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Sermon for Sunday 1 December 2013

FIRST READING Isaiah 2:1–5

1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

PSALM Psalm 122

1 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.” 2 Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. 3 Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself; 4 to which the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, the assembly of Israel, to praise the name of the LORD. 5 For there are the thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David. 6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. 7 Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers. 8 For the sake of my kindred and companions, I pray for your prosperity. 9 Because of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek to do you good.”

SECOND READING Romans 13:11–14

11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

GOSPEL Matthew 24:36–44

36 But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.


There’s a skit that’s done from time to time at confirmation camp that involves half a dozen or so kids lined up side-by-side, each looking anxious and frustrated facing the audience. Each one of the kids has their left elbow resting on the right shoulder of their neighbor. Then, from left to right, each confirmand asks, “Is it time yet?” When the question gets to the end of the line, the last person looks at their wristwatch and responds, “No.” This reply is then passed back, one-by-one, each with bored sighs, back to the first questioner. After a few moments, the same question is passed down the line again, all the while each still has their left elbow remaining on the right shoulder of their neighbor. This time, the last person checks their watch and says, “Yes!” When the response again reaches the head of the line, the group lets out a loud and collective sigh. They then change position. Now they turn and place their right elbow on the left shoulders of each neighbor. And the game starts all over again. The point here, is that there’s been no real change at all. The group is still in the same old place with the same old anxious, frustrated expectations.
We’ve surpassed the moment the red cranberry sauce and turkey is wiped off our chins and cleaned off the tablecloth. And no sooner than the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game is over, it seems that Black Friday shopping starts. Of course depending on which advertising you’ve seen, some are now even calling it Black November. It’s a time that triggers the count-down of the diminishing days until Christmas. This tick-tock of passing time is supposed to induce us into a buying panic and jump-start our frenzied consumerism. Sadly, for the most part, it pretty much works.
Indeed, many of us may be facing the coming days before Christmas with this very same perspective: anxious, frustrated, expecting little more than the same old hassles and problems; hoping for nothing more than perhaps a moment of relief from the stress of the holiday season. Is it the end of the year already? This seems to be the question being asked by many. That means that we only have four weeks to plan the “perfect” Christmas program; prepare the “perfect” family celebration; begin endless shopping excursions to purchase the “perfect” gifts; decorate the “perfect” tree; and our list of “to-do’s” is endless, spinning out of control.
We desperately seek happiness while simultaneously we anticipate the same old frustration. Our lives seem as cluttered and crowded as the traffic jams around shopping malls. We’ve learned that expecting perfection usually results in experiencing rejection. Is it time yet? Yet all the world seems to do is switch which elbow is leaning on which shoulder. Time simply seems to march on; the clock simply seems to keep on ticking. But that’s not the only clock that’s ticking; the church’s clock is also running.
The church also has its own “countdown to Christmas.” It’s called “The Season of Advent.” Today marks the beginning of Advent, a time of preparation, a time of going toward the coming again of the Messiah, a time of great expectation and great anticipation. But exactly what is it that we anticipate? What are we getting ready for? What do we expect to happen? Do we anticipate the end of the world, as some religious cults always do at this time of the year? Are we preparing for yet another month-long shopping spree that some have called “economic first-degree murder” – the willful and with malice aforethought murder of our bank accounts? Or are we preparing our hearts and spirits to receive again the coming of the Christ child into the world?
A few of us are already anticipating the seven to ten pounds the average American will gain during the season. Now I don’t know about you, but I personally plan on being an underachiever in that department this year! Or, are we preparing for the suicidal traffic jams on I-85 and at the malls, or the general atmosphere of surliness and desperation? It’s a time that seems uncontrollable. We saw just one example of this at the Walmart in Elkin, this past Friday, when people started pushing and shoving over TVs on sale and a fight broke out! The crazy part was, it wasn’t the guy who started the fight who got kicked out of the store, but the individual who filmed the whole thing on their phone! Are we getting ready for the depression, the anxiety, and even the rage that accompanies the secular holiday season?
