Tuesday, December 04, 2007

If You've Been Called...

... Then you will appreciate this paragraph, taken from the Declaration of Faith by St. John of Damascus (whose memorial is observed today by our Roman Catholic friends):
Now you have called me, Lord, through your bishop, to serve your children. Why should you do this? I do not know; the secret is yours. Lighten, then, the heavy load of my sins; cleanse my mind and heart; be a light to my feet. Open my lips and give me speech. Let the fiery tongues of your Spirit penetrate my being and make me walk every day in your presence. Feed me, Lord, so that my heart may not stray. Let your good Spirit guide me on the right path and teach me to act as you wish.1

1Johnson, Maxwell. Benedictine Daily Prayer. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2005, as quoted on p. 1682.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Wait Just a Minute

Wait Just a Minute
Matthew 24:36-44
December 2, 2007
1st Sunday in Advent

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: Thematically, the Sundays in Advent are all about the second coming of the Son of Man. Despite our clamoring for his appearance right here and right now, Jesus makes it crystal clear that no one knows the day or the hour when he will return. And when he does, the results will be astonishing. Some will be “taken up along,” but others will be left behind. The chaff will finally be separated from the wheat. Divine justice is in the offing. Are we waiting and watching?

Sermon Function: To illustrate how those in our society, including many in the church, want Christmas now. We already think we are in the Christmas season, but the 12 Days of Christmastide do not being until Christmas Day. Why the rush? And are we anxiously rushing toward the right thing? How do we recover the wonder of this season?

[Click to Show/Hide Sermon Text]


Happy Advent! You may remember that we changed out the color of our paraments last Sunday to mark the beginning of the change of the church season and the start of a new church year. This week, you can see that we’ve augmented that change with a few others.

Part of the change in the year means that the lectionary, the source for our weekly biblical readings, also changes. There are three years in the lectionary cycle, denoted A, B, and C. Last year, we were in year C, and the gospel readings for most weeks of the year came from the gospel of Luke. This year, we start over with year A, and Matthew is the gospel of emphasis. The theme of today’s reading is not the forthcoming birth of the Christ child, but of Jesus’ return – a return that promises to be sudden, swift, and unpredictable.

Let’s listen now to God’s word.

[Read Scripture - Matthew 24:36-44]

Introductory Story

I learned a very important lesson this week, and I’d like to share it with you.

Each Thursday, your intrepid pastor leads a short “children’s chapel” for the students enrolled in our Presbyterian Children’s Enrichment Center. We usually gather at the front of the church, and I sit with them on the floor as we pray together and sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” This week, however, I gave them a bit of a test. I asked the children if they had a great Thanksgiving. “Yes! Yes!” could be heard, along with the response “I’m five” and “look at me.” Then I asked them this question, “What season comes after Thanksgiving?”

To the child, the answer came flooding forth, “Christmas! Christmas! It’s Christmas!”

“Well, we’re getting close to Christmas, but Christmas doesn’t begin until late in the month, on December 25th. What season, then, are we in?”


“Advent,” I said, “We’re in the season of Advent.”

I then gave them the oversimplified answer about Advent being a time of waiting and watching. One of the girls in our group told me her birthday was coming up on December 10th. I asked her if she got excited for her birthday, in the days leading up to it. “You can hardly wait for your birthday, right?” “Yes!” she answered. “But you have to wait for your birthday, don’t you?” “Yes,” she replied. “Well, during the season of Advent, we wait for Christmas like you wait for your birthday.”

Now, it’s generally beyond the competence of very young children to understand the concept of waiting for Jesus’ return, which is the subject of today’s gospel text. But that is what we are called to do.

But will we?

Advent: The Forgotten Season

The fact of the matter is this: Just like the kids in the PCEC, many of us think and act like Christmas has come already. The day after our Thanksgiving in Luverne, Minnesota, someone obligingly put on a CD containing Christmas music. Our society has more or less secularized Christmas, and the Church runs the significant risk of following suit.

So this Sunday’s sermon is a reminder of what the season of Advent is and how, by reclaiming the season, we just might be able to regenerate the sense of hope and wonder that ought to play a role in our faith lives.

I mentioned that Advent is a time of waiting. The concept of waiting for something is an increasingly hard sell in a culture where just about anything can be acquired with a few mouse clicks at Amazon.com. But waiting has some value for us, because waiting is, for Christians, a spiritual discipline based upon our Hope for the certain future that awaits us.

The big task for us, as we celebrate this time of waiting, is remembering that without our hope of Jesus’ return, there really is little reason to celebrate the birth of a boy in a Bethlehem manger. Jesus cannot be a figure of ultimate hope for us if we reduce who He is to a well-meaning philosopher who had some nice things to say. The claims that Jesus makes about himself and about the Father are such that we either accept that He is the Son, or we accept that he was a complete maniac.

Immediately before our text begins today, Jesus is talking to the disciples about the coming of the Son of Man. He anticipates the question about when this will happen when Matthew quotes him as follows:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matt 24:36 NRSV). Only the Father knows when history as we know it will we wrapped up, reformed, and reborn into a new heaven and a new earth. No special codes are available to render a definitive few about when these events will happen, despite what we made read in the pages of the successful popular serial fictional novels about the second coming.

So, we know he’s coming, but we don’t know when. Jesus then tells us something important – that when the time comes, we will be preoccupied with our earthly lives, just as the people were at the time of Noah and the flood.

