Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Advent – November 28, 2010
May Christ be seen when we look behind us, the Spirit be found walking ahead within our hope, and the Creator God look with love over all creation. Amen.
“Wake up! Do you know what time it is?” Is there anyone who hasn’t been the recipient of this commanding plea to get out of bed and start moving?—perhaps from a parent on a school morning or a spouse on a weekend when there is a laundry list of things that need to get done? And conversely, do you remember how as kids, we’d see the falling snow from our bedroom window and pray that there was enough accumulation to allow us to remain in our toasty warm bed for another few hours.
We don’t get that luxury today. No lazing around this morning. No, today’s lessons are like an alarm clock that just won’t stop clanging or beeping no matter how many times you try to shut it off. The Apostle Paul and the Evangelist Mathew, with a little help from the Prophet Isaiah, have teamed up to relay a message of utter urgency: Stay awake! Be ready! Walk in the light! Something extraordinary is about to happen. We don’t know exactly when, but you’d better be prepared!
That worked well for the first believers who lived each day convinced that Christ was coming back at any moment to haul in God’s Kingdom and make the world right.
Eventually, people got tired of waiting and so, by the time Matthew wrote the words we heard this morning—probably forty or so years after the death and resurrection of Jesus—he decided he’d better record some of the things Jesus said about the end time— and his return to earth— so that future generations of believers would hear them. So we get these contradictory statements in the heart of the gospel: “Stay awake! I’m coming back, but only God knows when.”
Fast forward two thousand years and here we are once again listening to this same warning to be alert and to wait. Wait. What kind of waiting is going on around us? People are waiting in line at 4 am to get the best deals on Christmas gifts. Others are waiting for the best buys to pop up on the internet. The world waits to see whether North and South Korea will go to war.
We’re all waiting to see what cuts in spending will mean for the services our state provides for those who need them. The Vestry is waiting for all of our pledges to be offered. Youngsters are waiting to open up presents to see if they got what they hoped for while others are waiting to get a job or even a lead on one. All kinds of waiting—but not exactly what Paul or Mathew had in mind when they wrote the words we hear today.
The rub here, you see, is that God doesn’t do time the way the world does time. God invites us to live under another calendar. In the world’s time, it is November 28th. In God’s time, the church’s time, it is the first Sunday of Advent which marks not only the beginning of a new Church Year, but is an appeal to look at what God is up to, what God’s plan is to bring change and transformation to the world, the new age of peace and unity under God’s reign. The best thing we can take away this morning is the promise that, with the dawn of Advent, new life, even creation itself, can start over again—especially in each one of us— if we let God into our life amidst the din of the holiday noise by which we are surrounded. That’s no easy task and so the church gives us these eight verses of Mathew’s Gospel to get our attention.
Much of it is story, metaphor, and mystery. There is one interesting piece that raised my curiosity this year. It’s the part about the two men in the field and two women grinding meal. “One will be taken and one will be left.” Fundamentalist Christians use this as evidence of what they call the “Rapture”—that, before Christ comes again, the faithful, righteous ones will be carried up to heaven while the rest await their fate here on earth. But this text doesn’t say that.
Maybe, just maybe, this is another example of how God’s time and God’s ways are so different from the world’s; how God can turn everything upside down for us. What if the people left behind are those God still needs to help usher in the new creation of God’s Kingdom? It’s just one of several twists in this text, but the real zinger in the Gospel is what we discover at the very end. God is going to come as a thief. A thief! We’ve all got our own individual images of God—some driven by really bad experiences in other churches and denominations—but this is image is really strange. A thief invades our home, violates our security, steals things that we value. And—get this—we’re supposed to get ready for this thief to break in, but if we’ll never know when he’s coming, how do we do that?
I wonder how many of you are really, seriously, and genuinely waiting for God. I wonder if some of you who are waiting are feeling that God has abandoned you and just waiting for God to come back. I wonder if some of you carry memories of a God who is unforgiving, judgmental, even vindictive, and are waiting for the God of mercy and grace to appear. Maybe you are waiting for God to direct you on a new path of light or looking for God’s direction in some new venture upon which you are about to embark.
We all know people waiting for God to grant them justice, wholeness, and healing; to bring them peace and safety and security. Even if you aren’t sure about who God is for you, you may still be waiting for something–something to restore hope.
Here’s the big surprise: this God will come as a thief—but not a thief who takes your cherished possessions, but one who takes away the things in your life that are bad for you: your anxiety, your loneliness, your pessimism, your anger, your grief, your sense of shame or poor self-esteem. This God will not come to violate your space, but God will intrude on your routine –stirring up your life, maybe even shaking you by the shoulders, challenging you to live as members of a new age.
This God will be your alarm clock urging you to be alert and to look with faith beyond the present reality to an imagined future—to a vision of a transformed world.
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!