This sermon was originally delivered at Our Savior’s Way Lutheran Church in Ashburn, Virginia.
To all those in Ashburn who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christmas is almost here, isn’t it? It’s difficult to believe. December is almost over, and that means that Advent is almost over and Christmas shall be ascendant. Poor Advent always seems to be overshadowed during the church year; always the bridesmaid, never the bride. American culture seems especially to be in love with Christmas over Advent, and so Advent, outside of the churches, does not get a lot of love or attention. We’ve all been going to Advent services, yes, but the rest of the world passes Advent by.
But Advent has historically been a time for contemplation and study, remembering Christ’s first coming, and looking again to his assured return. It can and has been a time for personal discipline, like Lent— indeed, Advent used to be seven weeks long and was observed with fasting. In some countries, it was called “St. Martin’s Lent” because the seven-week observance began after St. Martin’s Day on November 11. But it’s also a time to confront the darkness that pervades the world. In John 1, the Evangelist tells us that in Christ “was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it,” or, as other manuscript traditions attest, “the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5 NASB/RSV). In these gray and latter days, there’s an awful lot of darkness about.
Tish Harrison Warren, author of the recent award-winning book, Liturgy of the Ordinary and a priest in the Anglican Church of North America, writes the following in a recent op-ed in the New York Times:
But Advent bids us first to pause and to look, with complete honesty, at that darkness. To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.
And what an evil world it is. Just this week we received news that the former president of the Lutheran Church in Venezuela (one of our sister-churches) was murdered, leaving behind a wife and three children. In the last few weeks, two pastors were murdered by an angry mob in Ethiopia, and several Christians in Kenya were killed by al-Shabab because they would not confess Islam. If you read the Wall Street Journal yesterday, you likely saw the op-ed discussing attacks on Christians in Nigeria by radical Fulani herdsmen. And then there was the military-base attack in Florida, and the knife attacks in London. And then there’s the constant war everywhere, the persecutions of Christians and Uyghurs in China. And closer to home, the political infighting, of neighbor turned against neighbor on account of the political cause du jour; and there are the politicians who use the system to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their constituents. Then, too, there’s the devaluing of human life and the elevation of convenience and the desire to live life for oneself and not for others. And we have hunger and homelessness; illness and depression, greed, avarice, hatred—the whole gamut of ills and sins. There’s a lot of darkness, and it’s easy to see only the darkness in the world and in ourselves. And so at Advent, in the face of all of this darkness and evil, we need to be reminded of the Christian story, of why we are who we are.
Perhaps this is what Paul was trying to do when he wrote his letter to the church in Rome. We know that Paul wrote his letter to the fledgling Roman church sometime around AD 55-58, roughly 25 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The Roman world was one full of darkness, too (and let’s be honest, the world has always been full of darkness, regardless of the reigning culture). The members of the early church in Rome lived in a city home to hundreds of competing cults and where the ruler literally believed himself to be a man-turned-god descended from a line of men-turned-gods. Rome was a landscape antithetical to the Christian life and witness: a place where infanticide was legal; where masters subjected their slaves to the worst kinds of abuse, even death; where adultery and prostitution were frequent, and where men fought each other, sometimes to the death, in bloodsports for money and the acclamation of the crowd. It was a city where it was common to hire fake witnesses to testify at your court hearings, and to use the legal system to steal from your political and social enemies. It doesn’t sound a lot different from the world we know, if not in aspect, then certainly in intent.
And in addition to all of this, the Roman church was staring at potential persecution by the imperial government. The empire hadn’t officially begun persecuting the church, but the writing was on the wall. Several years before Paul wrote his letter, the Jews were expelled from the city on account of unrest in their synagogues, possibly on account of their unwillingness to accept Christians in their ranks. This meant that after the Jews were expelled, only Gentile believers were left. But they, too, may have expected the governing authorities to turn on them, too. And furthermore, without the Jewish believers among them, some of whom may have witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this young and now largely Gentile congregation may suddenly have found itself without an anchor, without eyewitnesses to Christ’s death and to Pentecost there to remind them what this Christian life is all about, to remind them of who they were and are, to remind them why they wait. And so Paul wrote his letter, and told them this Gospel. A Gospel through which light bursts through the gloom of the world:
[The] gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…. (Romans 1:1–6, RSV)
The Gospel is the same one Paul himself received: that Jesus Christ was foretold by the prophets and scriptures and born of David’s line; that he, a king according to his lineage, was also the Son of God; that he was shown to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead; and that he, through that resurrection, has given Paul (and, more especially, the church) grace to proclaim Christ to the nations and to reconcile them to God by faith. Jesus is real. He is both king and God, and death could not hold him. He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love.
This is the Good News for the church in Rome, and it’s Good News for you and me. It’s Good News because this Gospel reminds us that, in spite of the darkness of sin that marks this world in this present age, Christ came among us, born into a human lineage, lived, died, and rose so that we all might be given grace to be God’s people in Christ and live as saints in him. Christ really took on flesh and dwelled among us. He really died for our sins. And he rose again to show that sin, death, and the grave had been robbed of their power. By his death and resurrection, he defanged the Devil and destroyed his power over you and over me. Sure, sin and death try their hardest to harm us, and they may— in fact, they often do. But Christ, who came and pitched his tent among us at his first coming, has made their effects moot. It will not last forever. As Brother Giovanni Giocondo allegedly wrote to to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi at Christmas in 1513 (Giocondo’s authorship is disputed, but the sentiment still stands): “The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see – and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look!”
Christ is that light. Christ is that joy, and as Paul told the Romans, he came so that they might know this joy and live new and transformed lives because of it, belonging to him rather than belonging to the world of sin and death. The seed of David and Son of God, who died on the cross and rose from the grave, has been crowned Lord of All—just like in the chancel window here, and he holds out his arms through the gloom to take hold of us and make us his own through the gift of faith he gives us. He places his name on us in baptism and feeds us his body and blood to strengthen us in body and soul. He cleanses our hearts when we confess our sins, and he keeps and sustains us through his life-giving Holy Spirit. And renewed by the Holy Spirit, we go out as God’s agents—as little Christs (for that’s what Christians are!)—serving our neighbors in this world, doing the good works that the Holy Spirit has set before us to do. This is what it means to be a saint, one called to belong to Christ, a “slave” or bondservant just like Paul. When you and I were baptized into death and raised to life in Christ, we were changed, lifted out of the muck and gloom of a sinful world to live in his glorious light, made holy, and made whole.
This is the Christian story that we hear every Advent; this is the Gospel Paul reminded the Romans of when they found themselves alone without a human connection to Christ in a city and land hostile to them; this is the Gospel you and I need to hear when the darkness of these gray and latter days closes in, when the darkness that still lurks in our hearts raises its ugly head or when the wolf is at the door. Because in this Gospel, we know that Christ has rescued us from the evils of this world, and we know that he will come again to end the reign of sin for good. He will make all things new. And so we tell the story and look to his coming, remembering and waiting. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. And we say with the church throughout the ages the Great O Antiphon for this, the 22nd of December, O Rex Gentium:
O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.
“O King of the nations, and desired by them,
the cornerstone who makes two one,
come and save mankind,
whom you formed from clay.”
 Tish Harrison Warren, “Opinion | Want to Get Into the Christmas Spirit? Face the Darkness,” The New York Times, 30 November 2019, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas-season-advent-celebration.html.