(a sermon for November 27, 2016, the 1st Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44)
So once again, it begins; but then, you already knew that, didn’t you?
The fact is, the rush started quite some time ago: Halloween was barely finished before the stores had hung out their Yuletide decorations; the Hallmark Channel has been “Hall-ing” out their Christmas movies for the better part of a month now, and “The Grinch” and Frosty have already made their annual appearance on the airwaves; and yes, we’re already hearing a healthy smattering of holiday music on the radio (because no matter what anybody else may tell you, Christmas cannot officially begin until you hear “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer!” Just sayin’!). And this is to say nothing about “Black Friday,” “Cyber Monday” and all the rest of it; suffice to say it’s a far cry from the days not so very long ago (!) when we all had to count how many “shopping days” we had till Christmas because Sunday didn’t count!
Yes, the holiday season is well upon us. And even though most of us are still eating Thanksgiving leftovers, I suspect that to some degree or another, each one of us is already in the midst of getting ready for the big day “in earnest:” decorating, buying gifts, making travel arrangements, tending to the many activities and commitments that go with this time of year. It’s a busy and exciting season, to be sure – “the most wonderful time of the year,” or so the song says – but we would be less than honest if we did not confess that it can also be hectic, chaotic to the point of becoming frenzied, anxiety-ridden, exhausting, often disappointing and downright sad! And the thing is, we’re just getting started here (!); this annual spiral of activity that so often ends up spinning out of control, and us along with it; spinning round and round endlessly without us really going anywhere! It’s no wonder that at least one person has suggested that instead of a “holy night,” for so many of us Christmas often ends up becoming something of a “holy nightmare!”
So what are we saying here? That the secular Christmas celebration has not only become too commercial, as we so often hear, but also way too complicated? That may be true. That our calendars become so congested this time of year with everything we think we have to do, that we risk losing sight of what the celebration is really about? That’s absolutely true! For most of us, you see, “Christmas” seems to be wrapped up in this ever-lengthening process of “getting ready” for December 25; but there’s this inherent danger that if we’re not careful, all this “getting ready” can quickly and easily become our undoing!
And for that reason alone, but for so many others I could name as well, I am so glad that before Christmas comes, first we have the season of Advent.
Now, the word Advent – in the Latin, adventus – means, “coming,” and on the Christian calendar it is meant as a time of preparation; yes, of getting ready for Christmas, but not in the sense of decorating, shopping or wrapping gifts. Rather, Advent is about preparing ourselves, as persons and as a people, for the coming of the Christ child into the world; it’s about getting our hearts and lives ready for the “indwelling of the sacred;” spending our days actively waiting and watching for God to be with us in Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Now, there’s a big difference between this kind of preparation and the full-scale onslaught of pre-Christmas readiness that’s begun all around us; and it’s the difference between, on the one hand, making Christmas merely the celebration of a holiday, and on the other, making Christmas the sacred observation of a holy day: a time in which the power and grace of God spills out over everything else in our lives, including our festivity. So, yes, our observance of Advent does speak mightily to how you and I go about “celebrating the season;” but even more than this, it says a great deal about our very identity as Christians! Because, you see, before Christmas comes – before we make this pilgrimage to Bethlehem and together go to the manger to behold the glory of this tiny child of God – first there is this matter of truly being ready for his coming. And so that this might happen, we are called to be “advent people,” the faithful who wait and watch for the Lord’s coming; and, understand, not merely waiting in a symbolic way as to count off the days to Christmas, but in fact waiting in a deeply spiritual sense as we, as disciples of the Lord, prepare for his return in glory, and for the fulfillment of the promised kingdom of God! The season of Advent, you see, is not as much about getting ready for Christmas as it is about getting ready for Christ! It is truly about our movement to holiday… to holy day… and beyond!
This truth is reflected in our gospel reading for this morning, in which Jesus says that in our waiting we are to stand prepared, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” It’s important to point out here that in these verses Jesus is most decidedly not making a gentle suggestion to the faithful, but instead is offering up a stern admonition! I dare say there’s nothing at all that’s particularly “Christmassy” about this particular text; in fact, Jesus’ words are downright harsh, for not only does he remind the disciples of those in the time of Noah who, unaware and unprepared, were swept away by the great flood, Jesus goes on to warn that when the Son of Man comes, it will be just as sudden and unexpected; so immediate that “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”
No ambiguity there, friends! But here’s what strikes me about what Jesus says here: you don’t really find any talk of good and evil, and nothing much said about righteousness and sin. Rather, what we’re told is that those who were swept away in the flood were simply those who were busy; busy with the stuff of life: busy getting married, having babies and raising children, busy getting up and going to work, busy eating, drinking and doing… well, all the rest of the things that we do!
