Sunday, December 2, 2007

(Advent 1) Expecting the Unexpected

Matthew 24:36-44

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After the first candle was lit this morning on the Advent wreath,
the leader’s line was,
“Keep awake! ready for the unexpected.
the congregation’s response was,
“We watch. We listen. We wait.”

Those words say a lot about Advent.
The set the agenda for this season.
And they’re easy for us to say.
We’ve gotten comfortable with this idea of Advent
as a season of waiting.
If you grew up Mennonite, and you’re over the age of 40,
my guess is you didn’t celebrate Advent as a child.
The church I grew up in never mentioned the word.
In fact, it wasn’t until I became a pastor in the early 80’s,
that I had much of a concept of what Advent was.
We’re just growing to understand and appreciate the season.

But in another way, I think we hardly understand it at all.
Sure, we get the idea that it’s a 4-week waiting period for Christmas.
It’s a way to hold off celebrating Christmas until it gets here.
Which makes these couple hours on Sunday morning,
stand out in sharp contrast.
Many of us are in Christmas mode all December.
We spend mountains of time and energy and money
shopping, decorating, putting up lights,
shopping, baking, tree-cutting, shopping,
making travel plans,
going to Christmas concerts,
singing Christmas carols,
and (did I mention?) shopping.
It’s only in Sunday worship that we put all that on hold,
and say, wait!
Literally... wait!
And if that’s all Advent was about, I’d say it’s still a good thing.
It’s good to wait.
It’s good to remember that worthwhile things
don’t all happen instantly, at the moment we want them to,
or expect them to.
Some things are a long time coming. And that’s alright.

But I think the part of Advent that we haven’t yet understood,
at least not very well,
is that this attentiveness is not just a four-week discipline of waiting
which we happily put aside on December 25.
The unwrapping of presents on Christmas,
doesn’t mean the end of mystery.
It doesn’t mean we’re done waiting.
Not by a long shot.

The message of Advent, if you want to the know the truth,
is about the way to live the Christian life all year—
all day, every day.
The message of Advent is 24/7/365.

That’s one of the reasons, I think,
that the people who chose the scripture readings for Advent,
decided we should always begin the first Sunday,
with scripture about Christ’s second coming.
The second Advent.
Scripture that contains a stern warning,
a warning that seems rather out-of-place for the season.
You don’t sing about it when you go caroling.
It’s not very holly-jolly-Christmas-y at all.
The warning is this:
Stay awake. Pay close attention. Be alert and ready.
Don’t be caught unawares,
when the end comes, like a thief in the night.

And Matthew’s version of this warning is the worst of them all.
Thank goodness it only comes around once every three years,
in the lectionary cycle.
I don’t have to face this text and deal with it every year.

You heard it. Matthew 24:36-44.
Maybe you want to turn in your Bibles to it,
to convince yourself it’s really there.
The reader wasn’t just making it up.

I used to instinctively avoid this text in my Advent sermons.
The day of the coming of the Son of Man
will be just like the days of Noah,
when people were eating and drinking
and going about their merry life,
and one day Noah and his family walked into the ark,
and a flood suddenly came
and swept everyone else away to their death.
The day of Christ’s second coming will be just like that, it says.
Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding meal together;
one will be taken and one will be left.
Keep awake therefore,
for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Well... Merry Christmas!
It’s not too hard to figure out why they don’t play Christmas carols
about that on the radio, and over the loudspeakers at Wal-Mart.
It’s because nobody wrote them.
If they did write them, nobody would sing them.
If people would sing them, nobody would listen.
I wouldn’t want to listen to those kind of carols,
while I shop for candles and cranberries.

It’s probably not too hard for you to figure out
why I avoided this text for my sermons.
I was always glad there was an Old Testament text to fall back on.
And this Sunday always had a great one: Isaiah 2—
about nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord,
and about people beating their swords into plowshares,
and studying war no more,
and walking in the light of the Lord.
It’s a beautiful text. The youth did a great job reading it earlier.
So why am I not preaching from Isaiah, you might ask.

Because I have come to learn that if a certain text gives me the willies,
if it repels me more than attracts me,
then it is probably worth the effort of wrestling with it,
and discovering the treasure that seems hidden to me.

I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to this text
for probably some of the same reasons you do.
I was an adolescent in the late sixties and early seventies,
when certain books and movies were making their rounds,
like Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth,
and the movie Thief in the Night.
And while it wasn’t a Christmas carol,
there was a popular Christian song at the time by Larry Norman,
based on this Matthew 24 text.
The lyrics are imprinted in my head, as is the tune.
“A man and wife asleep in bed,
she hears a noise and turns her head—he’s gone,
I wish we’d all been ready.
There’s no time to change your mind
the Son has come and you’ve been left behind.
I wish we’d all been ready.”

It was fear-based evangelism the church engaged in.
And it worked.
I know I, for one, was scared stiff of being “left behind.”
I remember, when I was 11 or 12-years old,
waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweat,
afraid I had done something to offend God,
that might be cause for him to leave me behind.
In recent years, the book and movie series, “Left Behind,”
picks up on this same overemphasis on the event of the rapture,
and the fear of being suddenly abandoned
by God and by your loved ones.

But when you hear these words in Matthew 24,
it’s kind of easy to see where these books and movies come from.
It seems to be what Jesus is saying, too.

So would I say the notion of a rapture is a bunch of hogwash?
No, I can’t dismiss these words of Jesus that easily.
But I don’t accept that Jesus’ main agenda here,
was to make us afraid of the rapture,
to frighten us into faith.
He wasn’t even aiming to give us specifics about the end,
and how exactly it would take place.
He said he didn’t even know the day or hour,
only the Father knows.
What Jesus is calling for here, I believe,
is a lifestyle of attentiveness.
He’s calling for a consistent and continual way of life
for citizens of God’s kingdom.

Anytime we get hung up on one single
and final and irreversible moment in time,
and build our theology of salvation around that,
we are badly missing the point.
Jesus himself wasn’t privy to those details, he said.

No, I think this text is pointing us to a different, and better,
and more free and joyful way of living on this earth.
It’s pointing to a life of attentiveness,
of readiness to receive the kingdom of God when it shows up,
whenever and however it shows up.

You see, the greatest temptation for us humans,
is distraction.
Chronic distraction.
A state of existence whereby
our attentiveness to the work of God all around us
has been dulled.
We get distracted so often and so completely,
by the lure of the culture we live in,
and its material pleasures,
and its worship of the self,
that we fail to notice the kingdom.

So the kingdom of God might be taking root
and sprouting up right at our doorstep,
and we just don’t see it.
We stomp on the tender plant as we go rushing out the door...
to hop in our air-conditioned car to go Christmas shopping,
or wherever we’re going.

We’re not awake. We’re not alert.
We’re not ready for the kingdom, it would seem.

But the thing about the kingdom...
is it always seems to sprout up around the edges.
It emerges so often on the margins of life,
and if we’re distracted we’ll miss it.
At least it showed up on the margins when Jesus was here among us.
It sprouted up in a despised tax collector’s house,
when Zaccheus repented of his greed,
and pledged to help the poor.
It sprouted up at the dinner table of Simon the Pharisee,
when a sinful, shameful woman came in to anoint Jesus’ feet,
and express her love and devotion.
It sprouted when Jesus welcomed the children,
when he healed a lame man on the Sabbath,
asked a Samaritan woman for a drink,
touched lepers,
cast out demons,
preached deliverance to the poor.
Meanwhile, all the religious people were too distracted
to see the kingdom sprouting up all around them.
The Pharisees, and all the teachers of the law,
stomped on this tender new life
in their rush out the door to condemn Jesus for all this nonsense.

The Pharisees sincerely meant to look for the kingdom,
but they missed it completely,
because they were so distracted by the religious framework
they had so carefully and conscientiously constructed.

