Lectionary Texts: Isaiah 2: 1-5; Matthew 24: 36-44
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, November 27, 2016
- Groggy-Eyed in the Darkness
You know that moment in the darkness of the early morning when the first light begins to peak in over the horizon and make its way through your bedroom window. You know better than to look at it, knowing it will surely sting your eyes that are groggy from hours of being closed off to the world. So you look away, trying to let your eyes get used to it. And slowly, very slowly the new morning begins to come into focus. At that point you don’t know what the day holds-you don’t know what will go as planned and what will not. You do not know what you will learn or what you will lose or what you will gain. You just start walking. And you begin your day.
That’s pretty much the way we begin Advent. It is the first Sunday of our Christian year and there is a tendency to think that it is simply a rehash of all the years before. So we drag out the boxes marked Christmas decorations and hang the wreath and trim the tree and hurry to stand in line or log online for the best Black Friday (or, now, Black November) sales. And we miss it. We miss the beauty of the morning, with rays of light that have never touched us before. We miss the opportunity, indeed the invitation, for something new, something different.
Advent is the season when we remember the waiting and longing of a people who had spent generations looking for the Messiah. It is also the season when we look for the coming of Christ into our world today, when we look toward the fulfillment of the promised Kingdom of God here on earth. And it is the time of preparation for ourselves, a time to prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives, for us to realize that we, too, need a Savior, that Christ’s coming into our lives is not just a remembrance of a birth in a manger but is our own realization that we need to prepare ourselves and awaken to the presence of God that surrounds us all and that is even now dawning anew. So, Advent is our awakening to the realization that the Divine is even now spilling into our lives, even now a new humanity is being birthed, and even now all of Creation is being reformed and recreated.
But we all know that we tend to get a little ahead of ourselves. Sadly, the secular American holiday celebration has sort of taken over Advent and moved us far too swiftly into the Christmas season. The Christmas season, or the twelve days of Christmas (yes, there was a season before the song—not vice versa), actually begins on Christmas Day. I think the saddest thing is that so many times we end up celebrating Christmas far too early and by the time we get to the real Christmas season, we’ve sort of played it all out. Christmas becomes sort of anti-climatic, almost a relief from the hustle and bustle of the season.
So, for this Advent, what is it that you need to do to prepare? I’m not talking about gifts to buy or decorations to put up or food to cook. What do YOU need to do to prepare for the coming of Christ into your life? In what ways are you being called to wake up and clear the sleep out of your eyes? THAT is your Advent. THAT is your season. So, are you awake?
So, we’re a little taken aback at our choice of Gospel passages. This can’t be right! What happened to Mary? Where are those angels announcing the coming birth? And why are we reading about Noah’s ark? Come on, we need something joyful and festive to think about it as we drag those boxes out of storage and begin to get everything together. Why in the world are we beginning at what feels like the end of the story? We start there because, as we know, the end is always the beginning.
The reference to Noah reminds us that life goes on. Life is always going on. The seasons come and go and come again. And, hopefully, somewhere in there, we become a little wiser and a little closer to God. But it calls for us to wake up a little and realize that we are even as we sit here being gathered into the arms of God.
Yes, there are those that would take this passage and understand it as predicting our being temporarily or permanently removed from this world. But the writer of Matthew’s Gospel does not have this understanding. Those who are “taken” refers to being gathered into the Kingdom community at the end of what we know, just as some were gathered into the ark, redeemed in a way that they never thought possible. So, being a believer means to stay awake so that we will be a part of it even now, awake to the surprises that are to come. Because, imagine, what if the surprise turns out to be that Jesus was here all along, that ahead of time itself, he has been calling and gathering and enlightening and sanctifying all along? What if we really ARE called to be the hands of Christ? What if rather than dozing off as we tend to do, we have been called to be awake to everything that God continues to do? So, are you awake?
III. Looking Back
That is what the writer of the Isaiah passage that we read was asking. This was not just a vision of something up ahead; this was a promise of God’s deliverance and God’s redemption for the people to whom the prophet was speaking. The writer seemed to sense the coming destruction of the temple and the community’s way of life. King after king had failed to give the people the security and the prosperity that they were convinced they needed. They were so sure of what their lives should look like but it never really happened. But now they were losing what they knew. So the prophet reminds them of the promise that had been there all along.