In other words, we are not given a treatise as to the unworthiness of those who would be left behind at the arrival of the Son of Man. But by the same token, we are made to understand that there will be dire consequences for our being unprepared for that coming; as well as a “mini-parable,” if you will, that suggests that if a house owner had known that a thief was going to break in and when, he would most certainly have stayed awake in order to be ready for the thief when he arrived! So likewise, says Jesus, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” To quote The Message here, “Be vigilant just like that [because] you have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up.”
Fair enough; but then, of course, the question becomes, if we have no idea the day or the hour of the Lord’s coming, how can we be truly ready? Or, to put this another way: if Christmas is ultimately not about the trappings of the season but of the sudden indwelling of the sacred in the world and in our lives, exactly what are we to be watching for?
Our passage today from Isaiah speaks of the promise of a time when “the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains… raised above the hills; [and] all the nations shall stream to it.” That’s truly one of the great images of the Old Testament: in which the mighty power of God is pictured as rising triumphantly from the earth for all to see! But read on, and you discover that there’s more to this than mere spectacle: the promise is for something akin to a school; a place where the Lord “may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (“He’ll show us the way he works so we can live the way we’re made,” is how the Message puts it). Moreover, it is to be a place of arbitration and peace, where swords will be beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Simply put, what we learn here is that if you want to be prepared for the coming of the Lord, then you need to learn the ways of the Lord! Make it your purpose; make it your plan to walk along his paths; make it your aim to seek the WORD of the Lord in all things.
We have dear friends in Maine who, many years ago now, sought to adopt two children from South Korea; which, as you can imagine, was an incredibly long and involved process. They had to go through a wide variety of tests and screenings to determine if they would qualify to be adoptive parents; there were countless international laws and policies to wade through, and then there was the matter of determining whether it was wise to remove these children from their own culture to live with an American family, which was not as much of an automatic assumption as we in this country might think! In short, the process was not completed overnight and even when all the paperwork was done, there was still months and months of waiting involved; but the thing is, this family did not sit around waiting for the phone to ring, but rather spent their time of waiting immersed in learning everything they could about the children’s nationality and culture and even food (this is about the only home I’ve ever eaten at where Italian sausage and peppers were regularly served beside the Korean staple of “Kimchi”which basically is fermented cabbage!). And they did this with great enthusiasm and with their whole hearts, all so that when these children finally did become part of their new family, these two new parents would be completely ready to give them the best life possible.
Well, as advent people you and I are called to learn all we can of the Lord’s plan for this world, for his people and for our lives. We dare not stand idle, beloved, for there is so much to learn and so little time in which to learn it! We need to be ready for that “Holy Day” to come and beyond; so that when God’s promised celebration finally arrives and encompasses the whole of creation, we will have been found wholly ready!
William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, in their book, Resident Aliens, tell of a rabbi they know in Greenville, South Carolina, who, when his children ask that inevitable question, why they can’t do the things every other kid is doing, answers them by saying, “Well, what they do is fine for them, but it’s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You are a Jew. You have a different story. You have a different set of values.” Willimon and Hauerwas go on to suggest that Christians would do well to say much the same thing to their children – and to each other – most especially at Christmastime.
We do indeed live in an age when “the most wonderful time of the year” often ends up mocking the one it honors by its very pretension and avarice. I’m afraid that with every passing year, we’ve moved closer into transforming Christmas into just another holiday, simply another day off and another excuse to buy presents; rather than understanding that all the gifts and tinsel ought to serve as human expressions of thanksgiving on a truly holy day. But it’s not too late to change the “reason for the season.” The spiral of worldly holiday confusion may spin onward, beloved, but for us it’s different. We are advent people: Christ’s people, with a different story, with a different set of values, with hearts and lives dedicated to being… ready.
Come, thou long expected Jesus… born to set thy people free. From our fears and sins release us… let us find our rest in thee.
Thanks be to God.
Amen, and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry