December 1, 2019, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian
Sermon preached by the Reverend Carolyn Legg, Deacon
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Advent
(This sermon was not recorded due to an issue in our recording process.)
In the name of our all-loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. AMEN.
Happy New Year! Today is the beginning of the Church Year, which begins with the season of Advent, the season in which we prepare for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. With the change of season, we’ve changed the liturgical colors, lit the wreath, changed our hymns, responses and prayers. And we begin reading from Matthew’s Gospel.
The name “Advent” comes from the Latin adventus, which is an expectant “coming” or “arrival.” Advent anticipates the coming of Christ, the Messiah:
- his first coming as the child of Bethlehem, Jesus, some 2,000 years ago;
- his predicted coming again at the end of time.
In today’s readings we are told, rather briskly, to wake up! You know what time it is, get out of bed, now the time for you to wake from sleep, says Paul (Rom. 13:11). And even Jesus gets into the act: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”. The focus today is on waking up, being alert and aware. Our collect today asks that we be given “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” We get ready for Christmas first by shaking ourselves awake.
This is apocalyptic writing, a style used by Biblical writers to remind hearers of two simultaneous and self-correcting messages: everything matters immensely, and it doesn’t really matter at all.
Let’s understand something at the beginning. Jesus’ language in this reading is metaphor and mystery. Remember that we read Scripture with the knowledge that Jesus didn’t have a scribe taking down his words. The first Christians thought they were on the threshold of Jesus’ return and made plans accordingly. That’s what Paul’s is saying, “Our salvation is near.” At the same time the community to which Matthew was writing encountered opposition and hostility, trying to live out Jesus’ message of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, trying to show that Jesus was fulfilling the Torah, not creating something new.
Matthew writes these words, our text today, nearly 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, words which had been remembered in the early community of Christians around Antioch, modern day Syria, where there was a large Jewish Christian community. He writes them as comfort and consolation and assurance that Jesus would indeed return, because years had passed, and the community was anxious. What the early Christians didn’t understand was that no one would know when Jesus would return.
Another piece we need to remember is that God’s time is not linear as ours is, which is really hard for us clock-and-calendar-oriented folk to understand. God’s time is expansive, inclusive and boundless. The words of the Psalmist come to mind. “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past…”(90:4) or from 2 Peter, “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (3:8)
There are many Christians who speculate about Jesus’ return. In fact there’s been a cottage industry around predicting when Jesus would come back. There is the Left Behind series of books by Tim Lahaye, which anticipated when Jesus would return, and who would be among the chosen ones to return to heaven with him. And a pastor Harold Camping, who predicted that Jesus would come again first in September, 1994, and when that didn’t happen, his next date was May, 2011. He died in 2013.
So here we are in 2019. Jesus has not come back and we are as confused as the first century Christians. But we do know about uncertainty, surprise, unexpected events. So what if we updated the examples Jesus employs just a bit. Two colleagues were working; one was diagnosed with cancer, another not. Two candidates applied for a coveted job; one was chosen, the other not. Two couples were joined in marriage on the same day; one stayed married, the other did not.
Our lives are filled with unexpected, surprising, and life-altering events. And in the midst of all of this, we are invited – actually, commanded – to keep watch for the presence of the God we know in Jesus. This isn’t always easy, especially when the unexpected event is tragic. Sometimes you have to wait a while to see where God is at work and that can be painfully hard. Yet the promise throughout Scriptures is that God reliably meets us at our point of greatest need and accompanies us even and especially in the most difficult of circumstances.
As we know, watching and waiting are difficult for us, at least as difficult as it was for Jesus’ earliest followers. Which is I assume is one of the main reasons we come to church on Sunday! That is, straining to see God at work in the ups and downs of our lives, we come to church to hear these words of exhortation and encouragement read once again, and we also come to church to be surrounded by other Christians, some of whom are struggling to see God, and some of whom have recently seen God and can share with us what they’ve seen.
At the heart of this gospel from Matthew is “Keep awake! Be ready!” Not in order to worry about whether we will be taken or left—worrying about that is NOT being awake or ready. There are some clues in the rest of Matthew about what it means to be ready, glimpses of what wide-awake living looks like. See if you recognize them:
Love your enemies. (5:43-48)
Pray as Jesus taught us to pray. (6:9-14)
Don’t judge others. (7:1-5)
I was hungry, and you gave me food.
I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.
I was a stranger, and you took me in.
I was sick, and you visited me.
I was in prison, and you came to me. (25:35-40)
In Matthew’s understanding of the Gospel, the second coming doesn’t cause us to quit the job of being the church in the world; it calls us to take it up with even more urgency.
It’s easy to become absorbed in our own everyday lives, in our work, the needs of our families, in our eating and drinking (especially at this time of year!). It’s easy to be distracted by many things.
It’s harder to keep awake. It’s harder to be mindful, to live mindfully. Yet that’s what this gospel asks us to do. That’s what the season of Advent can help us practice. Because God might show up without an appointment.
Now here’s a suggestion for keeping Advent differently. What if all of us who are genuinely waiting for God would engage others in our community—both here at St. Paul’s and out in the world—by telling our story? What are we thinking about it? What questions do we have? What feelings get stirred up by the Gospel today? What do we long to hear? What are our wildest dreams and where does our holy imagining lead us? What are our deepest hopes?
It’s a season of movement and journeying—a season that carries with it a sense of leaving someplace behind and going to a place we long to reach. Advent sings to us of birth, unshaped possibilities, and offers us this counsel: Be alert! Keep awake—not to keep the intruder out, but to let him in—and realize just how that intrusion might lead to an amazing discovery about the God who comes to us in our waiting. Something extraordinary is about to happen. We don’t know exactly when, but you’d better be prepared! God just might show up, without an appointment!
 Richard Rohr, Radical Grace, p. 319.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8, p. 448.