Going to the Dogs?

The Church of Saint Andrew, the Apostle | Indooroopilly

A sermon offered by The Reverend Ann Edwards for the Third Sunday of Advent

12/13 December 2020

This parish looks to me to favour dogs, judging from our St Francis day adventures. Who are our dog people here?

I own a cat, but I love dogs… they’re always excited to see you. They’re always waiting for you, even when you’re right there. You might be about to do something. They’re hoping you are, because for a dog, you are the best thing in their day. Imagine a border collie, head cocked to one side, as if to say – what are we doing? Their whole bodies are ready in anticipation. If it’s not a walk, maybe it’s a trip to the lead-free dog beach – whooo hoooo! Sometimes it’s a trip to the vet, not always so good, but it is with the human, so it will be ok. When the excitement is finished and we rest, there is contentment you are near. And even when a dog is as sick as sick gets, the tail lifts when they hear your voice and attempts a wag.

That is extravagant and trusting expectation. Not knowing what to expect, but delighted that something will happen, anything will happen, with their person that they love and trust.

So, I’m going to say what may be the most contentious thing ever uttered from behind a lectern. It seems to me God is also a bit of a dog person. Or perhaps it is better to say that God delights in a dog-type response, when we wait with expectation, listening attentively, and trusting God to be with us in our distress.

Now, I’ve been a little whimsical, but hold the image of hopeful waiting for a moment. We wait for something to happen, we have hope something good will happen, because we trust that we will always be loved.

Many of you will be familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia, for those who aren’t a lion called Aslan is the Christ figure, and his people are humans and magnificent talking animals of all kinds. In the final book of the Narnia series, the land has become tainted by corruption, greed, complacency, dismay, and a sense that Aslan is long gone. Yet there are Narnians that continue to wait expectantly in spite of it all. And just before a terrible battle, when all was lost, a battle that would be violent, bitter, and divisive, Aslan’s answer becomes apparent in the confusion and turmoil. CS Lewis writes –

The third thing—which also happened at the same moment—was the only really beautiful thing that night. Every single Talking Dog in the whole meeting (there were fifteen of them) came bounding and barking joyously to the King’s side. They were mostly great big dogs with thick shoulders and heavy jaws. Their coming was like the breaking of a great wave on the seabeach: it nearly knocked you down. For though they were Talking Dogs they were just as doggy as they could be: and they all stood up and put their front paws on the shoulders of the humans and licked their faces, all saying at once: “Welcome! Welcome! We’ll help, we’ll help, help, help. Show us how to help, show us how, how. How-how-how?”

This Advent, do we feel that same extravagant and trusting expectation? Are we ready for God to do something?

If not, what would it take to make us cock our heads to one side and sit, alert, waiting for what God is doing this season? What would it take?

Now the scene is set, let’s turn to our New Testament reading from 1 Thessalonians. Paul writes to a faithful and suffering community in northern Greece. Thessalonians were Gentiles, not Jews, and as John Parr writes, the community sprung from sweatshops and not synagogues. In Thessalonica, Christianity was not welcome by the State, because the Emperor was to be worshiped as the “Son of God” – this new faith was a threat. Conversion, then, was accompanied by brutal persecution. Something dangerously new and radically different was happening.

The Thessalonians were waiting for Jesus and, like the rest of the church at that time, expected to literally see their suffering resolved by Jesus returning in an apocalyptic event. So they waited in hope, suffering, and wondered what would happen to those who had died waiting. Paul assures them they matter, they all matter, including those who had already died. In that letter, he writes

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

This verse has been quoted in some pretty shoddy ways, as an imperative on the suffering to suck it up. But that is to mistake what rejoice means.

Joy is not is not the same as happiness. Instead, Henri Nouwen describes joy as “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away”.

If joy isn’t the countenance of a dog loved by a human, I’m not sure what is.

