day, all around us. And we know it!

And with this dynamic pattern of creation – of new lives being born by the merging of many others – we can now survey this whole creation; we can trust it all comes of God, is all loved by God; and in God’s time and purpose, will know a literal, physical redemption vastly beyond anything we could now predict.

And in our days, as we await that day, our role continues unabated from God’s first mandate to Adam: love this creation. Tend the land and the waters and the air. Seek the welfare of all God’s creatures. And should we do so, should we give ourselves to it with purpose and resolve, we will discover what biologists have long known: knowledge leads to wonder and wonder to delight; delight leads to love and love to sacrifice.

And so shall the spheres of our intimacies expand, our hearts and wills merging with that of God, with an ever-widening love and a willingness to give what must be given for the welfare of the other. And so shall we prepare the way for Christ’s return, when he shall carry forth God’s plan for the renewal of this whole creation.

After all, isn’t that what we’ve been taught to pray, week after week: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? It is an Advent prayer. It is the yearning of our hearts, that the reality of God and the ways of God would become our ways, too, in a now shared reality.

So, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Deliver us from death and decay. Deliver us from tearful farewells and bereavements weighted with the threat of forever.

And grow hope within us – a hope, that the life yet to be will be a life that includes our own and all those lives that have come before us.

Grow hope within us, that as Christ is risen – changed yet familiar, so too shall we rise – changed yet familiar.

Grow hope within us, that we shall be one as God is one – one with God, one with each other, one with all God’s beloved, where not one is missing or alone.

Amen.

 

Advent III poem

(commissioned by the Worship Committee from parishioner, Josie Turner)

 

Let us leave this earth with eyes wide open,

in knowing our suffering ends now,

giving us new life, new love, with Jesus

here at our side and at the side

of those left behind,

taking, embracing, grace, where

not one is missing, alone, where

in this new place of winter sun,

Jesus joins again, lovers, mates.