Opening Prayer: "O Christ of Bethlehem, we bring to you our dead-end dreams and splintered hopes. In this time of reflection on your word, bring forth your star of truth. Amen."
A popular story repeated by every preacher worthy of laughing at him/herself is of the man who fell asleep during the sermon. The preacher tries in vain to wake the man up - pounding on the pulpit, raising his voice - to no avail. Finally the preacher calls an usher and whispers to her, "Go wake that man up." The usher replies loud enough for all to hear: "Wake him up yourself, you put him to sleep!"
The message of Advent is “Wake up – the Lord is coming!” Advent is a season when we are challenged to consider our "readiness" - when we measure how ready we are - when we make some new resolves about some things we might do different to better prepare ourselves for his coming – better able to experience the living Jesus.
Jesus had been discussing with his disciples the coming days - his immediate concern being that they be prepared for the events that he knew were about to unfold in Jerusalem. The disciples asked him to give them a clearer description of this end of the age and his believed to be associated coming again. And so, he did. He described for them this rather frightening picture of wars and earthquakes and famines and rejection and persecution. And then, he stopped. He didn’t name an exact time when all of these things would take place. Instead, he announced, as the first verse in the Gospel reading we're considering put it, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
Then Jesus drew a parallel between the experience of Noah and the experience that was going to be theirs - and ours. Noah was told there was going to be a flood and that he should make preparation for it - that he should build an ark while the sun was still shining - while everyone else was living life paying attention to their daily living needs without any eye on the future. And Jesus reportedly said: "Just as Noah had to prepare for the flood without knowing when exactly the rains were going to begin so must you prepare for my future coming even though you do not know when it is going to happen."
The New International Version states it this way: "So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." Or, to use a saying from our childhood game of hide and seek: "Ready or not, here I come!"
Now, there is a sense in which the words can be regarded as a warning about the future. But my sense is that Christ's real intent was to turn our attention off of a fear of the future and put it on how we are to live today. The intent of the idea behind a belief in a second coming is to produce hope, not fear - expectancy, not reluctance - an excitedness, not an anxiousness. Jesus stops short of giving us an exact roadmap because the end will take care of itself - nothing we do or don't do will bring his anticipated return any sooner or later. Knowing when it will happen will only give us excuses not to live as God desires until the last moment. Our role is not to try and figure it out but only to believe in it and to make ourselves ready for it.
Advent is about "readiness" - it's about "getting ready," "keeping watch," "staying awake." It's not about "worrying," "stewing," or "fretting," about things we cannot control. It's not about instilling in us a fear about the future. If we are ready, then Jesus' words "Here I come" will be words that produce hope in us - excitement in us - anticipation in us - a fervor for his coming.
It's easy for some to take the cataclysmic, frightening events of nature or between nations and hypothesize that they represent the end. Too often the result is inactivity, a paralysis from good and the peace of God. It's in the face of such troubles that we are called to do the essential work of proclaiming God's forgiving mercy, joyfully sharing our gifts, talents, skills, and wealth with all people, especially the poor.
Down the corridors of history we hear Jesus shout to us every Advent season: "Ready or not, here I come!" Every year it's good for our souls to ponder: "Am I ready?" I would like to suggest to you that the answer comes not just from being able to rattle off/repeat/regurgitate some neatly packaged set of beliefs - some sort of correct theology - important and vital as it is for us to pursue a clear understanding about what it is we believe. But the answer of whether we are ready or not is best gleaned from how we are interacting with those around us in this world. For in those interactions is the evidence of our relationship with God.