If we allow ourselves to get caught up in the consumer winter holiday – and I firmly believe that we in America celebrate two separate events on December 25 – we can easily find that instead of preparing to sing “O Holy Night” we will find ourselves living out one holy nightmare. For the many who faithfully observe the consumer holiday, Advent is the inevitable prelude to disappointment. For the majority of these folks, Christmas somehow hardly ever measures up to their fantasies. Even for those who manage to have some of their Christmas wishes fulfilled, the season is over so quickly that the need to make New Year’s resolutions to lose those added pounds, or to be more patient with all those Gomers who somehow managed to get a driver’s license, bears down on them even before the decorations come down. But the Advent we celebrate in the church – the one that has nothing at all to do with the number of shopping days left until Christmas – is altogether different.
The hanging of the greens, the placement of the poinsettias, the lighting of the first Advent candle – all these invite us to dream dreams of a better world, to allow expectant visions that have nothing to do with sugar-plum fairies to dance in our heads. Advent invites us to fill the cup of today with a full measure of tomorrow. Both the passage from Isaiah and the words from the Gospel of Matthew express the Christian hope for a different, brighter future.
Our text in Isaiah emerges from a time of high anxiety, discouragement, impatience, and despair for God’s people. Powerful Assyria was gobbling up smaller nations and heading toward an inevitable clash with Israel. Political infighting and corruption was widespread. Many religious leaders had forsaken the teaching of the Lord and were promoting alliances with other nations against Assyria. In the first chapter of Isaiah, God declares, “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know; my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:2-3).
God’s people simply didn’t see the reality of God’s continuing presence and guidance. When the prophet Isaiah thought about the advent of God, he envisioned a world unified in worship of God and committed to peace. Isaiah dreamed of a time when the nations and people of the world would join together in recognizing the sovereignty of God and declare, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that God may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.” In the world of Isaiah’s vision, war was a thing of the past, and the nations of the earth lived together in peace.
What sort of images come to your mind when you think about Advent? Maybe you remember a classic work of art showing the journey to Bethlehem, the nativity, or the adoration of the Christ Child. Or maybe your traditional symbols of the season include the huge, brightly-lit tree on the White House lawn, or the one in Rockefeller Center in New York City. The way we see Advent and Christmas will determine our approach to the celebration.
Is the essential work of Advent hanging decorations, or is it more about opening our lives to the coming Christ and learning to live in peace? Will Christmas come only if we do all the right things we need to do to get ready for it? Or, is Christmas a gift from God that arrives whether we’re ready for it or not? Even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that the Advent of God is much more about surprise than predictability, more about revelation than decoration.
Now please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I think it’s wonderful that we place poinsettias in the sanctuary in memory of loved ones that are no longer here with us and hang the greens and place candles in the windows and even put up a Chrismon tree. But the message of Advent is not put up the decorations! Here I come!” but “Watch and wait! We must be ready, we must be about the business of God’s kingdom because the Son of Man will come at an hour when we least expect Him.
Christmas will come whether we get ready for it or not. Maybe I need to repeat that: Christmas will come whether we drive ourselves crazy getting ready for it or not. More importantly, Christ will come, whether we’re ready or not. How many times have I heard folks say things like, “It can’t be Advent already – I haven’t even made out my shopping list yet!”? “Christmas can’t come yet! I haven’t even brought the decorations up from the basement!” Why do we assume that Christmas can only come if we make all the proper preparations? The truth of the matter is that God’s entrance into our lives in the person of Jesus Christ occurs at God’s initiative and not ours. Christ arrives in our midst not as a reward for our careful preparation for His coming, but as a result of the love and compassion of God. Christ comes to us whether we’re ready or not.
In the Gospel reading for today from Matthew, the disciples are talking to Jesus about the Second Coming. They want to know when that’s going to happen, so they can be ready for it. As an answer, Jesus recalls the familiar story of Noah. He reminds the disciples that in the days of Noah, people were living their lives with little concern for God. They were eating and drinking and marrying and celebrating. And suddenly, in those days, the rains came. Only Noah and his family were wise enough to listen to God’s warning and follow His commands and were therefore saved.
