Today is December 9th, just sixteen days until Christmas. How are your preparations going? Do you have a “to do” list, and if so, are you getting things checked off on your “to do” list? I am the kind of person that likes to make “to do” lists. I make one almost every week for work, noting the various tasks and projects, calls and visits that I hope to do that week. It’s a good way to get a handle on things, to set priorities, and to lessen the likelihood of forgetting something important.
If you were to make a “to do” list for yourself between today and Christmas, how many sheets of paper would you need? Maybe you have gifts to buy or make – you might need a whole list just for gifts! Maybe you have cards to send, or far-away friends or family members that you want to call. Maybe you have baking to do, special meals to plan, decorations to put up, a house to clean, get-togethers to attend, Christmas plays or concerts to watch. Oh, and some of you might have to go to work too, or have some exams to write for school in the meantime. I still have quite a few things on my list, and I’m not even planning for a big family Christmas gathering, nor do I have any kids to buy gifts for as many of you do.
On this second Sunday in Advent, I want to invite you to set aside your Christmas preparations… at least, set them aside in the back of your mind. Yes, many of those things will need to get done at some point. Maybe, like me, you’ll want to write them down on a list and work your way through them so that you are not stressed or anxious about them. They’ll get done. Or perhaps some of them won’t, and all will be well.
But on this second Sunday in Advent, we hear about other preparations that we are called to make in our lives at this time of year, and I want to invite you to consider these preparations as a priority. Advent is a time, not only for getting ready for Christmas, for getting ready to celebrate the coming of Jesus into our world. But it is a time to consider how we are preparing for his coming again.
Back in the first century, before the Christians were even celebrating Advent or Christmas, the Apostle Paul was encouraging the Christians at Philippi (just as he encouraged the Christians at Thessalonica in last week’s reading) to get themselves ready for Christ’s coming again.
Writing to the Philippians, Paul said: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Paul has great hope for the Philippians! He is confident that when the day of Jesus Christ comes, when Christ returns in power and glory, the Philippian Christians will be ready. “Pure and blameless” is what he prays they will be on the day of Christ’s return, “having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Reflecting on this prayer, someone asked, “Can you imagine living a blameless life? Can you imagine living a blameless day?” It’s not that we are such terrible people, but perfect and blameless are just a little beyond our reach.
And yet, Paul is confident that the Philippians will get there. And I am confident that we will get there… Not because the Philippian Christians were so wonderful, and not because the Saskatoon Presbyterians are so wonderful, but because it is God working in us and through us who is able to produce a harvest of righteousness, an abundance of goodness. It is God who began a good work among us, and it is God who will bring it to completion.
The Worship Committee at St. Andrew’s has been studying the Sacrament of Holy Communion this Fall. At the Session’s request, we are studying the theology of the Sacrament, considering its meaning and significance for us, and thinking about how and when and why we are called to gather together at the Table of the Lord. And one of the things that has come up in our discussions is the practice of having preparatory services before Communion services.
Until some time around the mid-1990’s, St. Andrew’s used to have a Friday evening worship service on the weekend when Communion would be celebrated on the Sunday morning. These preparatory services would have encouraged people to get ready for the experience of Communion with each other and with God. Some of you will know better than I what those services involved, but I imagine that they were an opportunity for individuals to examine their lives, to consider their relationships, and to confess their sins to God before sharing in the Sacrament on Sunday.
One member of our committee noted that these preparatory services were in keeping with his early experience of Communion in the Church. Before coming to the Table of the Lord with our sisters and brothers in Christ, church members were expected to do the hard work of reconciliation with those from whom they were estranged or in conflict. It reminds me of the Catholic encouragement to go to Confession before coming to Communion. And just as we ask God to forgive our sins and failings, we too must be willing to forgive our neighbours, our friends, and our family members.
In the early history of Reformed Churches, the ministers used to do something that was called “fencing the table.” Before Communion was celebrated, there was a severe warning expressed, often including a long list of serious sins. Remembering the Apostle Paul’s words to the conflicted Corinthian Church, the people would be warned, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”
Unfortunately, when that kind of severe warning is expressed too often and too insistently, it can lead to a situation where no one really feels worthy to go to Communion. Another Worship Committee member shared about some of the churches in Holland when she was young, in which only a few people actually came up to receive the bread and cup of Communion. The others didn’t consider themselves to be good enough to receive it, and so they stayed in their pews.
It seems to me that Communion, which we shared together here last Sunday, is both a sign of our unity in Christ, and a means to bringing us together in greater unity with one another and with Christ our Lord.
So yes, we should be preparing ourselves for Communion. We should be considering our lives, confessing our sins, and making efforts to mend our relationships and turn our attention towards God and God’s will for us. When we do those things, our Communion together is a sign of the unity that we share, a celebration of the reconciliation that has been achieved in our relationships with each other and with God.
But Communion is also a means to unity. We don’t “fence the table” anymore because we believe that God is so gracious and so loving that all people can be invited to come. Just as Jesus shared so many meals with prostitutes and tax collectors and those who were known to be sinners, Christ’s table in our midst is open to all who love him and who want to love him more.
And so, even as we get up from the table, even as we go out from the church, refreshed and renewed by the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we are called to love one another as Christ has loved us. We are called to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. We are called to follow, more and more closely, in the steps of Jesus, and to prepare ourselves, not only for our next Communion, but for the coming of Christ our Lord.
Advent is a time dedicated to that kind of preparation. We may yet have some gifts to buy, some cards to write, some meals to plan, and some special gatherings to attend. Remembering the Communion with one another and with God that is ours through the loving mercy of God, I hope that we can set aside some time this Advent to prepare our hearts, our spirits, and our lives for Christ’s coming. I hope we can make some space in our lives to allow God, who began a good work among us, to bring it to completion.
Let us hear again the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Amen.