“Be alert, for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour .” Matthew 24:44
Driving on a Saturday morning along Hwy 86, between Waterloo and Elmira, you pass a road side sign that reads, “Fresh Eggs, No Sunday Sales”. You stop to purchase a dozen. On the stoop of the farm house back door, you wait for a cheerful woman in a sombre black habit and bonnet to return with your eggs. She receives your change, and wishes you “Have a nice day.” As you thank her, you look up at the wall of her back summer kitchen. Blazing down in red letters you read, “Prepare to meet thy God!”
That’s the message of Advent. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the end of all things. He warns of judgement, of disappointment and of fulfilment, but he also says, “My words will not pass away”. In effect, he too is extending the wish, “Have a nice day.”
You might well wonder this when you hear of tumults and crises. Matthew’s good news speaks of one man in the field taken, the other left behind; of one woman grinding corn being taken, while the other is left behind. It’s a vivid description of the way things really are. We do suffer the pain of separation, bereavement, loss – of family, a partner, employment, loss of physical and mental ability, loss of creativity and a painful struggle to retain a sense of self-worth and value.
There is darkness in our existence. Some of us appear to have more than our fair share of darkness, but none of us can fully escape. Such darkness can immobilize us so that we become observers rather than participants in the on-going battle of good and of evil. The danger is, that we begin to anticipate the victory of evil and of the forces of darkness.
But that is not the message of Jesus. He announces, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to those who lack security, to those immobilized by all manner of burdens, to those who lack vision and can no longer dream, to those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” “Prepare to meet thy God!”, may well serve as a warning, but it is primarily a message of hope. Advent’s hope is always an invitation to trust and to act. It summons all jaded and shrunken desires into new life and into expanded horizons.
November and December are sobering months. At this time of the year, crops have been harvested, stored away or shipped; the leaves have been raked; windows have been sealed from the snow and winter storms to come, and we have begun to withdraw into the relative privacy of wi nter. Perhaps there is something deep down in the human psyche that recalls a primitive urge to hibernate. Scientists tell us that our metabolism is apt to change during the winter and caution we can gain a few extra inches around our middle, whether we eat those shortbreads or not!
Year after year, commercial advertising flavours this season with wistful backward glances, of simpler life styles and closer families, wonderful folk festivals and celebrations, carols of sweet smelling mangers with well groomed cattle, and kindly, innocent shepherds; indeed for times, seasons, events and people that never actually existed.
And year after year, our Christian faith community counters all of this by calling us to look forward, not backward; calling us to place those wonderful times where they really belong – just around the corner – in the days that are coming, in the days of the Lord, in days of salvation. That is why St. Paul urges us to shake off our lethargy, to wake from sleep and to live in the realization that the day of the Lord is dawning at this very moment, and that it makes demands on the way we live our lives and make our decisions.
I am a cancer survivor twice over. This has made me more alert to heed the Advent message. I am more apt to face each new day as if it was my last on earth; to plan for the future by attending to the present, particularly to relationships with significant others in my life. I attempt to have a tidier desk, and fewer files. I ask myself, ‘What is the state of that which I might leave behind? How can I, by God’s grace, attend to things possible today and which should not be left until tomorrow – for tomorrow may be too late?’ I prepared this sermon, as I do each time, as if it was my last.
In his letter to Christians in Philippi, Paul wrote, “We eagerly await our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, to come from heaven.” And in two of his letters written to those gathered in Thessalonica, Paul makes frequent reference to our Christian belief in the Advent or coming again of our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, for the past two thousand years, Christians have universally declared that Jesus Christ will soon return to judge humankind – those alive and those no longer living.
How are you and I expected to understand this? We no longer think of ourselves as living within a three tiered universe. Our planet earth exists within a galaxy of a universe that is one among billions of universes that stretch out into infinity. How can we be faithful to our conscience and integrity each time we recite the Nicene Creed? It represents a fourth century mind set and world view. It is the outcome of violent debates among competing Greek philosophies who, under imperial command, were challenged to bring into order a fractious and troublesome foreign religious sect. It’s the result of vicious debate and political compromise. Do we momentarily lapse into some kind of mind warp? Can we retain its graphic imagery, its metaphors and poetry? Can we embrace its philosophical intent to express in word that which lies well beyond all words and human understanding?
The New Testament graphically describes the Final Coming of Jesus Christ to judge the world as a momentous, glorious, and awesome event that will bring this present world order to a cataclysmic end. It will usher in an eternal reign of compassionate mercy and peace on earth where the dignity of every human being and all life on earth is received as a sacred trust. We might so regard it and believe this. But we shall find ourselves in great difficulty – intellectually and morally – if we were to persist in pressing the consequence of holding such a belief with the questions, “When will Christ return? When will the Final Coming take place?”
Early Christians including the John who wrote our Book of Revelation, believed that it would be soon. His letters to the seven churches of Asia are a mixture of warning and encouragement. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John, as well as Paul’s letters, all point to an imminent second coming of Jesus. Obviously, those early Christians got it wrong.
Are we prepared to say that they got the expectation right and that Jesus really will come again, but that their timing was off? I’m not. Nevertheless, I can affirm that the human Jesus does indeed come again and again in the lives of others such as you and me. Will we recognize him when he comes? Sadly, not always.
Many years ago, I was leading a study of the passage from Matthew’s gospel on the final judgement where Jesus describes the great judgement and says, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” One of those present began to weep. She recalled a occasion when, as a young mother, she was living during economic hard times. It was winter and late in the afternoon. She had young infant children under foot and had been struggling to put together the evening meal when a stranger knocked at her kitchen door. At that moment, she was so exasperated with a crying baby, with two other infants calling for attention, and a with a pot boiling on the stove, that she rebuffed the stranger seeking her help. Then, after closing the door, her conscience prompted her to act. Within less than a minute, she reopened the door and called out to the man but he was gone. She ran up the path, but the footsteps she followed were soon lost in the snow. Jesse sobbed as she shared her encounter and repeated those words, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” Her tears were not simply tears of regret, they were tears of holy awe, for Jesse had been graced by that incident. To this day, I remember her for her kind and generous spirit.
Jesus comes again in the many ways we experience the divine presence in the image of Christ. We can become a force for peace, for justice, for kindness, gentleness and generosity when we are in communion with Jesus and witness to the life that is Jesus. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again – now, and at your death.
N. Carver 27.11.2016
The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo