Monday, November 28, 2016

"An Advent Question: Will We Be Ready?" - Sermon, November 27, 2016

Community UMC, Quincy
“An Advent Question: Will We be Ready?”
Isaiah 2: 1-5
Matthew 24: 36-44
Pastor Andrew Davis
November 27, 2016

        How many of you have started your Christmas decorating yet?  How about listening to Christmas music?  Even though we’re only a few days after Thanksgiving, it sure feels like we’ve already been seeing Christmas since Labor Day…maybe even since the Fourth of July.  Now, I know some people will lament that all things Christmas seems to appear earlier and earlier each year, as it sure feels like it comes up earlier.  Right after Labor Day or Fourth of July is a little too early, but the thought of Christmas stuff going up early brings me back to a series of books I loved reading as a child.  I particularly remember reading The Berenstein Bears series about the Bear Family written by the late Stan and Jan Berenstein, which was more or less based on their own family (kind of the same way the comic strip “For Better or For Worse” was loosely based on Lynn Johnston’s own family).  In The Berenstein Bears series which was actually an educational series, we had Mama Bear, Papa Q. Bear, Brother Bear, and Sister Bear who often encountered different situations in life and showed the reader how to navigate these situations. 
In The Berenstein Bears Visit Santa Bear, the Bear Family is pulling into the parking lot of the Bear Country Mall and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, although Papa Bear quips in almost a lament how it seems that the Christmas stuff appears earlier and earlier each year.  However, it’s only two days after Thanksgiving in the book.  Now like in my house growing up and even today, you don’t even think of pulling out the Christmas stuff or listening to Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving at the earliest, one of those embedded values that I still have, even though there are times where I admit that I’m also waffling on that with the music.  However, when I feel like I need a little Christmas and succumb to my temptation in listening to Christmas music on Pandora or one of my Winter Solstice CD’s, I actually do feel a little bit of guilt, or even feel like God’s going to smite me for doing so.  But for the most part, I still to hold on to these embedded values of learning to wait and learning to prepare, not just jump in head first.  It’s like the notion of learning to crawl before learning to fly. 
        I think for many of us, we are conditioned that when we see something rocking the boat of our embedded values or traditions, our reactions can be a combination of annoyance, horror, lament, maybe even surprise.  I think about what happens when embedded values are challenged in writer-director Barry Levenson’s 1990 movie “Avalon,” as there is one scene in the movie at Thanksgiving Day in which the Thanksgiving turkey is cut before a particular uncle and his wife arrive.  Upon seeing the turkey cut after he arrived, which Uncle Gabriel gets angry and leaves, lamenting the end of tradition as he knew it.  In some ways, seeing Christmas things happening before Thanksgiving tends to rock that boat for many, as it’s almost like the end of tradition as we knew it. 
Now, I know there are times that I have been highly critical and even cynical about the Christmas season, particularly in how early it comes up.  And there is good reason for that, as sometimes we as a society and culture tend to jump right into the hustle and bustle of the season and then before we know it, Christmas Day is here and gone for another year, sometimes leaving us feeling us let down or like we didn’t get to enjoy the season because it’s so busy and that we weren’t really ready for it.  Even with all the early preparation, will we be ready for Christmas when it does arrive? 
        It’s one of those questions worth asking as we begin a new season in the church year, Advent.  Will we be ready?  The season of Advent is meant to be a time of quieting our hearts, preparing, watching, and waiting in that period before Christmas, an escape from the hustle and bustle that this time of year brings.  We began Advent this morning by lighting the candle of hope, as Advent is a season of anticipating new hope which goes hand in hand with the waiting, the watching, and preparing.  From our Advent study that starts this week, The Redemption of Scrooge by Matt Rawle, Matt says that “Advent is to be a time of waiting, not only to live into the tension of when the divine and creation collide, but it is the spiritual discipline of slowing down to notice God’s presence in the still small voice within a violent and hurried world.”[i] There’s no doubt that we live in a hurried world, and it feels like it’s even more hurried at this time of year; we put up the decorations, play the music, go to or host the parties and gatherings, go shopping, try to find the right present, meaning more shopping, and indulge in rich foods.  But all while doing so, are we really ready for Christmas Day when it arrives?  Or in the case of a number of retail workers (having lived that experience), are we more ready for it to be over?   
        As we encounter both of our texts this morning, neither text really give us a sense of getting ready for Christmas Day or the birth of Jesus, per se.  In fact, our texts this morning feel a little bit unsettling and may even leave us asking why we are focusing on the end instead of the birth.  Yet, when it comes to expectations where the divine and creation collide that Matt Rawle observed in his take on Advent, it makes sense that we are encountering two texts that are dealing with eschatology, or end times.  Or, as my friend and colleague, Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards says, these texts talk about the “beginning with the end in mind.”[ii] Both texts deal with ending the world as we know it and for our other big, fancy word, Matthew’s gospel lesson addresses the parousia, or second coming of Christ.  Jesus discusses the parousia in verse 42 of Matthew 24, “so you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming” (NLT).  Jesus is actually talking of the future here in Matthew 24, but more about the end of the current world and the start of a new world, along pretty much the same lines that we heard in Luke’s gospel a couple weeks ago, where Jesus uses apocalyptic language to show that in order for a new world to be possible, the old world must come to an end.  Today’s lesson sure doesn’t seem like talking about getting ready for Christmas here at all but nevertheless, Jesus is reminding us today that we need to be ready and need to keep watch regardless of what’s happening around us.   
        Even in Isaiah 2, there is a theme of eschatology here, as it says in verse 2 how
In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s house
     will be the highest of all—
     the most important place on earth.
It will be raised above the other hills,
    and people from all over the world will stream there to
worship. (NLT)
        Here, the prophet is talking about a new day on the horizon when one world needs to end in order for a new world to be realized.  However, this small section of the prophecy is part of a greater commentary on what has happened to Jerusalem and God’s people, as in first Isaiah, God is once again displeased with what has become of creation, as this morning’s reading from Isaiah is just before the Babylonian exile.  Coincidentally with God’s displeasure with humanity, in our text from Matthew, there is a reference to the story of Noah, as the earth was destroyed by the great flood while Noah and his family and all the animals were spared by staying in the ark during the flood as a result of that displeasure.  But even amidst the talk of God’s future reign, further warnings are sent to God’s people through the prophet Isaiah.  But then as we read in Matthew, nobody knew then or knows now how or when things are going to pan out in Jesus’s second coming.  That’s why it is necessary to wait, to watch, and prepare when Jesus tells us to keep watch and stay awake just as Isaiah says that we need to “walk in the light.”  Even then, will we be ready?  Just like we are beginning the time of preparation and getting ready for Christmas, if Jesus was to appear at any moment today, will we be ready? 
So why are we even engaging with a text that deals with the second-coming on this first Sunday of Advent anyway?  Professor Ron Allen explains that “the work of the first Advent (coming) of Jesus is incomplete [as the] risen Jesus instructs (and empowers) the church to continue its witness until the second coming (Matt. 28: 16-20).”[iii] As a people of faith, we are presently living in the in-between times and we have a task to do in sharing our witness, I think more than ever.  We live between the time where Jesus first came to earth, and now we await when he will return and complete the work of the first Advent, we just don’t know when.  But at the same time, it’s how we continue to live in these between times as we continue waiting and watching, how we live out our faith through our actions, and how we share our faith with others, as I’m not sure that we really want to be caught off guard just in case Jesus was to appear today or tomorrow.  New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, Ben Witherington explains that
God reveals enough about the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not have to live and walk by faith day after day. We have assurance about the things hoped for, and conviction about the things not yet seen, but what we do not have is a timetable in the Scriptures, nor would that have been very helpful to the faithful anyway.  The person who knows for sure he will die in two days may well do all sorts of things out of character because he has a firm deadline before him and throws caution to the wind. Likewise, even a Christian person who knows Christ will certainly not return in his lifetime may well be tempted to throw caution and morals to the wind.[iv]