It is a promise of a great gathering, a holy pilgrimage that will lead to peace. The prophet is speaking beyond the present. It reminds us that the world that we know is not separated from God’s eternity. What we do is already a part of it. We are all heading that way, if we will only awaken to what it holds,
- The Echo Chamber
Theologian William Long equates Advent to an “echo chamber” that heightens our senses, that makes us realize that those small sounds of salvation that we hear are all around us. I think it holds the sounds of the past and the future that reverberate in our present and reminds us that salvation is not something “out there” or, even worse, “up there”. Whatever you may think that heaven or whatever is next is, it is not way up ahead. It is not shielded from view. It is all around us. It is the words from Isaiah that speak of the past and the words of the Gospel writer that speak of the future. The air is thick with God’s presence. Barbara Brown Taylor makes the point that “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” The only reason it is veiled is that we have too much clouding our view.
The vision is ever and ever closer. We cannot be lulled into a comfortable, sleepy complacency. Think about this. Years ago, a Lutheran preacher, Edmund Steimle, preached a Christmas Eve sermon entitled “The Eye of the Storm”. He compared that serene view of Christmas Eve, the stuff that is depicted as we sing “Silent Night” and light our candles, to the eye of a hurricane. We’re familiar with that. The winds swirl and the rains come until we almost cannot bear it. And then they stop. And the calm descends upon us. But, lest we get too comfortable, we are reminded that they will come again, seemingly unwinding themselves from where they were before. We just have to stay awake because God is in it all, both darkness and light. Robert Benson has a new book entitled “Punching Holes in the Dark”. In it, he speaks of our faith journey as being one where we are called to continually punch holes in the darkness so that more and more of the light will be able to enter. But we have to be awake to do that. And being awake, being ready, is not something to be feared. It is a gift.
- God in Hiding
A legend tells how, at the beginning of time, God resolved to hide within the Creation that God had made. As God was wondering how best to do this, the angels gathered around. “I want to hide myself somewhere in Creation,” God told them. “I need to find a place that is not too easily discovered, for it is in their search for me that my creations will grow in spirit and in understanding.”
“Why don’t you hide yourself deep in their earth?” the first angel suggested. God pondered this idea for a while, then replied, “No, it will not be long before they mine the earth and discover the treasures that it contains. They will discover me too quickly, and they will not have had enough time to do their growing.”
“Why don’t you hide yourself in their moon?” a second angel suggested. God thought about this idea for a while, and then replied, “No, it will take a little longer, but before long they will learn to fly through space and will find their way there and know its secrets. They will discover me too soon, before they have grown enough.”
The angels were at a loss to know what hiding places to suggest. There was a long silence. “I know,” piped up one angel, finally. “Why don’t you hide yourself within their own hearts? They will never think of looking there!”
“That’s it!”, said God, delighted to have found the perfect hiding place. And so it is that God hides secretly deep within the heart and soul of every one of God’s creatures, until that creature has grown enough in spirit and in understanding to risk the great journey into the secret core of its own being. And there, awakened, the creature discovers its creator, and is rejoined to God for all eternity.”[i]
- The Curtain Arises
See, some would claim that God does not go where God is not wanted or where God is not worshipped, but the claim of this season is that God goes where God is not expected. God goes where it seems impossible for God to go. We were shown that 2,000 years ago. We are shown that every day of our lives. God breaks through the storm, tears the curtain, crumbles our dividing walls, and makes the incredible claim that God is made flesh.
So, Advent arrives, abruptly disrupting our comfortable lives. And we are called to wake up to God breaking through the darkness into our lives—2,000 years ago, in the promised future, and even today if we will only awaken to the dawn. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “people only see what they are prepared to see.” So, now is the time to prepare.
The curtain on the Advent is now rising. Jesus is not waiting in the wings somewhere until the play is done; rather, Jesus is standing on the stage itself, inviting us in. “Come, awaken, wait with me. You do not know when the Glory will come but this waiting is a holy place. Stay awake so that you won’t miss the inbreaking of the Divine itself, the dawn of the fullness of the Kingdom of God.” The reason that we begin at the end is because it is the same as the beginning. God is the Alpha and the Omega. Birth and death are all wrapped up together, needing each other to give life. Awaken now so that you do not miss one thing. Open your eyes. The baby is coming! The extraordinary miracle of what is about to happen is matched only by the moment before it does—this moment, this time. The world awaits! Awaken that you do not miss the story!
So, are you awake? When God is ready, God will come. Watch…for you know not when or where God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes.
[i] From “One Hundred Wisdom Stories From Around the World,” by Margaret Silf, p. 32-33.