Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
Ah, Advent… This time of year there’s a lot of preparations to be made. We prepare for Christmas in a frenzy of gift buying and wrapping, cookie baking, party hosting, tree buying, light stringing, house decorating, and the list goes on.
And you have had other preparations to make as well. You’ve been preparing for a new pastor, and preparing to welcome her and her family into your fold. Together we’ll prepare for an ordination and installation to be held here later this month. I can’t imagine anyone being asleep. There’s a lot to get done!
I imagine there was a time when you were feeling like Matthew when it came to the matter of getting a pastor. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” You’ve waited a long time! I also imagine it may be something of a relief to many of you, especially the PNC.
However, unlike waiting for the arrival of a new pastor we don’t get a start date or a first Sunday for Christ’s return. Both Paul and Matthew are telling us that there is no way we can know when to expect Christ to return to earth. They tell us to be ready, but not when it will happen.
During Advent, it’s hard to keep track of anything, much less the passing of each day. We’re so busy trying to find the right gifts, throw the right parties, and bake all those cookies that the time slips away from us and Christmas is over before we know it. We get so caught up waiting for the baby to be born, that we miss his coming again. It’s not something that we keep in the forefront of our minds this time of year. Our preoccupation with keeping the holidays “merry and bright” also keeps us from the focus of the season. Or rather, we get so caught up with the thought of Christmas itself that we forget about preparing for it. Oh, sure, we prepare everything else from our homes, inside and out, to our cars with the light up wreaths on the front grills. We even prepare our churches, changing the colors of the paraments, setting up the Advent wreath with its candles, some even devote their lawns to a living nativity, donkeys and all.
But we forget to prepare ourselves. We’re ready for the glitz and glam of the holiday parties, we easily prepare for a night out by buying new clothes, fixing hair and make-up, donning jewels and spiffy ties. It’s so much easier to get the outside ready than the inside. But what if Jesus came while we were all out at a holiday party? Or what if we were so busy shopping that we missed the heralding angels?
You’ll notice that the stole I am wearing and the vestments here in the sanctuary are purple and they will remain so throughout Advent. You might recall the other season that uses purple is Lent. Lent is a time in our church calendar that we use for repentance and reflection. We are preparing ourselves for Easter. The reason that Advent and Lent share colors, is that the church believes that Advent and Lent share that need for reflection and preparation. Some traditions have a much more solemn time during Advent, preparing for Christ’s birth much the same way we prepare for Easter.
But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? There is a celebration for Easter, and it’s the main event we’re preparing for anyway. We get a little caught up in the death part because we’re so stoic for 6 weeks and only celebratory on Easter day itself. That was how Advent and Christmas originally worked. Like Lent and Easter, people were meditative and repentant leading up to the holy day and then celebrated only after the dawning of that day. They would then celebrate for the twelve days following Christmas up until Epiphany. That’s how the world’s longest Christmas tune came about.
Am I saying that we need to give up the festive holiday air that surrounds Advent? No, but I am saying that it might not hurt to share a little of the contemplative and repentant spirit of Lent at this time of year. That is one way that we can take the words of our Scripture today to heart. It is just one way we can strive to be ready for that unexpected hour.
It’s easy to recognize the common thread in Paul and Matthew’s words--it’s time. We never seem to have enough of it, we keep wasting it, and it’s getting shorter and shorter, at least according to Paul. It’s Paul who is really challenging us to reflect on how we use our time. He warns us to keep an eye on the clock, wake up from our sleep. “The night is far gone,” he says, “the day is near.” And because it is near, he says, we need to get our acts together- leave off the reveling and drunkenness,and debauchery and licentiousness, and quarreling and jealousy, and… well, you get the idea.
Paul makes the analogy of living as in the day. I can see why that makes sense. Anyone who has been to a big city understands that daytime is a much safer time than the night. Honest business is conducted during the day, when the buildings are full of employees. We can see by the light of the sun, there are no scary shadows where the unknown can hide. Night is when drug dealers and prostitutes walk the streets, promoting licentiousness and debauchery. Night is when the revelers from the clubs drive home drunk. Night is when the quarreling and jealousy lead to beatings and shootings. Matthew warns against similar deeds of darkness. He references the time before Noah, when there was much eating and drinking and general merry-making. But he warns that they were so caught up in all of this that they didn’t even notice the warning signs until they were already swept away in the flood.
Matthew also uses the waking from sleep metaphor, saying, “keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”And how could we, like the people of Noah’s time, notice the signs of the return of Christ, when we are so caught up in our own merry-making and revelry? Even if our deeds are not as awful as those on Paul’s list, we do know that we are not as ready as we should and could be for Christ’s return. We are drowsy even now, content to believe that he certainly won’t be back right now. There’s time to get things in order. We don’t have to worry quite yet.
These passages agree with each other that Christ’s return could be any day now. The supermarket tabloids would certainly have us believe so. But I think that Paul and Matthew might be more credible. Yet we’re still blithely going about our business of decorating, shopping, baking and more. Could we indeed miss the angels heralding? the star in the sky? Maybe if someone had warned the innkeeper in advance that the Son of God was going to need a place to sleep, he might have saved a special room for them.
That’s the problem with not knowing when we can expect Christ to return--we have to be ready all the time. And how do we ready ourselves? That is part of what makes it so hard, all of the ‘not knowing’ that comes along with trying to prepare ourselves. All we do know about Christ’s return is that it could be any day now. Any day like today, any day like tomorrow, any day like next week, next month, next millennium. The only thing for sure is that he is coming. And we know because we have been promised so. We have been given a promise and must count on the reliability of the one who makes that promise. Some people might have us believe that there is a secret code we can crack to know exactly when Christ will return. But promises are not quite so scientific, they allow for considerable latitude. Matthew assures us that it will be a surprise, not something we can calculate. We have to count on the fact that the other promises in the Bible have been fulfilled and this one will be too.If we give up on that, then we have no reason to celebrate Advent or any other church season, for that matter. We might as well just be asleep, like Paul and Matthew admonish against.
Jesus’ birth was the fulfillment of a promise, just like his coming again will fulfill another promise. Believing that God fulfills God’s promises is essential to celebrating Advent. We celebrate the fulfillment of one promise—the birth, because we know that another promise—Christ’s return, waits to be fulfilled. Advent is not just the celebration leading up to Christmas. It is the celebration of a promise fulfilled and a promise to be fulfilled. So while Christmas has a way of sneaking up on us this time of year we still have to be on the watch, we have to keep awake for the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah’s return. Whether or not we know the day or hour, we can know that it will happen, that it could be any day now. Amen.