        It is in these in-between times where we need to keep walking by faith, and joyfully living out our faith in this world today so that we will be ready when Jesus does appear again.  Like Ben Witherington said, we don’t want to “throw caution and morals into the wind and the second coming might not happen in our lifetime, but as Jesus reminds us in verses 42 and 44, we need to “keep watch” and “be ready,” even when we don’t know the time or the hour (Matthew 24: 42, 44, NLT).[v]   While we live in the in-between times and as we begin this journey of Advent, we are the ones who can keep bringing a sense of hope and healing to a hurting world, especially more so at this time of year when emotions can run a little higher than usual.  And like Isaiah reminds us, we need to walk in the light, which will be literal on Friday at Sparkle.  It also means continuing to show kindness to everyone, not just during the holidays, but all year round.  More important, we need to make sure our actions speak louder than our words so that we can fully be ready for Jesus’s return. 
        While we may be putting up our nativity sets, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and listening to Christmas music this coming week, we still need to wait, we still need to watch, and still need to prepare our hearts and minds so that we will be ready for everything that the hope, peace, love, and joy that Christmas brings to us, and for what we can give the world at Christmas.  It’s the new hope, peace, love, and joy that can be born in us, as we keep living out these in-between times between the first Advent and Jesus’s second coming.  I close with a quote from Mike Slaughter’s book, Down to Earth that “Advent is the expectation that Jesus will come in the present to birth in us God’s new work.  It is a season of active preparation as we welcome Jesus down to earth.”[vi]
Even while we may be standing in the in-between times, what are you expecting as we begin this Advent season?  What are you hoping for that can be born in each of us this Christmas?  And more importantly, will we be ready?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. 

[i] Matt Rawle, The Redemption of Scrooge (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 36. 
[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘First Sunday of Advent — Preaching Notes’. 2016. Accessed November 24, 2016.
[iii] Lewis, Karoline. ‘Commentary on Matthew 24: 36-44 by Ron Allen’. November 27, 2016. Accessed November 22, 2016.
[iv] Lose, David. ‘Commentary on Matthew 24: 36-44 by Ben Witherington’. November 28, 2010. Accessed November 22, 2016.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Mike Slaughter and Rachel Billups, Down to Earth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 11.  

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