“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Matthew 24:44
It was wonderful to have my sister Claire here for Thanksgiving. She’s a really easy houseguest, so it’s not at all stressful to get ready for her visit. But there are certain preparations involved. I cleaned out the clutter that had piled up in the guest room. I made sure there were clean sheets on the bed. I got one of her favorite kinds of candy to leave as a surprise for her. I was ready.
It was easy to time these preparations because I knew when she was going to arrive. I was ready to pick her up at the airport Tuesday night. I had her flight number so I could track it online. But what if she had decided to change her plans without telling me? What if she had shown up unannounced on Sunday night instead? I would have still been excited to see her, but I wouldn’t have been ready. She might have had to sleep on the sofa until I uncovered her bed.
Advent is, among other things, a season in which we prepare. One of the ways we prepare is familiar and easier to understand. We prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In story and in song, we remember how people looked for the messiah about which the prophets had spoken. We try to keep our hearts centered on the promises of God that are fulfilled in the coming of that child, even as we get ready in other ways – decorating trees, wrapping presents, making special foods.
The second way that Advent asks us to get ready is much less clear. Scripture talks about a time when Jesus will come again. It’s not necessarily going to be the kind of cosmic war that popular culture would lead you to believe – or a time in which certain people will magically disappear while others are left behind. Taken all together, those scriptural texts about a second coming promise a time when God’s vision for creation will be fully restored, when all that is broken in us and in the world will be healed. We hear fragments of that expectation in our worship. In the creed we say that “He will come again to judge the living and the dead…” We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” We may not know entirely what God’s will looks like, but we ask God to make it true on earth as it is in heaven.
We’ll be spending a lot of time in the gospel of Matthew over the next year, and we begin today in a strange part of the story. Just before this moment, Jesus has predicted the eventual destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The disciples understandably have a lot of questions. When is this going to happen? What will be the warning signs? They want to be ready.
Keep in mind that the gospel of Matthew was likely written down somewhere between the year 80 and the year 90 – after the actual destruction of the temple by the Romans in the year 70. So to the earliest audience for Matthew’s gospel, a few things were true. They had witnessed the horror of the destruction that Jesus had predicted. It was quite real to them. And by that point they had been living for decades with the hope that Jesus would return again, as he had also predicted. People kept hoping. They kept waiting. They wanted to be ready, but they were getting tired, maybe even a little distracted. It’s hard to keep waiting, especially when you don’t know the exact timeline.
I’m guessing that most of us, living centuries after that first coming of Jesus, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about when Jesus might come again. But as Christians we live in this in-between time, a time of now and not yet. A time when there are signs of God’s activity all around us and a time when we anticipate an unknown future that is also in God’s hands.
One of the things that feels most familiar to me about our strange gospel this morning is the reality that there are some things for which we cannot fully prepare. Before the flood, we are reminded, people were just going about their business, both the ordinary tasks of daily life, like eating and drinking, and the more significant moments, like getting married. They didn’t know that a flood was about to sweep them all away. We hear about those pairs of workers busy with their usual daily labor – harvesting in the field, grinding meal. In each case one is gone, and one remains. How do you prepare for that?
We also hear that the coming of Jesus is like a thief breaking into a home at an unexpected hour. Even with all our attempted preparations, from security systems to doorbell cameras, we won’t be able to keep him out.
Advent summons us in this in-between time to get ready. To prepare. To prepare not by designing ways to keep Jesus out, but by living as if he has already come again. To celebrate the ways that Jesus breaks into our lives again and again, even when we least expect it, giving us the grace to live as people who know something other than a competitive, me-first culture. To live as people who put God first instead.
A couple of weeks ago I met a young woman, whom I will call Ashley, though that isn’t her real name. She’s a high school student who works at one of the going-out-of-business Dress Barn stores. She helped me one night as I was doing some bargain shopping. It was almost closing time, so there weren’t many people there. At first she wanted to know where my accent was from – and then she wanted to know how I had ended up in New Jersey. She was surprised to learn that I am a Lutheran pastor. She hadn’t met a woman pastor before, but she thought it was pretty cool that Lutherans have women pastors. Then she asked me what it was like to be a pastor, and (among other things) I said that it was a privilege to be with people in some of their happiest moments – the birth of a child, a baptism, a wedding – and also to be with people during their hardest moments – an illness or the death of a loved one.
At that point she opened up with more of her story. Ashley’s father died unexpectedly when she was seven years old. She remembers the last morning she saw her dad. She especially remembers how she didn’t know that morning that it would be the last time she would see him. Ashley carries the grief of her father’s death always, though it has taken a different shape as the years have passed. And of course that loss continues to affect how she lives her life now. When she hears her friends say in moments of anger, “I hate my parents!” she will stop them. She’ll say, “Don’t say that. You don’t know what could happen.” Ashley had recently gotten involved in a fight between two of her friends, forcing them to make peace with each other. Her friends sometimes tease her that she’s never afraid to insert herself into difficult situations. I told her, “Well, when you’ve faced the hardest thing imaginable, it gives you a certain courage for things that scare other people.”