When Jesus comes again, He tells His disciples, it’s going to be like that. Life will be going on as usual, with people doing what they normally do, buying and selling, working and playing, just doing ordinary things. And suddenly, without warning, the Lord will return. When that happens, some will be ready, and some will not. Some will remember Jesus’ admonition to be ready for the coming of the kingdom, but some will have allowed the cares and things of this world to distract them and these other things will have become more important to them. Then they will suddenly realize that all those idols that they’ve placed before God in violation of the First Commandment won’t be able to save them. Our 401Ks, electronic equipment, sports teams, boats, fashion, social status, none of the things we spend our time chasing or acquiring will be our salvation. And the words of our Lord to the disciples comes as a reminder of that fact.
The disciples asked about the timing of the Second Coming, but Jesus said that’s the wrong question. Their question should have been, what are they supposed to do in the meantime, while they’re awaiting His coming? And so it is with us. The important thing for us, in this season of Advent, isn’t to be worried about when Jesus will be coming again, but what should we be doing in the meanwhile.
Too many folks today concentrate their energy on when Jesus is coming again. Go channel-surfing some Sunday morning before Sunday school and you’ll find at least one televangelist who will gladly tell you, in a convincing manner, that this is the time Jesus talked about in scripture, that the world is going to end any day now, and you’d better be ready. And who knows – they might be right! But I have to wonder if these folks who claim to speak for God have read the warning Jesus is giving His disciples here in Matthew’s gospel.
Most often what’s missing from their pronouncements of coming doom and gloom is a reminder that our concentration isn’t on the future, but on the present, on the quality of the life we’re living today. That doesn’t mean we don’t make plans to take care of ourselves and our family’s future. But those plans shouldn’t be our only focus. We’re called to have more important things to consider as well. Jesus is calling us to be active for the kingdom; we’re to live together in the world as Kingdom people, as Advent people, which is serious business and calls for an active faith. Isaiah echoes that call. “O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” This is the call to action.
Advent invites us to look to the future, but its most demanding challenge and most exciting promise come in the announcement that the present is kingdom time, too. The incarnation – God coming to dwell in human flesh – declares that the cup of the present is filled to overflowing with the presence of God. It doesn’t matter if we consider the present to be sunny and bright, fair to partly cloudy, or dismal and gloomy, God sends the Messiah to come to life in it. Elsewhere, Matthew describes the gift of the season of Advent with a single word and it’s my personal favorite of all the “Christmas words”, Emmanuel, God with us. Not God has been with us; not God will be with us; but God with us, right now, today!
The message of Advent is that each moment has eternal significance, that the God of all things past and things future, is also the God of the here and now. God invites us to live in the present in expectation and awareness of the fact that eternal realities can and do break in at any moment. And so, this morning, Advent is here. Now is the time to look at the quality of our waiting. Are we passively waiting, or are we “walking in the light of the Lord” while we actively await His coming? Jesus has told us that the kingdom of God is “breaking in”, which is an interesting choice of words.
All of Jesus’ preaching and teaching has been aimed at helping us to understand what the kingdom of God is like. Those who take seriously the kingdom of God, as Jesus teaches it, must know clearly and well that our work isn’t over when we’ve shared the Good News nor with the truth of His coming again. This isn’t the whole message.
There’s so much more to the Gospel than that. Kingdom living isn’t a simple matter that can be summed up in a cliché or pious pronouncements. Advent challenges us to hear and believe the promise of Emmanuel, God with us. That challenge doesn’t call us to be so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good, to become so starry-eyed over the future that we overlook the present. Advent reminds us that God often breaks in to our lives unexpectedly. We cannot know the time or the day of our next encounter with the Holy. Christ will come again no matter what, so we must be about the business of the Father each and every day. We must be about the business of the kingdom.
So now, the greens have been hung, the Chrismon tree is decorated and the first Advent candle has been lit. You might say that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, as the song says. But are we ready for Christmas yet? I don’t think so. I think that’s why there are four Sundays in Advent. Instead of being a time of consumer manic panic, Advent is a time of preparation for the gift of a miraculous presence.
Advent is our time to wake up, get up, and listen up, for the presence of Jesus. Advent is when the faithful are called to a renewed sense of consciousness, a new sense of “count-down” to the presence of Christ on earth. Advent is a time for the church to wake up, get up, listen up and get busy. Advent is a reminder of who came and for what reason. Advent is a reminder that we’re to be about the Father’s business of preparing for the coming of our King. Jesus is coming whether we’re ready or not, so don’t get caught up in the worry about things yet to come. Rather let us be ready; let us be faithful stewards and share this Good News and be about the business of the God’s kingdom.

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