In a sermon I read a few years ago, the preacher observed: “The temptation is to dismiss these words from Matthew. After all, how do they pertain to us? Written at a time when the early church had bet its life on Jesus’ return, these seem odd words to hear on (a) Sunday of Advent. We are busy preparing the crèche for a baby, but Matthew appears to be announcing Jesus’ second coming. And it isn’t just an odd lesson, but a frightening one. In a season when we seek assurance, Matthew’s words are enough to scare us half to death. These words compare the coming of God’s promised one to the death and devastation of the flood during Noah’s time. We are looking forward to being reunited with family and friends while this lesson speaks of untimely separation and unpredictable departure. And then, in the event our Advent and Christmas sensibilities are not offended completely, the coming of Jesus is compared to a thief who breaks into a house at an unexpected hour. Matthew doesn’t know much about the holidays.” (1)
Perhaps it’s a different Christmas we have in mind than the one the author of Matthew had. Perhaps we have forgotten the original reason of the season was not the birth of the Savior of the world, but a way to celebrate the winter solstice – to bring some fun to the drudgery of winter. Perhaps we should quit trying to make the rest of society responsible for our not keeping our reinterpretation of the reason for the season central to our experience!
Let me state my sermon within the sermon more pointedly: we need to calm down when the government or the mall or the school doesn’t display a crèche. We are the ones who have tagged onto society’s festival – the community’s celebration – and just because we were the dominant faith for awhile and quite effectively imbued the ancient holiday/party with new meanings, that doesn’t mean that the holiday is all ours - all about us and our Savior and our meanings. It is our responsibility to display crèches and talk about the meaning of angels and shepherds and kings and Christmas trees and giving for us. Society has its reasons and history and we can take part in those aspects we are comfortable with, but we need to take responsibility for our own use of the season and quit demanding that other entities do it for us.
O.K., now that that’s off my chest, let’s get back to where I was trying to go with the idea that perhaps it’s a different Christmas we have to get prepared for. If we are to prepare ourselves for Christmas, we are going to have to remember that it is an entirely different holiday than the one that can be satisfied when all the decorations have been hung and the shopping completed. “Advent and Christmas are compromised badly when we focus too much on what is under the tree and too little on who is in the stable. The coming of Christmas is not the same as the coming of the Lord.” (2)
I’m guessing that many of you are like me whenever someone starts using words like ‘coming of the Lord.’ It’s really too bad we feel so uncomfortable. It’s my belief that some have done a terrible disservice to the scriptural understanding of the concept. Some have the idea that it’s all about preparing for a time when Jesus is going to come again riding in on a cloud from the heavens. They spend so much time speculating about it that they forget about his first arrival and that the point of that story is that God-is-with-us, now. And that God, Emmanuel - the God of the incarnation, not the God who has been with us or will be with us – but the God who-is-with-us wants us to do something with who we are and his presence in our lives in this world now. (3)
Then, you see, the question “Are you ready for Christmas?” becomes quite a bit more challenging. “To be ready for Christmas in the biblical story does not involve relaxation, but upheaval. We know that the coming of the Lord will challenge priorities and prejudices. We know that the kind of world for which we long cannot be accomplished without confrontation and change. We know that kind of messiah, no doubt, will ask a lot of us. Are we ready for that kind of Christmas?” (4)
Ours is not a messiah that came riding in on a warhorse. He is not a political figure with power granted him because of his position or to whom he was born. Our messiah sort of “slipped in the back door through the unlikely entrance of a stable, accompanied by poor parents and smelly animals.” (5)
There’s no question that it’s easier to celebrate the secular holiday of this time of year than the coming of the Lord which is our understanding of the season. Jesus is more than someone we offer personal devotion. While he was not a politician, his mission has a political nature to it – that is, he came in a real way to establish God’s ways as the rule of humankind. (6) “The messiah did not come to bless our prejudices and to look the other way from our indiscretions. No, the messiah came to lift up the humble and bring down the proud, to call people away from division and into community, to calm fears and instill courage, and to evoke our compassion for the hurting and left-out of the world. And we know changes like that are going to be painful because most of us have something invested in keeping things as they are.
