First Sunday in Advent
“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
Luke 21:25-36 (MSG) – See passage below.
“Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” Luke 21:28 (MSG)
[Jesus said:]25-26 “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking.
27-28 “And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”
29-33 He told them a story. “Look at a fig tree. Any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. The same here—when you see these things happen, you know God’s kingdom is about here. Don’t brush this off: I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.
34-36 “But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.”
This year more than ever before I resented the forced schedule that begins on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The advertising campaigns start much earlier than that. My inbox is overwhelmed with urgent messages saying that if I don’t act IMMEDIATELY then I will lose the chance to get THE BEST DEAL THAT EVER WAS OR EVER WILL BE. Some of them sound like thinly veiled threats.
You know the schedule. There’s Black Friday when we’re expected to show up before sunrise to claim one of the limited numbers of bargain items available in stores. That’s followed by Small Business Saturday, when we atone for all of the spending we did at the chain stores by supporting our local merchants – which is a good thing to do all of the time. Then we have Cyber Monday, when we realize that they were just kidding about Friday being the BEST DEALS EVER because now you can only get the BEST DEAL IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD if (and only if) you order online using this ONE TIME ONLY DISCOUNT CODE THAT WILL EXPIRE AT MIDNIGHT. And all of that is capped by Giving Tuesday, when I am besieged by every organization to which I have ever given any kind of donation, however small. I fully support being generous in charitable giving, but it’s a lot to take in on one day.
This year I found myself responding with a kind of stubborn resistance. I didn’t like all of the pressure. I didn’t like having the sequence of the calendar dictated so insistently. I didn’t like being flooded with e-mails urging me to spend more money.
Which brings us to Advent. Advent is a weird season. I heard someone say this week that Advent is a frank acknowledgement of Christian non-conformity.[i] And it is. When we are surrounded by frantic messages to go here and do this and buy this and be this in order to have THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS, Advent gives us permission to pause for a moment, to slow down. Advent is a season of remembering, a season of waiting, a season of watching. We remember that Jesus first came to us in a completely surprising way, as a baby born in the backwoods. We wait for the time when Jesus will come again to restore God’s creation to wholeness. And in the meantime we watch. We watch for signs of where God is showing up now, places where God is giving us hints about what that future time will be like.
Unlike human time, God’s time is not a forced march of consumerism and excess. God’s time is not even strictly linear. It invites us to see with eyes of faith how God’s promised future breaks into the here and now. Jesus gives us the image of a fig tree, but it could be any tree. When the tree is bare during the bleakest parts of winter, we trust that it will not stay that way. We know that there is new life on the horizon. Eventually we see the tiniest beginnings of leaves on the branches, but those just confirm what we already know: Our God is a God of resurrection, and new life is always showing up when and where we least expect it.
That’s why on this first Sunday of Advent we usually get an apocalyptic gospel filled with dramatic signs of that coming kingdom and all kinds of urgent messages to stay awake and alert. I especially like the language that’s used in the version that I read a few minutes ago. The Son of Man – often another name for Jesus – The Son of Man will be welcomed in grand style. “When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!”
A bit later Jesus implores the disciples – and us – to be on the lookout: “Be on your guard,” he says. “Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping…whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch.”
Stand tall with your heads high. Don’t go to sleep at the switch. We’re called to be observant, watchful. Where is God showing up in this life, in this moment? God can show up in all kinds of ways. In a conversation with a colleague beside the photocopier that helps you see that person differently. In a song on the radio, when a certain line of music strikes you in a way that you hadn’t noticed before.
God can show up while you’re driving your kids to soccer practice. Or while you’re rushing around to make breakfast in the morning. Or while you’re stuck waiting for a train that is late – again.
God can show up when you let yourself be still long enough to notice what is moving in your heart and in your spirit. Whatever it is, whether it is settled or restless, tell God about it. Tell God what is stirring within you. God always shows up to hear our prayers.
God can even show up when you’re shopping. On Friday I had a ten-minute conversation with a complete stranger in the grocery store that started when she asked me if the book she had picked out would be right for a second-grader who is an advanced reader. By the end of that ten minutes I had learned how much she misses that little girl, who is her godchild and whose family recently moved much farther away because of a new job. God shows up when we are present to each other – even when we are standing between shelves of pasta and shelves of spices.
Passages like today’s gospel are often used to frighten people. The message becomes “Get your act together or you will suffer the consequences.” And there is an element of that pressure in these apocalyptic readings. But such urgent, dramatic readings give us a chance to remember that it’s not about getting our act together in order to be saved from destruction. We have already been saved. Jesus has already done what needs to be done. Now it’s about living in a way that reflects that good news – living in a way that reflects the hope and healing that we know is coming.
Jazz composer Wayne Shorter is among the artists being recognized at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors. In a recent interview he talked about his belief that everything is connected. In that interview he gestured toward an open window on a breezy October afternoon in California and said: “There are colors we can’t see, but they’re connected to the ones we can. There’s a connection between everything.”[iii]
God’s time is full of colors we can’t yet see, but those colors are connected to the ones we can see. Let’s be careful not to miss them.
Heads up, people of God.
Don’t go to sleep at the switch.
Watch for the messiah in our midst. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]See this week’s edition of the Sermon Brainwave podcast from Working Preacher: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1076