Ashley lives in a kind of in-between time. She is shaped by the time that she had with her father, though that time was all too short. And she is also shaped by the desire to make him proud now, in the hope that she will see him again. She lives differently because of what she has known and what she knows is possible.
Advent gives us an opportunity to wait in a different way, to live in an in-between. As the world around us gets more chaotic, more loud, more busy, Advent invites us to be still and quiet whenever possible. As the world becomes more violent, Advent calls us to be peacemakers, shaping our swords into plowshares, turning our resentments into reconciliation. As the world keeps insisting that we can buy happiness, we remember that we already have the greatest gift that money could never buy.
Advent summons us to live not just as if Jesus has come once a long time ago, but as if Jesus has already come again and is here now. As indeed he is. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Luke 23:39
We begin at the end of the story. It’s strange, I know. It’s hard enough as we enter this time of year to stay focused on the story of the birth of Jesus. The whole cast of characters – baby, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds – can easily get lost in the lights and the shopping and the 427th time you’ve heard Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” But today, as we close out one church year and look to the next, the gospel takes us right to the cross.
I don’t do a lot of decorating at home because I’m not there very much at this time of year. But one of the decorations that always gets unpacked is my nativity set. A colleague in South Carolina gave it to me years ago when she was my Secret Santa, and it has traveled with me ever since. I arrange the pieces right where I can see them every day – baby, Mary, Joseph, angel, shepherds, cows, sheep. (I save the wise men until Epiphany like the church nerd that I am.)
It occurred to me this week that I’ve seen countless variations of the nativity set, but I’ve never seen a crucifixion set. No one sets up a display in the living room with a hill and three crosses. We don’t much want to arrange figurines of the bloodthirsty soldiers or the crying women or the trembling disciples. We certainly don’t want to place the tortured body of Jesus there – with the wound in his side, nails in his hands and feet.
And yet – and yet – there he is. This is our King. Our King: dying, bleeding, broken.
Even if we did have such a display, the part that would be hardest to capture is the mockery.
There’s the inscription over Jesus’ head: “This is the King of the Jews.” It’s a statement dripping with scorn. How could an actual king end up in such a position?
Here’s what the leaders say: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” If he is the Messiah. They don’t believe for a minute that Jesus is the chosen one of God. All they know is that Jesus has attracted a lot of attention. He’s healed people and fed people and brought back a couple of people from the dead, and he’s become too much of a threat to ignore any longer. The powers of this world do not know what to do with Jesus, and so they kill him.
Then there are the soldiers: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” They somehow manage to combine the doubt about his identity – If you are… – with the scorn of the inscription – “If you are the King of the Jews…” From a soldier’s point of view, a real king would do anything to save himself from this torment. A real king would fight back, would summon an army to his defense. A real king would not have gotten arrested in the first place.
Even the criminal hanging joins in: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The criminal must be thinking: What good is being God’s chosen one if you can’t get yourself out of this situation and help me out too?”
The people just watch. They watch. I’m guessing this isn’t how they expected the story to end either.
It’s only the second criminal who seems able to see some part of who Jesus really is. He says: “We are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” None of the others get it right, but this criminal knows that he is witnessing the execution of an innocent man.
I just started watching the third season of The Crown on Netflix, which picks up with the life of Queen Elizabeth starting in 1964. No longer is she struggling to grow into the role of queen that she was forced to assume at the young age of 25. She’s older now, more confident. The current season opens with a headshot of the queen in silhouette, viewed from behind as she’s wearing her crown. It’s a striking image of royal power as we expect it to look. When the newly elected Prime Minister Wilson comes to meet with the queen for the first time, he’s instructed in all the protocols: Bow your head at the neck. The first time you address her, say “Your Majesty,” but after that say “ma’am.” Only shake her hand if she extends her hand first. Don’t sit down until she does. Royal power demands deference.
In this life Jesus did not fit anyone’s notion of a king. There were no fancy robes or royal jewels, no armies to summon and send into war, no throne from which to issue proclamations. His only crown was a crown of thorns.
But Jesus reveals power in a different way. Jesus shows us power in the form of forgiveness. He looks at his tormenters from the cross and says: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus shows us a power beyond death. Jesus says to that second criminal: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” I said earlier that we begin at the end of the story – except it’s not really the end, is it? On the other side of the cross is an empty tomb. That empty tomb says that none of the things that make this life so very hard – death, grief, illness, pain, suffering, conflict, worry, addiction, struggle – none of those will have the final word. Remember all that mockery, all of those voices that taunt Jesus with “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”? Well, that’s exactly what Jesus does. He saves us. He gives us hope. He gives us life.
We’re all about to spend some time around Thanksgiving tables. Many of you will be missing people who used to be at those tables. Some of you may be dreading the drama that inevitably unfolds when family gets together. Even as we gather in gratitude and love, our own human brokenness can get in the way. No amount of screen time or football-watching can distract us from that part of ourselves.
In those moments – and in every moment where we feel pulled into empty power struggles or pulled under by despair – know this: We have a king who is far more powerful than all of that. We have a king who shows us how to forgive in the worst of circumstances. We have a king who always remembers us – in this life and the next. We have a king who saves us from bitterness, from temptation, and from death itself.
So let’s live as followers of that king, transformed by the new life that only he can bring. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