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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Here He Comes
December 1, 2011

I did not grow up observing Advent, even though I was part of a church that was highly charged with expectation of the Lord’s soon return. The term “Advent” was “too Catholic” for us, even though we expected keenly Christ’s Second Advent.

Like most Presbyterians, I have come in recent decades to observe Advent with deep appreciation. I became freshly aware this week of how much Advent has become part of me when someone from another denomination told me of their pastor’s sermon topic last Sunday, and I was entirely dumbfounded that it had nothing to do with Advent. It was as astonishing to me as if a Christian church made nothing of Christmas or Easter. Apparently I have become thoroughly “Adventized.”

There is far more to Advent than lighting candles on a wreath, though that practice does help us keep focused on the season’s theme. Advent is about nurturing constant anticipation of the Lord’s appearance, so that we are fully ready for him when he appears.

It is exquisitely difficult to stay on high alert for a protracted period. We can maintain rapt attention for only so long before wearing out. One of the New Testament’s major themes is the challenge of maintaining our expectation of the Lord’s imminent return while it is delayed longer than we’d expected. We can sustain intense anticipation for only so long before our anticipator wears out.

Perhaps our problem is not so much that Jesus is delaying his coming, but that we fail to recognize him when he does appear. Matthew 25 tells us that when we encounter the poor, the hungry, the sick, and the shackled, we are encountering Jesus himself. The greatest tragedy of Advent is not that we grow weary of waiting for his coming, but that we miss recognizing him when he does come.

I would like to make a modest proposal: Can we train ourselves for welcoming Christ’s coming on the broader world stage by beginning to acknowledge his presence in one another? Perhaps Church is meant to be the place that teaches us to recognize the presence of Jesus in our brothers and sisters, to prepare us to welcome him more readily beyond the sanctuary – both in our encounters with the needy of the world around us, and supremely in his return in glory.

So my first Advent challenge is just this – receiving my church neighbor as Jesus’ self-manifestation to me. That is relatively easy when my neighbor’s convictions, values, and lifestyle more or less comport with my own; but what about when they don’t? If Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 can be trusted, we are most likely to encounter him in people and situations that we think least likely.

One test of whether I am truly an Advent person is whether I am prepared to welcome people I am least likely to embrace, knowing that in doing so I am welcoming Jesus himself. As I welcome the stranger, I train my heart and eyes to welcome the One who is coming in great glory to turn the world right-side up.

Any moment, now, he is coming. In the least; in the lost. In the sister and brother just down the pew from me. In my neighboring congregation, whose perspectives and values may well differ greatly from my own. In the trenches of human suffering. In the glory of heavenly splendor. He is coming! People get ready.

Eagerly awaiting his coming,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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