That’s the one thing about the kingdom of God
that we get wrong...again and again.
We Christians,
especially those of us who have invested ourselves
in religious institutions,
are tempted to think the kingdom is something we need to build.
That we need to keep our own hands on it at all times.
Ever notice how controlling the language is
when the church talks about the kingdom of God?
We talk about building the kingdom, establishing the kingdom,
advancing the kingdom.
In the Gospels, we find different language.
Jesus invites us to recognize it. To receive it. To enter it.
The kingdom is near you, he said.
Watch out or you’ll step on it.
The kingdom is God’s doing,
and we are invited to join it.

It’s all about God’s mission
to restore what is broken,
to reconcile what is estranged,
to redeem what is lost.
And in Jesus Christ, God put this mission into full gear.
You want to learn to recognize the kingdom of God,
as it emerges in our lives and in our world today?
Then get familiar with the story of Jesus.
The kingdom of God exists
where the lost are being found,
the dead are being raised,
the sick are being healed,
the broken are discovering new wholeness,
where people are being made new
by their encounter with Jesus the Christ.
We don’t make people new. We don’t build the kingdom.
But it’s the church’s job to be there when it happens,
to enter into and participate with that mission of God.

So the message of Advent is to get ready!
Get ready for the reign of God.
It is now here.
It is now emerging.
It is now being given birth.
The kingdom of God is not ours
to manufacture, manage, or manipulate.
Those three words all begin with “man,” and it’s not a coincidence.
“Manus” is the Latin word for “hand.”
Hands that control, that exert upon, that interfere with.
Kingdom hands are hands that receive, accept,
with palms upturned in gratitude.

That’s not to say that living attentively is living passively.
No, seeking the kingdom often means we need to
exert enormous effort,
make tremendous sacrifice,
be intentional in how we shape our lives,
and to be tenacious in our striving to overcome
the chronic distraction that has come to define our lives.

To use a timely example,
those Saturday newspapers
that are three times their normal weight
due to all the glossy fliers for Christmas sales.
That’s a distraction.
Those ads are designed for one purpose,
to create desire.
As a follower of Jesus,
I don’t think I really need the help of a national retail chain,
to tell me how to enhance my relationship with my spouse,
or children, or boss, or co-worker,
by buying the gift that says it all.
In our house, all the fliers, every one of them,
get pulled out of the paper
and immediately put on the recycling pile.
If I want to communicate my love and regard for Irene,
or our daughters, or other friends and family,
through gift-giving,
then wouldn’t it be far better to sit somewhere quietly and think?
To reflect carefully about the kind of gift
that would communicate what I most want to communicate?
And to consider some of the many options
that aren’t found in the chain stores,
like things I might create with my own hands,
or purchase from a local craftsperson,
or an alternative gift that helps someone in need,
like those available in the foyer today.
And if buying some clothing, or jewelry, or gadget
is what I need to do,
I know where the stores are.

That’s just one small example.
Every day we are surrounded by distractions.
It takes a lot of intentionality to brush those distractions aside,
so we can notice where God is moving in our neighborhood.
Being attentive is our Christian calling.
It is a lifestyle to which God in Christ invites us.
Life in the kingdom of God.
And that kingdom is a kingdom of deep joy
and peace and happiness and wholeness.
It is the kingdom described in the Isaiah 2 reading today,
to which nations stream, enthusiastically saying,
“Come, come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain.”
It’s a kingdom where people laugh
as they beat their swords into plowshares,
and put away their war manuals.
It’s a kingdom where people walk in the light of the Lord.
With a lightness in their step.

That’s the kind of life Matthew 24 is calling us to.
I think Jesus must be deeply saddened when scripture gets twisted
to the point where God’s deep love and mercy get squeezed out of it.
When an 11-year-old boy wakes up in the night
shaking in fear that he’ll be left behind.

This is a serious call to a deeper life,
from a God who embodies both love and judgement, to be sure.
But it’s not the rapture we need to get ready for.
It’s life in the surprising kingdom of God
that we need to get ready for.
This is first and foremost an invitation
to a life of freedom and joy and attentiveness in Christ,
where the kingdom of God shows up at unexpected times
and in unexpected places.
It is a call to expect the unexpected.

God help us remove the distractions.
I wish we’d all get ready.

—Phil Kniss, December 2, 2007

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