(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
On the Church calendar, tonight marks the start of the New Year – So let me be the first and probably the only one to say to you: Happy New Year!
And every year, we start the new-year off with a gospel reading like the one I just read.
They’re always readings filled with doom & gloom.
“The end of the world is at hand – you’d better wake up and be prepared!”
Frankly, …I don’t think this is very good marketing!
Why doesn’t the Church start the year off on a happier note?
Maybe she could choose: Easter Sunday!
Or even a month from now, start it all off with a bang on Christmas Day?
The baby Jesus looks all cute and cuddly, lying in the manger!
That scene always brings in the shoppers!
But what do we get to start off the New Year? We get: thieves coming in the night.
And reminders of a flood that the story says: wiped out nearly everyone on earth.
Maybe as addicts, we’re impatient to get down to the good stuff.
Let’s get on to the happy, joyous and free part of this deal –
Patience was never our strong suit! We want it all now!
But for 30 days or so, the Church sets aside a period she calls Advent –
“Advent” means: The Coming – and it’s a time of preparation before Christmas.
… And you know, we pretty much do the same thing here in treatment –
We too set aside 30 days or so – a time to get us ready for something else that’s coming.
What’s coming is the question!
It sounds like a sermon might be hiding in the answer.
So let’s dig around and see what we can find!
A little background information might help get us started.
When Matthew wrote his gospel around the year 85,
people in his community were starting to lose heart.
Jesus had promised those people that “the kingdom of God was at hand” – and both he and they all thought that its coming was just around the corner.
They thought that the Romans were going to get their butts kicked out of Jerusalem and
the crooked priests kicked out of their temple.
Good times were gonna come!
But what they got instead was pain, and trouble, and a very long wait.
At first, the followers of Jesus thought of themselves just like other Jews worshiping God in the synagogues.
But then one by one, people started to turn on them.
They got kicked out of their synagogues.
And one by one, people also started to die –
Some of the people who died were good people –
Some of them were their own people!
People who should have made it into the kingdom
if anyone was gonna make it in –
And so it all started to look like maybe Jesus was wrong about the time of the coming –
and maybe Paul was also wrong, and maybe their other leaders were wrong too.
But unlike us in the program who are asked to take Step X and:
“when we’re wrong promptly admit it,”
well, the followers of Jesus were sometimes a little too proud
or a little too stubborn or a little too stuck in being right
about the wrong things, so people started coming up with other explanations.
And this is where Matthew writes Chapters 24 and 25 into his gospel.
They’re written in a style that’s very different from his other chapters.
They’re what’s called “apocalyptic writings” – and we talked about that style a few weeks ago – But in a nutshell they’re writings that are there to give people just one thing – and that one thing is: hope.
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Writings like these are especially important for people who are suffering –
People who are under attack like Matthew’s own little community was at the time –
They were under attack by Rome
And under attack by their own Jewish community
So these two chapters are here to tell those people that
their suffering is not in vain – that God hasn’t forgotten about them.
They’re here to tell them that there’s meaning and purpose to be found in it all.
“Only stay alert – only hold on – just a little bit longer;
God will come and he’ll make it all right.
You see, people can go on for amazingly long times without food
And people can go for very long times without water –
But what human beings can’t go without for very long is:
Hope – we need meaning & purpose to survive.
We’ve got to know that life even with all its suffering makes some sense and that one day – here or hereafter – things will be made right.
In early sobriety, right after I got my Big Book,
my first sponsor gave me a copy of Victor Frankel’s book about life in the Nazi concentration camps.
I should have known right then & there to pick another sponsor! But, anyway, he thought the book might help make me a little more grateful for AA and a little more grateful for some of the food I was being fed down at the Salvation Army.
He wanted me to find meaning in my mystery meat!
Those people in the concentration camps, they suffered beyond belief.
And Frankel was a psychiatrist and he was there in the camp suffering right along with them. – And what he wrote in his book was that he could see when the people who worked in the camps were about to give up and get themselves ready to die.
He could see the signs they were getting themselves resigned for the ovens.
They didn’t give up because of their lack of food,
or their lack of water, or even from the terrible, bitter cold –
They gave up – because they lost hope –
When all the meaning and purpose of their existence was drained out of them
Once they lost those, he could see it in their eyes
and he knew they were as good as dead.
The other day, I had to make an amends to my son.
His name is also Matthew, and he just got home from the Marine Corps.
He’s done two tours in Iraq
and he came away with a Purple Heart, and a bunch of medals
and some psychological & spiritual scars
that are gonna take him a long time to heal.
He wasn’t in a concentration camp – but he suffered his first real taste of hell.