And we are preoccupied. With our families, with our work, with buying the right gifts for the right people, by making the right connections at work, by doing all that we think we need to do to ensure our security and success in this life. As in Noah time, we eat and we drink. We marry and are given in marriage. None of these things are morally suspect or questionable. On the contrary, we need to eat and drink. We rely on families to sustain us and to afford the best possible environment for the care of children, the children that guarantee that humanity as a species won’t drift off into a distant memory. No, we are engaged, as those in Noah’s generation, with the tasks we are called to by virtue of the fact that we are created beings.

And yet, while we are preoccupied with those things that make us human, we are nonetheless called upon to keep watch. Because just as the flood suddenly came and took life, in a similar way people will be “taken” when the Son of Man comes. This is not something to dread – this is our hope! The hope that a final, full, completely fair and inarguable judgment will come at the time of the renewal of the world and the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven. This is the certain future hope we have that gives us the real reason we will celebrate the 12 days Christmastide starting on December 25th. We anxiously await this time because we know that the ordinary things of this life, like the ordinary tasks of life at the time of Noah, are not the end. This future promise is what drives us now to remember that birth event two millennia ago.

It is very important for us to remember this fact. Advent is a time of great anticipation, a time when we should refocus our efforts to keep watch, not just for the big day of Christmas when, due to the cultural secularization of the holiday, we find ourselves all to often saying “That God that’s over.” Rather, we look forward to the very incarnation of the future Hope of justice, mercy, and the coming of God’s Kingdom in the person of Jesus, that baby of wonder, who enters into our condition to redeem us, once and for all, from the sinfulness that separates us from the Father.

I find that prospect very exciting, and I want to join with you in our watching. But how can we keep watch with all of the business of our lives? How do we keep plowing the fields, taking care of the kids, pay the bills, mow the lawn, balance the checkbook, prepare dinner for the family, suffer the commute to work, sweat through our labors, and keep our eye out for Jesus? Is it even possible?

Advent the Discipline

It is possible, if we remember that Advent isn’t just a season. It’s a gift, and a discipline. I’ll talk about the second item first.

Advent is a discipline. What does that mean? It means refocusing our efforts to reclaim the hope we have in Advent now, because we know that Jesus wasn’t just a nice man who said nice things. We know he is everything to us, and the key to our salvation. If we truly believe that Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then nothing in our lives ought to remain the same. Instead, we need to do things differently. And doing things differently is difficult, time-consuming, and requires effort. That’s what I mean by Advent being a discipline.

If you, like me, want to reclaim the meaning and wonder of Advent for the church, then an examination of your life will, I think, quickly reveal what you can do to refocus your efforts on anticipating Christmas. Here’s something I’m going to do. Many of you know that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. I like buying things just like anything else. But I’ve committed this Christmas to avoid the shopping mall. I will not, in fact, enter a mall between now and Epiphany in early January. Now, I’m not some Luddite who wants to live a horse-and-buggy existence. The reason I’m going to avoid the mall if very practical – I want to avoid the blaring Christmas music and the shopping hints that have caused Christmas in our culture to overwhelm the anticipation of Advent. Instead, I’m going to shop online, in the quiet of our apartment here in Portland. Quick, efficient, and back to anticipating. I hope to up my time in quiet reflection and prayer with the time I might otherwise have spent mall shopping. I’m also going to avoid FM Christmas music spectaculars until December 25th, and I’m doing that because I like the music so much. I would rather wait with some longing and start playing the music over the 12 days of Christmas. It’s not much, I know, but I hope that focusing on a few small things might help me reclaim the wonder of anticipation that I remember when I was a kid.

Second, I hope we can all remember that Advent is a gift, a time of reclaiming wonder.

Years ago, I purchased a small book from a discount rack called Wonder Tales. The book is a compilation of fairy tales written for adults during the reign of Louis XIV of France. The book was edited by Marina Warner. This is one of these books that looked interesting, but which I’ve never actually read, alas. But I spied the book on my shelf as I was preparing the sermon, and because it had the word “Wonder” in the title, I pulled it off and perused the introduction.

Here’s the first sentence of the introduction:
Wonder has no opposite; it springs up already double in itself, compounded of dread and desire at once, attraction and recoil, producing a thrill, the shudder of pleasure and of fear. It names the marvel, the prodigy, the surprise as well as the responses they excite, of fascination and inquiry; it conveys the active motion towards experience and the passive state of enrapturement.1
That is about the best description of wonder as I’ve ever read, and it is the gift of Advent. Through deliberate, disciplined waiting we can reclaim that moment of wonder, the wonder of God Almighty, the Alpha and the Omega, the great I AM, the steadfast Rock and the Giver of Life, who, even now enfolding us with His Holy Spirit, through the incarnation was born into life in a broken world, THIS world, to be WITH us, so that he could SAVE us. Can you imagine that? How amazing! And it is through Jesus that ALL of creation will be renewed at the Second Advent of this coming. That same child, born on that same night, is the same Savior who will come again. The same person of the same Triune God. What a wonder filled miracle that is! And what wonder we will experience on December 25th, if we will just wait a minute first.

Let us pray.

Eternal God, you taught us that the night is far spent and the day is at hand. Keep us awake and alert, watching for your kingdom, and make us strong in faith, so that when Christ comes in glory to judge the earth, we may joyfully give him praise; who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.2

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Warner, Marina et.al. Wonder Tales. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 1.

2Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993, p. 173.