Thanks for You All
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
November 27, 2005
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
“I always thank God for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus…” –1 Corinthians 1:4
“And so I say to you all, ‘Be Alert!’” –Mark 13:36
Advent Sunday begins the new Christian year, and this year it falls on the Thanksgiving weekend. For that reason I want to begin with the Epistle text, ’I always thank God for you…” I just feel like saying thanks for and to you all, and to all the other people in my life, who make it so rich and good, thanks to God for you all, and thanks to you. At the beginning of a new year, it seems appropriate to take stock of what makes ones life rich and satisfying, and at the top of that list are the people who love one and whom one loves.
Our second text is the Advent theme from the Gospel, which warns us to be watchful, pay attention and stay awake. The warning traditionally occurs in the context of the judgment of God. “Be alert,” it says, “so that Jesus will not catch you doing something wrong when He returns to judge the world.” This image reminds me of my misspent youth, when on occasion we went out at night to steal fruit – yes I did that, and there was a lot of fruit to steal. We would always post a lookout, to warn us if the farmer or one of the hands appeared. In this case the thieves posted the lookout against the good guys; in the Gospel the good guys post the lookout against the thieves. In any case, I know this particular metaphoric context of keeping watch from my own experience, and I mention it because it is clearly not the only context in which an alert attention to what is going on is appropriate.
I want to suggest that we might use the metaphor of watchfulness against thieves standing for attention to the signs of God’s coming in a different context and with a different force. The Day of Judgment might be unexpected, but so is the grace that breaks upon us now and then in the mean time, especially through our friends. So let us take “Be alert!” as a warning not to miss the coming of God in the friends God has given us to love. And so I respond joyfully to the Apostle’s opening of his first letter to Corinth; “Dear Corinthians” he says, “I give thanks for you all the time because you have in you the grace of God that Christ gives you, because you continually share it with me, and because that is a source of great joy to me.” In this sense, the Advent warning is a Thanksgiving reminder, to remember one another as friends gifted with grace, because in that capacity we are to one another little advents of the love of God. So the perhaps unexpected message of this Advent sermon is, “Be alert to the coming of Christ in the friends and family God gives us to love!” There will surely be a great, climactic coming, but in the mean time there are many little advents of divine grace in and through the people we call friends, the people we love, and most amazing, the people who love us.
This is a simple message to understand, but it requires a lot of alert attention to experience as real. I look out on this congregation and see people whom I love and who love me, and I remember how together we have supported and comforted each other on our walk as disciples of Jesus, how when one has been weak in faith others have been strong and held them up, how our prayers for one another have nourished us, how we have simply listened to each other and thereby given each others’ words meaning and significance. (In an important sense what we say does not make sense unless there is someone who makes sense out of it.) So I say with the Apostle, “I always thank God for you!” because you have so often made sense out of me.
Jesus tells us to be alert to the final advent of God, and I am interpreting that message in terms of the Apostle’s greeting of his congregation. Each one of them and all of them together are a part of the ongoing advent of God. (We shall return to the final advent later). Paul experiences divine grace in them, divine joy through them, human satisfaction because of them and human meaning in relationship with them. He frequently says that they are his pride and joy, which he looks forward to showing to God on the Day of Judgment. In this very passage he reminds them of that Day, “…as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ (vs.8)” In Philippians 4:1 he calls them, “…my much loved and longed for brothers and sisters, my crown and my joy,” and in 1 Thessalonians 2:19 he writes, “For what is our hope, or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” His satisfaction on that day will not be to say, this is what I made, or this is how much I accumulated, but rather these are my friends who allowed me to preach to them and who responded to those words and thus validated my life. Something like that is what I want to say to you today, my friends.
Ten days ago our friend Lucerne Beal died. She was a friend for many years and Rosemary and I found great blessing with her. We remember how lost she was when her husband Charles died; it was a great privilege for me to preach at his memorial service. Charles and Lucerne founded a hospital in Ivory Coast, West Africa, and worked continuously for the health and welfare of Africans. I considered them as two of the Lord’s most fruitful disciples in their generation. Who gets to found a hospital in one lifetime? I mention them here to remember them and to testify that I glimpsed the advent of Christ in them, even in the last years when they struggled hard without great success to bring to market medical devices invented by Charles, which might still make healthcare cheaper and more efficient. Rosemary and I saw Lucerne just ten days before she died, when we went to have dinner with her in Monterrey as we did from time to time after she moved from Menlo Park to Pacific Grove. She was on the mailing list of this service and attended the Bible study now and then. I mention her because I think I was alert to the advent of Christ in her life together with Charles. Today I give special thanks for them, because of the grace of God that was given them and to many others through them, especially to the thousands who to this day are served by their hospital.
Let me in conclusion say something about the big advent of God in judgment, the Day of the Lord, which was always in the Apostle’s mind. He expected it to come soon and much of his thinking was controlled by that eager expectation. So we must not let the little advents in this ongoing world cancel our Christian conviction that the present order of existence will not go on forever. Each one of us experiences three kinds of advent: a) our little advents, as I have been describing, b) the bigger advent of our own physical death where God comes to us more immediately than in the advents of this world, and c) finally the judgment at the end of this world’s duration. The first category requires alertness or we might miss it; the second and third categories cannot be missed.
The big advent seems most real and urgent to me when I contemplate the wrenching cruelty and heart-rending sadness of this suffering world, and feel the incongruity between this ravaged reality and the divine loving kindness that I experience in Jesus Christ, mediated so often through the loved ones of my little corner of the world. So I pray fervently and often, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” In a sense that is my only prayer; I long for the Kingdom of God to come and thus put and end to our agony.
Let me close with a personal anecdote. In 1996 Rosemary and I went trekking in the Himalayas. We entered from Tibet on the east side of Mount Everest and climbed up beside the Kanshung Glacier to 16000 feet. On the way back we had to climb over a 17500-foot pass in a blizzard. It was a very strenuous hike! As we struggled on a Buddhist friend said to me that he was entirely at peace in the ordeal because he accepted what is and did not desire anything other than what is. I on the other hand, while of course I had to accept the present circumstances, was cheered and sustained by a hope and a vision of my room at the five star Yak and Yeti hotel in Katmandu, which every heavy step brought closer. A trivial illustration, but I think telling. We Christians live in hope of the Kingdom of God and as long as there is one of God’s beloved creatures not yet delivered from suffering, we accept the present only conditionally. We live for the big advent of the Kingdom, for that room with the big bathtub at the five star hotel.
So while we individually rejoice in all the little advents we experience with one another as this world trudges on, we look forward to ( think how often we say “I am looking forward to…”) the advent of the new Jerusalem, as described by John the Divine in Revelation 21:3-4. On that day, “He will dwell with them and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, for the former things have passed away.” This is God’s promise, this is our hope, and this is the joy of all three kinds of Advent!