Grace Presbyterian Church
November 27, 2016, Advent 1A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
It happened Friday, late morning. I am not a Black Friday shopper, and in fact I slept in while others across the country were fanning out to retail stores to appease the gods of commerce in the guise of “getting ready for Christmas.”
But I did want something to eat.
So, I was off to a favorite eating establishment for a very early non-turkey lunch, whilst also juggling both sermon prep and Sunday-school prep in my mind. It may sound odd, but lunchtime can be some of the most effective sermon-prep time I have. I don’t understand it, but I’m happy to take advantage of it.
So there I was, order placed, settling in at a table with my very large tumbler of sweet tea (peach-flavored, in this case), when it happened. “Holiday music” started attacking my brain.
I think Mel Tormé was in there, with the chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I remember both “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” being part of the assault. It was relentless. Horrifying, even. And my brain was indeed withering under the assault. I enjoyed my lunch, but no real progress happened on the sermon that was about forty-eight hours from delivery at that point.
It is by now old hat to complain about how soon the barrage of worldly trappings that gets called “Christmas season” kicks in. There were radio stations playing Christmas music 24/7 even before Halloween, for goodness’ sake.
It’s pretty easy to get lulled to sleep by the ongoing headlong rush of “tidings of comfort and joy,” to be anaesthetized by the omnipresent greenery and bell-ringers at every retail entrance and lush soundtrack of crooned carols. If you’re fortunate enough to escape it before Thanksgiving, it only escalates beyond imagination the day after.
Today’s readings from Isaiah and Matthew are out to deliver a world-altering one-two punch to such complacency and numbness.
It’s not hard to see in Matthew’s account of one of Jesus’s late teachings. This particular scripture has a long history of being “fear fodder” – the kind of passage preachers turn to when they want to strike some fear into their congregation. It’s the kind of passage that gets turned into books about the “rapture” and how badly tribulation goes for the “left behind” while the “saved” presumably look on smugly and safely from heaven.
Matthew would be thoroughly perturbed at the use of his gospel in this way. For Matthew, the immediate problem in the community to which he wrote was quite the opposite; writing as he was at a time when the followers of Christ had been scattered around the Mediterranean and the eyewitnesses to the life and teaching of Christ were dying off, Matthew’s community was beginning to despair of any reunion with Christ at all. To this end Matthew warns his readers not to presume that all is lost, but to remember that “about that day no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If even the Son did not know the time for that gathering up of God’s people, how could we humans claim to know it was all called off?
Of course, that proclamation hasn’t stopped people from calculating, down to the year and month and date, and sometimes even down to the hour or minute or second, when Jesus would return. I guess Jesus must just be dumb in their eyes.
The author and retired Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor puts Matthew’s insistence on the unknowability of that time like this:
He was not concerned with reading signs and keeping timetables, at least partly because he knew how preoccupied people could get with those things. Before long they cared more about their calculations than they did about their neighbors. Once they had figured out who God’s 144,000 elect were, they did not waste any time or courtesy on the damned, except perhaps to remind them just how hot hellfire was going to be. Meanwhile, God’s chosen had plenty else to do: flee the cities, arm themselves against the enemy, purify themselves for their journey to heaven. Once they had gotten themselves all worked up about this, Matthew found it just about impossible to impress them with the fact that there were widows and orphans in the community going hungry because no one was signing up for the soup kitchen, or that there were still some people in jail who needed visiting, as well as some sick people at home who still needed looking after. But what did any of that matter, when the end was right around the corner?[i]
Matthew’s words are not about “skipping to the end of the book” and putting life on cruise control until the “rapture” rolls around; it’s about the utter necessity to keep living the life of a follower of Christ without relenting. You don’t know the day, you don’t know the hour; the only real option is to keep doing Christ’s work in God’s world, no matter how bleak – or even more, because of how bleak the world is looking around us. Cruise control is over; the real work of being a follower of Christ begins now.
The message from Isaiah is not dramatically different. Isaiah’s prophecy in this passage has a clear “not yet” quality to it. You can scan through it quickly and see how much the word “shall” is used to translate Isaiah’s message:
“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established…”
“…all the nations shall stream to it.”
“Many peoples shall come and say…”
“He shall judge between the nations…”
Even the most famous quote from this passage is couched in “shall” language – “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” – it’s all still an object of future happening. And we can clearly look around and see a distinct lack of such change around us.
But then, notice what follows next – see what verse 5 does to us:
“O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
Not a “shall” in sight.
Imperative – “come.” “Let us walk.” Do this. Do this now. Even Isaiah sees the need to call the people not to get caught up in future dreaming, but to do now what the Lord calls God’s people to do, to “walk in the light of the Lord.”
As is typically the case, the first Sunday of Advent in particular is a two-sided observance. Yes, we begin the period of waiting and marking the days to the first appearance of Christ on earth, the Incarnation event we celebrate on Christmas. But this day also reminds us, a bit stubbornly, that the Incarnation is not the end of the story, and that we are still in Advent, living in an Advent time as we wait that time when Christ shall come and call us unto himself. We still wait, we still prepare, and not unlike Matthew’s readers, sometimes we give up hope.
But our call has not changed. We are still charged to be followers of Christ in a world that does not want us to be followers of Christ, even though the world desperately needs us to be followers of Christ. There are still the poor, the hurting, the ones who live under regular and constant threat of violence, the forgotten, the lost, those who no longer know why they’re here, the ones whom nobody loves. They are still waiting for us to show and live the gospel to them.
If the church’s “New Year’s Day” means anything to us, perhaps it is the kick-in-the-pants we need, to paraphrase A Brief Statement of Faith in our Book of Confessions, to receive courage from the Spirit in a broken and fearful world. In a time of increasingly open racism and misogyny and xenophobia and hatred of every kind, being enacted gloatingly and with pride even by people who call themselves Christians, we are still charged with being bearers of good news, being followers of Christ. Perhaps this beginning of Advent is a wake-up call, or maybe an alarm clock.
So, no more sleeping. No more snooze button. Wake up. Be awake.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Don’t Say When: Expecting the Second Coming,” Christian Century 121:19 (September 21, 2004); accessed online November 26, 2016 at http://christiancentury.org/article/2004-09/dont-say-when
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#350 Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning
#102 Savior of the Nations, Come
#349 “Sleepers, Wake!” A Voice Astounds Us
#127 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Jesus, the Light of the World)
Credit: agnusday.org. Maybe it's some kind of agricultural stock option?