In telling the Thessalonians to rejoice, Paul was telling the Thessalonians to hope, knowing that God saw them, that Christ would come, and so the community built what it could of that future promised as they waited. Little did they know that two millennia later, the world would be unrecognisable, and yet we would be the same church and we wait still. What does it mean for us to wait today, to be expectant, to have hope?

First, to wait with hope is to see our situation as it is and recognise things need to change. When we have nothing, or like the Thessalonians, less than nothing, change is easy to welcome. From a position of affluence and abundance the temptation is to cling to what is familiar. Paul’s advice is equally important when we’re content where we are – we need to undertake deliberate reflection and have an openness to hearing God, in Christ speak something new through the Spirit. Rejoice, pray without ceasing, give thanks, and do not quench the Spirit. I don’t think we need to suffer persecution or destitution to be excited by the idea of Christ being here, and Christ coming, of Christ doing something in our world – we just need to open our eyes to the reality around us.

This year has been the year to confront the illusion of security we’ve had – between bushfires and a global pandemic, we’ve been shaken to see our world’s fragility. We may have experienced loss and hardship, and we may know people who are isolated, who have been separated from family, who are suffering job losses and under-employment, or who have become ill, who have not survived. For now, the threat of the same is still on our doorsteps. Our eyes have been open to the indiscriminate nature of suffering, to the futility of clinging to stability. Where is Christ in this?

Where are we, the church, in this mess? This year, when our church doors closed during Holy Week, what did we miss? What did we fear? If we had never reopened, what would be missing? We’ve been shunted off our rails, we can no longer just move through the motions – our world is changing and 2020 was simply an illuminating light. To wait for Christ is to hope that something will be different – what needs to be different? If Paul was writing to us today, as he did to the Thessalonians in their distress, what would he implore us to do? I expect it would be this –

In the Spirit, rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. This is the will of God, in Christ, through the Spirit for us today, as much as it was for the Thessalonians. This is not a flippant way of shrugging off inequity, fear or suffering, but rather of choosing to see it for what it is and having hope that the Christ we love and trust will come.

Our pink Advent candle is for joy. We rejoice because we wait in confidence for:

  • God, in Christ to be here in the mystery of the sacrament, as together, we extend our hands in faith and gratitude each week.
  • God, in Christ to be here in the work of us as Christ’s hands and feet on Earth.
  • God, in Christ to be here in the friend that calls, and the person that is glad to see us, or the one that sits with us in comforting silence.
  • God, in Christ, to come again.

We rejoice as we wait to see where God, in Christ will take us in the call on our lives that is germinating now, and in the Spirit’s gentle agitation of our community.

Because Christ is not finished. Christ has not finished with us. Christ will never be finished with us. Christ, is a constant presence in our lives, as well as the presence that arrives over and over again breaking into our lives and into our history, and the one that will be there at the end.

That is the reason to choose to rejoice always, even when we’re comfortable and secure, even in the depth of despair and unhappiness, even when we feel apathetic, distant, or alone. To choose joy is to have hope. To have hope is to expect change. To expect change is to wait.

This Advent, let’s make time to pause our preparations for the season, to just stop for a moment. Let’s together choose to see that Christ is here. Perhaps we can each make a deliberate time each day this week to wait in prayer, with joy and anticipation for the one we love and trust. Let’s listen attentively for the voice that calls us to new adventures. Let’s choose to rejoice in all that is good and hope for all that could be good and all that will be good. Let’s rejoice in the unconditional love of God that can never be taken away, not even in death. Choose to remember and rejoice in the Christ that is present amongst us, who at the same time is coming still, and the one that will hold us until the end of time.

Let us pray

As we wait expectantly, may the God of peace sanctify us entirely; and may we be kept sound and blameless in spirit and soul and body at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls us is faithful, and will do this. Amen

Horrell, D. (2010). The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. In The New Oxford Annotated Bible.

Lewis, C. S. (1956). The Last Battle. Macmilllan.

McHugh, J. F., & Stanton, G. (2014). John 1-4: A critical and exegetical commentary. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral.proquest.com 

Parr, J. (2016). What does the future hold? The Expository Times.

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