Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Advent – December 1, 2013
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
The priest was being honored on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as pastor of the church. A huge dinner had been in the planning for months. Half the town was there and a local politician who belonged to the congregation had been asked to make a presentation to the priest on behalf of the parish. Unfortunately, this politician got stuck in traffic and was late, so the priest decided to fill in the gap by saying a few words about his first days at the parish. “You will understand,” he said, “the seal of the confessional can never be broken. However, I got my first impression of this congregation from the very first confession I heard. I thought I had been assigned to a dreadful place. The first person that entered the confessional that day told me he had embezzled money from his business partners, had an affair with his secretary, and had three DUI’s. I was appalled. But as the days past, I learned that he was the exception and that I had, indeed, come to a parish of good and wonderful people.” Just as the pastor finished his talk, the politician arrived full of apologies for his tardiness. He rushed to the podium and immediately began to make the presentation. “I’ll never forget the day our good pastor arrived,” he said. “In fact, I had the honor and privilege of being the first one to go confession to him.” The point of the story is Get your timing right. Get your timing right. This season we call “Advent” is an example of how the church’s timing and the timing of the present culture are way out of sync. The mantra words of the church are “Wait!” “Keep awake” “Be still” but our explosive culture shouts “Spend” “Shop” “Stress yourself out!” The warm color of our blue Advent vestments clashes with and is overwhelmed by the brassy reds, greens, silver, and gold everywhere else we go. It is a real paradox, this liturgical season which is planted on the cusp of Black Friday. The Gospel message is “wait and be alert.” About 15,000 people waited for the flagship Macy’s in New York to open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving. And by the time one shopper was leaving North Point Mall in Alpharetta, Ga., after a six-hour buying binge that started on Thanksgiving, another wave of shoppers was coming in about 5:30 a.m. on Friday. “You just have to be out in the midst of all of it,” said Ricki Moss, who hit stores near Portland, Ore., at 5:30 a.m. on Friday. “It’s exciting.” Well, not for me. Our waiting is often in a long line at Best Buy, or for the internet to display the best bargains of the season or waiting for the all clear at Danbury Mall after a fight precipitated a lockdown on Friday night. That’s not at all the kind of waiting to which Matthew refers in the Gospel today. His audience was made up of 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, it became clear that Jesus was not in that much of a hurry to come back and yet there were these contradictory statements he had made: “Stay awake! The Son of Man is coming back at an unexpected hour and no one knows when.” So the author of the Gospel wrote all these things down for future generations to ponder. Advent begins this year with a Gospel reading in which is Jesus talks about the ends times, the last things. Not very jolly, is it? It is a brief reading which makes a significant statement on coming events. Much of it is story, metaphor, and mystery. There are three and mystery within which are three brief subsets that undoubtedly raise questions for us. First Jesus uses the example of Noah and the Ark. A non-sailor, Noah, built a boat 450 feet long, 75feet wide, and 45 feet high—miles from the sea and without seeing a cloud in the sky to suggest he need do this. His only blueprint was trust in God that being awake was the key to being prepared. Next we hear two theoretical situations, one set in a field and another in a mill, in which two people are working but in which one is taken and the other left. This snippet has, of course, generated the concept of a “Rapture,” a relatively new theological perspective and interpretation of this passage that has gotten entrenched within Evangelical Protestant denominations. As their story goes, the good guys will be taken up and the wicked will be left behind to endure great tribulation. However, Jesus explains in this passage that his coming again will be just like the days of Noah and this passage is probably better rendered: “Then two men will be in a field: one will be seized and one will be released. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be seized and one will be released.” It’s better to be “let go” or “released” than “taken” or “seized.” Who was “taken” in the days of Noah? It wasn’t the righteous and upright—they stuck around and inherited the earth after God removed the wicked. So I think we can put away any concerns we might have about a rapture. Finally, we turn to the example of a burglar and the contrast between a homeowner sleeping soundly, not suspecting any break-in—and someone lying awake with a flashlight next to the bedside, ready to leap at the first sound of an intruder. Seriously, is God going to come as a thief? What a really strange image. A thief invades our home, violates our security, steals things that we value and we’re supposed to get ready for this thief to break in? If we’ll never know when he’s coming, how do we do that? The big surprise is that God will come not as a robber who takes your cherished possessions, but one who takes away the things in our life that are bad for us: anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, grief, a sense of shame or poor self-esteem. “That is why Jesus will come back like a thief in the night,” writes Mother Barbara Brown Taylor, “so that we do not have time to lock him out. As long as we are successful in that, we will never know what a peculiar thief this really is, who comes not to take but to give. The threat is not outside the door. It is inside us: in our misplaced fears, our misguided defenses. Keep awake, therefore—not to keep the intruder out but to let him in. He may be a thief, but he is God’s beloved thief, who has come to set us free.” Advent is, indeed, a time of paradox. How do we get our timing right in the midst of all that works against our doing that? How do we get our timing in sync with God’s time? How do we learn to wait, to watch, to be alert? We might find an answer in both the opening prayer and Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans: “Lay aside, cast away the works of darkness.” If we are going to put on the “armor of light,” if we are going to find the light in the wintry darkness, there are things we may need to take off first. We may need to take off the fears and worries that weigh us down and that we wrap around us like heavy winter coats, smothering our sense of joy. We may need to take off our inclination to isolate ourselves and make an effort to spend time with others. We may need to take off the blinders that prevent us from recognizing how many have nothing to put on—no parties, no warm clothing, no reason to hope. We may need to take off our unreal expectations of what we’re supposed to be doing to conform to the unwritten rules of our culture. We may need to take off our guilt about the embarrassment of our personal abundance and let our bounty be the source of giving to others who live in scarcity. It is only when we have taken off some of the baggage that weighs us down that we can truly put on the armor of light. “Keep awake! Be alert! Watch and wait,” Jesus tells us this morning. Life is too precious to just go about business as usual. The teaching of Advent points us to the really important things in life: the coming of the reign of God—and it is nearer than we think. Something extraordinary could happen at any moment! And we don’t want to be late. We don’t want to miss it. We want our timing to be just right.