“Christmas has a comfortable ring to it, but the coming of the Lord stretches and pulls and gnaws at us. Christmas will allow for family gatherings by the fireplace, but the coming of the Lord will call us to see every person on the planet as part of the family. Christmas will save us from the messiness of a troubled world; the coming of the Lord will save us from ourselves and push us to transform the messiness so that we can have real peace with ourselves and each other.” (7)
I’m afraid the author of Matthew was right – God doesn’t want people to suffer or be in pain or sorrow; and so, we’d better stay awake for those times when God might put it in our heads that we should do something about a situation in our community or world – when God might decide that it’s time to interfere with the way things are and insert God’s will. “We do not know the hour or the day, but we shouldn’t be too surprised if some voice calls us to an even greater generosity on behalf of the suffering of the world. We shouldn’t be too taken aback if we are tapped on the shoulder and directed toward some worthwhile community project that needs our support. We shouldn’t be too startled if we begin noticing things that just aren’t right and go to work to change them to benefit other people. We shouldn’t be too alarmed if we find ourselves being led to develop a deeper spiritual center for our lives.” (8)
“’Tis the season to stay awake.” A minister was standing in a check-out line one day when he noticed an eight or nine-year-old boy in front of him looking over the candy display – you know, the one that sits there challenging our wills to stay on our diets. The minister could sort of tell that this was a really important purchase for the young man. His tongue was pressed out against his lips. He appeared to be in deep thought. One has to be careful you know to choose the right one when one only has one choice.
The minister said, “I remember thinking: ‘Good choice!’ when he picked up the Baby Ruth and laid it on the counter to pay for it.”
The cashier rang it up and told him how much it was. The boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a bunch of pennies, nickels and a single dime and plopped them on the counter. The cashier gave him one of those looks and started counting. Then he looked up and said, “You’re twelve cents short. You need another twelve cents.” The boy’s shoulders dropped. His face dropped. He went from grinning to groaning in less than a second.
Just as the cashier started to tell the boy to put the candy bar back, the minister reached into his pocket and put twelve cents on the counter. The boy’s face lit up like Christmas. He said, “Thanks, Mister.” And he took off. Then he stopped and he turned around and came back and he asked, “Hey, mister, you wanna bite?”
The minister grinned and said, “No thanks. You go ahead and eat it.”
Then the boy looked at the minister real carefully as if he was studying him. Finally he asked: “How come? How come you did that?” Before the minister could answer, the boy got a look of recognition on his face. “Oh,” he said, “I know you, you’re that preacher, aren’t you? Jesus made you do it, didn’t he?”
The minister was glad he didn’t get out what he was going to say. Rather, he simply replied to the boy, “Yes, he did.”
Then the boy said, “I sure like Jesus. And I’m glad Jesus makes nice people like you. Bye.” And out the door the boy ran.
The minister finished his account of the episode by noting: “I don’t know who touched whom more. I do know that I’ve never gotten that much pleasure out of twelve cents since or before. I didn’t do anything special, but with God’s love and twelve cents I was able to touch a little boy’s life and bring glory to God simply by obeying Christ’s command to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves.’” (9)
If only we could look at every experience that comes our way and every person who crosses our path as a potential encounter with Jesus Christ, we would be ready for his coming. Jesus Christ’s announcement of his return is not to create an anxiousness in us – it is not intended to cause us to spend time worrying about when it’s going to happen. Rather, it’s an invitation to live with him every day. “’Tis the season to stay awake.” "Ready or not, here I come!" are words that should fill us with hope – should cause us to look forward to those events and days when we will have the opportunity to recognize Christ among us and perhaps be ones through whom others will come to know him. Our attitude toward Christ’s second coming should be more like the attitude we have when we think about Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. It should be one of hope, excitement, and joy rather than fear. “Stay awake” then. "Ready or not, he's coming." Amen.
1. William B. Kincaid, III, “How Unexpected Can Christmas Be?” And Then Came the Angel (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1998), 0-7880-1245-2.
2. Fred Craddock, et al., Preaching Through the Christian Year A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 9.
3. Johnny Dean, “Get Ready, Get Set...Wait!” Collected Sermons (1999), 0-0000-0000-01.
6. Paul J. Achtemeier, General Editor, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper, 1985), p. 630.
9. Billy Strayhorn, Parables, Etc.