Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matt 24:36-44
Happy Advent! Today marks the beginning of the Advent season, the time of joyful anticipation. The word “Advent” literarily means the arrival of something that has been eagerly awaited, especially something momentous. For some, that momentous moment already happened two days ago with the arrival of Black Friday, which had its own kind of anticipation. We occasionally do some shopping at Wal-Mart, and when we were there earlier last week, we were handed an instruction sheet and a map for how to navigate Black Friday. My guess is they decided they needed to maintain the safety of the shoppers, and as the flyer said, “Get what you came for and spend less time in line.” But the instructions seemed to point to nothing but waiting. Around the store were going to be placed high-end electronics at rock-bottom prices. And to help guarantee you got the item you wanted, you needed to get a wristband. Here is how it was supposed to work: 1. Get in line for your wristband(s) starting at midnight. Wristbands will be handed out beginning at 2 AM. Be sure to stay in line until you have received your wristband(s). 2. After you get your band(s) exit the line and continue shopping. 3. Claim your item between 5 and 6 AM. 4. We recommend that you stay in the store to ensure you get the item you reserved, because all unclaimed items will be sold to other customers after 6 AM. Now, staying up to six hours in Wal-Mart during the wee-hours of the morning to get a new large-screen TV or laptop computer does not sound like joyful anticipation for me. Sleep at that hour seems more joyful.
I think it is part of the church’s mission in this society that is so consumer driven to say, “Whoa! Let’s stop for a second and realize exactly what our anticipation, what our waiting is really for.” Advent is a time to reflect on that anticipation, but it is also a time that we get to stretch our imagination in two directions. In a week or two, we will start looking back to the beginning as we hear the stories that prepare us for the coming of the Christ child, Emmanuel, in our midst. It is the story that we can easily envision as we have seen it acted out in pageants, on cards, and as the radio stations have made the post-Thanksgiving leap from playing secular tunes to Christmas hymns and jingles.
In a way, our stories have become wrapped up in that story as we anticipate the traditions that have become part of the retelling of the story. In our homes it is the putting up and trimming the tree and maybe hanging lights off of the gutters. As a church, we mark this waiting time with the lighting of the Advent candles and the Hanging of the Greens. When you enter the sanctuary next Sunday, things will be different. You will be able to see and smell and experience the anticipation. One of my earliest church memories is holding that little candle at the Christmas Eve service, standing on the pew (the only time my parents let me do that), and seeing all the faces in the darkened sanctuary lit by their candles as we sang Silent Night and Joy to the World. Because of those early experiences, I can’t wait to hold that candle again every year on Christmas Eve, with its drippy, messy wax. It marks that the waiting is done. The Christ child has been born, the light of the world has come into our midst! And back then, I got to go home and open a present.
But the first Sunday in Advent is different. The texts force us to look forward in time, to the end, toward the vision of the new heaven and the new earth, to an unknown day coming at a time only the Father knows. It is the day when Christ our King will come again. We can’t mark that day in our appointment calendars. It is hard to envision exactly what that day will look like, even though many have tried to paint images about it or write novels focusing on it or even calculate exactly when it will happen. There isn’t a day when radio stations start playing Second Coming hymns and songs on the radio. I haven’t met any families that have Second Coming traditions. I’m not sure what they may look like. “Oh, we went out last weekend and looked for our Tribulation Tree. Find yours yet?” And the reply is always, “Nope, not yet.”
But “not yet” is exactly where we are, in what Karl Barth called “between the times,” stuck between two Advents, one from the past that is easy to envision and celebrate and the other out there in the future that most people either ignore or get too stressed about. Our Matthew text sits in a series of sayings and parables about that Second Advent. This day will come as a surprise, just as it did in Noah’s day while people were going about their day-to-day lives with eating and drinking and getting married. They were surprised by the impending flood that came over them. But Jesus’ message about this coming day seems to be different. It will be a surprise, but he also seems to be saying, “Be Prepared.” If the homeowner had known, he would have been prepared for the thief. Is Jesus saying that the homeowner should always be ready, maybe waiting in the dark, hour after hour with a baseball bat in hand? That kind of living seems exhausting. When Jesus is calling us to be ready for that day he comes in his glory, I hope he doesn’t want to find us crouched in the corner, ready for a fight. I don’t want to live that way.
The parables in the following chapter of our reading today point to the way that I think Jesus is calling us to live. The first one tells us of 10 bridesmaids who are waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. When he finally arrives unannounced in the middle of the night, he receives the five who saved some oil for that moment, but turns away those who had used up their oil and had to go buy more. The next parable is about a master who has gone away entrusting his money to his servants. When he returns, he commends the servants who had wisely invested the money they had received, but chastises the servant who went and buried his master’s money in the ground. And the third parable, like the previous one, also points to a day when the master will return. But this specifically talks about the one returning as the Son of Man, or Jesus himself. He will divide humanity into the sheep and the goats, into the group that as they fed and clothed “the least of these” also fed and clothed the Lord unawares. But the other group, the ones who failed to feed and cloth “the least of these” failed to feed and cloth the Lord. All three of these parables reiterate Jesus’ point that you must be ready, for he is coming at an unexpected hour.
So, how does Jesus want us to live “between the times”? What’s it look like to be prepared? How is Jesus calling us to live while we wait for him? I think that is the point, Jesus is calling us to live. Like the men in the field working together and the women grinding meal together, they were living out their normal daily routines, no matter how mundane those lives may have seemed. This is a text about today and how we will live it. We are called to live today faithfully. Jesus keeps our attention focused on today and the needs of the moment. We can’t hole up somewhere with baseball bats and stockpiles of provisions to wait his coming. But we also can’t live like he isn’t coming back.
Jesus is calling us to live faithfully while we wait faithfully. He calls us to live faithfully for him now before he comes again, because he came that first time to transform our lives. Because he came that first time as Emmanuel, God with us. We don’t wait alone. We wait for him with him. To live in this in between time it to trust and hope that God in Christ has begun and will continue to transform us more and more into the stature of Christ, in whom all of God’s mercy and loving-kindness becomes manifest. It is to become more Christ-like in our everyday walk with God. Theologian Paul Tillich says, “Those who wait, in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait.”
Jesus doesn’t really give us much of a blue print for faithful living or how the transformation of our lives is supposed to exactly look like. We can glean from this passage and the parables that follow that faithful living entails using the gifts that God has entrusted to each of us and reaching out to the least of these, the poor and hungry. Even Paul’s words about putting on Christ isn’t exactly clear about the shape it should take. But if we try to spell it out exactly what it should look like for each individual and community, we end up with the same result as when we try and predict the day he will return—we get it wrong. Living faithfully takes discernment and prayer, but most of all, it takes living this life by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that each decision that we make as we go about our daily lives will transform us into the people God is calling us to be. Maybe that is how we are supposed to celebrate Christ’s second coming, by simply living our lives as faithfully as we can as the Holy Spirit transforms us as Christ’s disciples. When we look at it that way, the celebration is taking place every day.
It is Advent. And we wait. We wait for the Christ child to come into our midst and we wait for that same one who will transform heaven and earth. But that one we wait for who will transform all things is at this very moment transforming us into his faithful disciples. And at this, we say, “Amen”