Advent 1, Year A
Advent 1, Year A
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
In the church year, today marks the beginning of a new year. Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent. Maybe it’s the child in me, but Advent happens to be one of my favourite seasons of the church year. I love to sing many of the Advent hymns, which we don’t usually sing at other times of the year. I love the themes and moods of the Advent season—all of which seem to fill us with a deep sense of anticipation, excitement, awe and wonder; as we prepare our hearts, minds and lives to celebrate the birth of Jesus our Messiah. For me Advent is a season of hope, peace, joy and love. Another reason that I like Advent so much is the opportunity to: read, hear, study and learn from the scripture lessons during this season. Indeed, some of the Advent scripture lessons rank among my most favourite in the whole Bible. I’ve been an ordained pastor now for just about 18 years. Over the coarse of those years, it amazes me how little I’ve actually preached on the appointed Psalms. So, beginning today, I am devoting this entire church year to preaching on the Psalms—without doubt, one of the most loved and cherished books of the Bible.
Our Psalm for today is 122. It is titled “A Song of Ascents.” There are actually 15 of these psalms, placed together in the book—they are Psalms 120 to 134. Many, perhaps all, of these psalms are songs sung by the ancient Israelites as they travelled to Jerusalem each year for the most important festivals. In Psalm 122, however, the pilgrims have already arrived, as the psalmist tells us: “Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”
Place yourselves in the feet of those ancient Israelite pilgrims for a moment. How does it feel to have arrived at Jerusalem, your journey’s end? Is there not a sense of relief and satisfaction? Relief, because you made the pilgrimage safely, without being harmed or robbed—without any major accidents or loss of life. Satisfaction, because you have reached your goal, this is the Holy City, this is Mount Zion, where you come and are filled with anticipation, excitement, awe and wonder. This is a special place, there is no place quite like it in the world. So it is, that upon arriving, the psalmist is filled with delight when someone speaks these words of invitation to enter the temple and worship: “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
Advent too is pilgrimage for us Christians. We, like the ancient Israelites journey from where we have been through the church year. Now, we’re starting over again, and moving towards another location in the Holy Land, the town of Bethlehem—travelling there, preparing ourselves to reach our destination on time, so that we can celebrate the Christmas joy of Jesus our Messiah’s birth. So it is, like the ancient Israelites, that we travel with high hopes, deep longings and exciting expectations during the Advent season towards our destination of Christ and Christmas.
In this Advent journey, we like the ancient Israelites who were invited into the Jerusalem temple, are invited to worship too. Worship is vital to our life journey. It is as important to us as oxygen. Worship helps us to draw ever more closer to our God of love and grace. More and more people are drifting away from the church all the time in our part of world. We active Christians are becoming a smaller minority almost by the day. Yet, we are an Advent people of hope and expectation. We refuse to let despair rule our lives. Recent studies have shown that those who worship God on a regular basis are more likely than others to have a hopeful outlook towards life, to live longer, and to recover from sufferings and illnesses faster. It is through worship, that we communicate with God and are given the gift of hope—so that our batteries are recharged again and we can find the strength and resources to live hope-filled lives in the world; and to share that hope with others, who need it so much. It is by doing something as simple as coming to church every Sunday that we are bearing witness to God’s hope to our neighbours. So, I encourage you to: “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy,” and invite your neighbours to do the same—perhaps you might do that by asking them if they would like to come to worship with you on Sunday?!J There is blessing upon blessing for us all as we participate fully in worshipping our Most Holy God. The blessings flow in and through and around and over us, as we: sing the liturgy and hymns, pray the prayers, listen to the scripture readings and sermon, partake of the sacraments, confess our sins, receive the forgiveness, enjoy the silent moments to bask in the presence of our loving God, offer an encouraging word to another worshipper, and so much more.