… And a few weeks ago, Matt got his own apartment.
But he wasn’t there a week when he came home one night and he announced that he was going to go out and get himself a dog.
And, of course, I’m trying to be the practical father – I’m looking out for the kid’s best interests – So very lovingly I say:
“What the hell do you want a dog for?
Don’t you know: you gotta walk the thing four times a day –
Don’t you know: it’ll pee all over the carpet – and chew-up your rug!
And of course, he got a little mad – because the sins of the father are carried on for ten generations – and getting mad is one of my old sins that I inherited from my father.
But when he cooled down, he came back and he said to me later what was maybe his own little version of an “apocalyptic story.”
He said, “Dad, you don’t understand! See it was only the thought of someday having a dog that kept me going over there – When none of it made any sense – I thought of this Golden Retriever in my mind – I thought about holding him and him licking me – and that’s what got me through another day.”
“Go get the dog, Matthew! … Piss on the carpet!”
We’ve waited two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus –
And we may wait two thousand or twenty thousand years more.
Ours isn’t to know when the end is coming.
Our reading says the angels don’t know the time
and even Jesus doesn’t know – only the Father knows –
So I’m not gonna waste time trying to figure it all out – like some of those guys do on TV –
because if I do – then like most Christians,
I’ll probably miss the main point of Matthew’s two chapters –
You see, they’re not so much written to describe what the end is gonna be like – or even when it’s all going to come – They’re written to tell us that it’s safe for us to put our trust in God – and – even more important – they’re written to tell us what we ought to do while we’re waiting.
So let me read the final part of Matthew’s 2 chapters – cause here’s the part we need to hear. Here’s where Matthew gives meaning and purpose to his people’s suffering.
Matthew writes this: “When the son of man does come
When he comes in all his glory –
then all peoples will be assembled before him,
and he’ll separate them into two groups,
much as a shepherd segregates sheep from goats.
He’ll place the sheep to his right and the goats to his left.
Then the king will say to those at his right,
‘Come you who have the blessing of my Father,
inherit now God’s kingdom –
the kingdom that was prepared for you from the very
foundation of the world.
For as you remember,
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat;
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink;
I was a foreigner and you showed me hospitality.
I was naked and you clothed me;
I was sick and you visited me;
I was in prison and you came to see me.’
“Then they’ll say to him,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you a drink?
When did we notice that you were a foreigner and extend
hospitality to you?
Or naked and clothe you? Or in prison and come visit you?
And the king will respond to them:
‘I swear to you, whatever you did for the least of these, my children, you did it for me.”
It’s Advent – a time to get ready.
A time to sort out what we need to bring forward into a new life –
and what we need to leave behind in the old.
And if you’re new and in treatment here – I couldn’t think of a better to time to be here –
or a better time to be getting yourself ready.
As alcoholics and addicts – what we have to prepare for isn’t the end of the world –
we’ve already seen Armageddon – and some of us may have tried to cause it!
But God is good, and he can be trusted, and we’ve been given a reprieve –
What we have to prepare for is the insanity of our illness’ return –
The insanity of once again picking up a drink or a drug.
And whether we do that or not – the Book says – will all depend upon the state of our
own spiritual condition.
And here’s where, if Jesus were to come back today, I think he’d be pretty happy with what he sees us trying to do in recovery. Our first reading said:
Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking & drugging as intensive work with other alcoholics and addicts. It works when other activities fail.
So this is our twelfth suggestion:
Carry this message to the others who still suffer! You can help when no one else can. You can secure their confidence when other fail.
Remember they are very ill.
Your life(the Book says) will take on new meaning
(and you’ll now have a whole new purpose for living.)
See, it ain’t all about us anymore –
To watch people recover, to see them help others,
To watch loneliness vanish,
To see a fellowship grow up about you,
To have a host of friends –
This is an experience you must not miss.
The Big Book and the Good Book sound a lot alike in how to spend our time waiting for Jesus’ return:
Frequent contact with the sick, with the lost and with the least.
Frequent contact with the ones in prison and the ones in detox –
The ones right on the edge of giving up –
Finding them – bringing them a little bit of God’s kingdom – They’re now the bright spot of our lives.
Before Dr. Bob died, he pulled Bill Wilson aside and he said,
“For God’s sake, Bill, don’t louse this thing up.
Keep it simple. Remember: love and service are our code.
So our program teaches us to do just thatwhile we wait:
Clean house – serve God – carry the message to those who still suffer.
Bring hope to the hopeless. Love to the least.
That’s what Jesus did.
That’s what Dr. Bob and Bill did.
That’s what we’re now being called to do. And for that, we need to get ready. Amen.