Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It was the first day of the first semester of my first year in college. Like every other new student, I was anxious and nervous and afraid, but it didn’t help at all that I was also ten minutes late for Freshman English 105. I opened the door and 30 faces watched me turn red. Then the professor stopped his lecture and said to me “Physiology 400?” Totally embarrassed, I turned around and walked out. A moment later the door opened and a student called down the hall “Hey kid, come back. It’s English 105.”
Today, you probably feel the same way I did all those years ago. You came to church fully expecting Christmas in your face! The shopping season has already begun, carols are playing everywhere, and a fresh blanket of show even made me want to break into a chorus of “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!” At home, our tree is up, our lights are on, all the catalogues are dog-eared, and Marsha’s Visa card is smokin’! But surprise! It’s not Christmas here. It’s Physiology 400. Instead of “Deck the Halls” its fear and foreboding over the last days, when the world, as we know it, will end. Where the heck is Christmas? That’s what you all are wondering.
The reason I know you are feeling this today is because as a young pastor, I felt the same thing. At another Our Savior’s Lutheran Church – this one in Sioux Falls, South Dakota – we observed the Season of Advent with iron-fisted rigidity. We didn’t sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve. The church’s decorations didn’t go up until the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We weren’t even allowed to smile until the December 20th! It was there where I learned that the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist is that you could negotiate with a terrorist! Advent was sacred in that church, and in the 25 years since, it has also become a sacred season for me. Not militant, just quietly, wonderfully sacred.
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Let me spend a moment today focusing on the purpose of Advent, and then share a word about the gospel text that stands before us on this strangest of Sundays, when the world is singing Christmas carols and the church is not.
Eight hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah began to tell people that help was on the way. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light” Isaiah would prophesy. “For unto us a child is born; unto us a Son is given, and he will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Might God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.’” He was, of course, speaking of the baby Jesus, but the Jews didn’t know that. They saw in their mind’s-eye, a victorious warrior who would come and defeat their bitter enemies. Nonetheless, the people of Israel believed Isaiah’s words.
And then the waiting began. For eight centuries, the people of Israel would remember the words of Isaiah, and wonder when this Savior would arrive. Twenty generations hoped that the Messiah would arrive in their lifetime. They waited, patiently at times, and not so patiently at other times. And then, in about 4 BC, a man named John the Baptist showed up and renewed Isaiah’s cry. “The time is near!” John said. “Straighten up and fly right, because the Promised One is just around the corner.” And when Jesus finally came, many Jews missed it; in fact, the Jews have still missed it. They’re still waiting. But the ones who heard John’s message and recognized Bethlehem’s baby, on them light did shine, and they welcomed him as Savior and Lord.
Advent is a time to practice waiting. It’s a time to await the celebration of the Savior coming into the world, and it’s a time to anticipate his coming again. The world rushes into Christmas, getting caught up in the smells and bells of the season. And since we are part of the world, we get caught up into the commotion of Christmas as well. No wonder we are surprised when we show up on the First Sunday in Advent and there are no carols sung. Because the church moves slowly, taking time to consider what Christmas means. We wait, and watch, and consider how his coming changed the course of human history, and how his Second Coming will change us again. And like those first century Jews, we are reminded of John’s call to get ready…so that we don’t miss his coming…so that we aren’t surprised…caught off guard and unprepared to welcome the Son of God to into our midst. This is Advent; a word which is derived from the root word “adventure.” Shhhh! Something is coming, something is about to unfold. Are you ready?
And the gospel lesson today, then, is the theme of Advent in six words: Here he comes, ready or not! It begins by Jesus telling us that nobody knows when the Second Coming will occur. The angels in heaven – whom you would thing would be in the loop about this sort of thing – are clueless. They don’t know when Jesus is coming back. And then Jesus says that he is clueless, too. Not even Jesus knows when the end is going to occur. This single verse in scripture ought to tell all the predictors and the prognosticators that they are foolish to try and figure out when the last day will come. Many people have tried, and they’ve all been wrong, because nobody knows…not even Jesus.
So the message in this verse is that we should always be ready. Since we don’t know when Jesus will arrive, we ought to live our lives in such a way that, on any given day, if he shows up, he will find us faithful to him. That is not to say that we must be studying the bible the moment he arrives. It is not to say that he must find us singing hymns when he comes. Tony Campolo was upset when his pastor preached one Sunday “You must not go to movies, because what if you go to a movie, and right in the middle of the movie, the Lord returns?” And Campolo called “That would be horrible; I wouldn’t get to see the end of the movie!”
So what DOES it mean, to be ready for his coming? It means that we live our lives in such a way that Jesus is our only hope. That we don’t spend our lives thinking money will save us, or power will save us, or fame, or reputation, or intelligence, or even kindness and generosity. If we truly believe that faith in Christ is the only currency that will get us to eternal life, then we won’t spend our lives chasing those things that have no meaning in heaven.
I have a little trouble with preachers that rant and rage in early December, saying that we are horrible people because we fill these hours with the busy-ness of shopping and partying and decorating and baking. That troubles me because it is not just a December problem. We have increased the pace of our lives to breakneck speed all year long. Long hours at work, too many activities at home; and we’re passing it on to the next generation. We shuttle our kids to early morning hockey practice and late night dance lessons; we enroll them in band camp, soccer camp, computer camp, Scout camp, Asthma camp, church camp. It’s all too much. When do they get time to be kids?
Someone told me that, fifty years ago, when a book was published, only 60% of each page was printing, and 40% was margins; a place were the reader could make notes to herself, ask questions, jot down points to ponder. Today in the publishing industry, the margins are only 20% of the page, leaving little room to ponder, or wonder, or think. In similar fashion, we have filled our lives all the way to the edge of the page, leaving little margin in our lives for contemplation, or relaxation, or surprises. I have someone in my house who, at the first hint of a sore throat, will say “I can’t afford to get sick, I have too much to do.” So of course she gets sick.
Two men are working in the field, and on the last day, one is taken and one is left. That’s what the gospel text says. Two women are grinding meal, and on the last day, one is taken away and the other is left. Jesus doesn’t say this to scare us; he says it so we will be prepared for his coming again. He wants us to make time to ponder him; his love, his patience and his grace. People, Jesus is coming again someday, though we don’t know when. One way or another, it will surprise us. We will either be delightfully surprised because our faith is fixed on him. Or we will be dreadfully surprised because we have chased the brass ring of this life and never took time – not even in Advent – never took time to seek his face. But now you know that he has called us to be ready at all times. Surprise! The Savior will come for you! Thanks be to God. Amen.