Coming back to our Psalm, verses 3 and 4 give us a picture of unity among God’s people in Jerusalem. It is a unity described like this: “as a city that is bound firmly together.” One of the thoughts that come to mind here is that of a healthy body. It is a wonderful, miraculous unity. Every body part, so intricately knit together, each having its special function; each doing the part it was designed and created to do for the well-being of the whole body. Or perhaps, if you’re a sports enthusiast, the picture that comes to mind here is that of a championship team. It has been said that there is no “I” in team. Everyone works to benefit the whole team. When each team member does their part efficiently and with care, love and respect for the other team members—pulling their own weight and working in harmony, then the team is a winner. The same was true for the ancient Israelites as God’s people gathered in Jerusalem. The same is also true of us as Christians at the parish, conference, synodical, national, and international levels. We are all in this together, therefore it is vital for our unity as God’s people to work and live; worship and serve as one healthy functioning Body of Christ. We are instructed to live in unity as Christ’s Body. In unity, together, we shall accomplish way more than we ever dreamed of on our own to spread the Good News of God’s healing, saving love for the world.
In verse 4 however, we learn that unity involves diversity. The psalmist puts it this way: “To it (i.e., Jerusalem) the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD,” as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD.” The tribes were not all the same; each of them had their unique purpose and function. Each of them had their unique ways and means of making a living—depending on their geographical location, their local economy, as well as their gifts and abilities. Each tribe quite likely developed differing traditions and customs. There was a rich, creative diversity within Israel. Yet, that diversity did not divide them, it was their expression of unity. Why was that the case? Well, the answer is in both verse 1 and verse 4, Israel was given the Commandment to worship the LORD their God alone, and it was precisely when they gathered together as a nation in Jerusalem their capital for the yearly festivals; it was precisely in worshipping their God together; bringing with them their rich, creative tribal diversity that they discovered their unity. So it is with us too—when we worship the LORD our God with our whole being—bringing with us the diversity of our gifts, we experience the unity of Christ’s body. In unity, Christ invites us to celebrate the creative richness of our diversity for the common good and health of us all.
The psalmist then moves on to express even another important aspect of ancient Israel’s unity in Jerusalem in verse 5. The psalmist describes this unity as: “the thrones for judgment” and “the thrones of the house of David.” This unity refers to the legal and political system of Jerusalem and the nation. One of the signs of the unity of a country is its ability to live in an ordered manner by the observance of laws for the protection and well-being of everyone. The legal and political authority of ancient Israel was to reflect the covenant that God had made with them. It was an authority that was designed to instil within the Israelites a deeper reverence and obedience towards God as they served one another in the daily affairs of the world. However, according to some, it went even beyond the legal and political realms to the spiritual realm as well. The phrase “house of David” was interpreted as referring to the coming rule of the Messiah. Thus, in this way it turns out to be a word of hope for God’s people back then, as well as God’s people now—including for us. We too, as Christians during this Advent season look forward with hope to the days when Jesus our Messiah will come again and rule us completely for all eternity. The time when political and legal systems will no longer become corrupt and unjust—the day when swords will be turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. The day when war, hatred, terrorism and violence will all end.
In the final three verses of our Psalm, the psalmist moves into a prayer for Jerusalem, the city of peace. The psalmist, using a play on words, prays for the shalom, and the shalvah of Jerusalem. Shalom, of course, means peace. Peace that is way more than the absence of war. Peace that involves health, wholeness, and completeness. Peace that translates into justice for all. Peace that gives us spiritual, mental, as well as physical prosperity. The word shalvah means security. It is not, however, the military security that many might wish for in our time. Rather, it is a security which breeds contentment deep within the heart and soul. It is a security not rooted in material wealth. Rather, it is a security involving a holy/wholly trust in God. It is a security that says: “No matter what happens I know, I trust that I am in God’s hands and that God cares for me personally, for my loved ones, and indeed, for all people, for the whole world.” It is the bedrock trust and confidence in God—realising that God knows best, and in all things God is able to work good, even from evil; as God did through the life of Joseph in Egypt. But even more as God did through the life, sufferings, death and resurrection of Jesus our Saviour.
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