Hurry, get on, now it's coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming
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I had the honor of preaching the First Advent this morning. Here is the written version of the sermon:
We hate surprises.
Whether it’s the Groundhog in February, the Wooly Bear caterpillar in Autumn, or Sports Illustrated’s preseason rankings we always seem to want to figure out what’s going to happen next.
It is much the same in the business of Christianity. Many have made millions off proving when, where, and how Jesus is going to return. None of them have yet to be right. The predictions are- and have been for 2000 years- 0 for countless attempts.
Yet they continue to try. Sooner or later, they seem to assume, someone will be correct. So let me remind you of the clearest and most significant sign that will tell us it is time:
…as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
In other words, when the days look like the days before the flood- you can count on Jesus to return… people will be eating, drinking, marrying. Oh, wait a minute. That’s how we will know? It looks like, well, just about any year in any time since the time of Noah. Kind of like today.
That’s absolutely useless. How can we know if the best clue is that everything will be absolutely normal? Unless we have been expecting the wrong things, the mistaken dreams. If we go back 2000 years the people were looking for the Savior and when he showed up most people missed the party. They were looking for the wrong things. They were looking for the BIG events, the AMAZING changes in the world. And along comes Jesus. We sing of Advent: Come, O Long Expected Jesus. But we forget that he didn’t come as expected - and probably won’t. Perhaps it should be Come O Unexpected Jesus. I have a hunch- and a fear- that he will always come into our world- and our lives with the most unexpected of messages. He will not, I am sadly convinced, come to justify our cause or reinforce our politics or prejudices. He will come with a parable about our modern day Samaritans- the parable of the one leper, an undocumented immigrant who returns to give thanks while all the Christian lepers disappear. Maybe we will hear about the Good Muslim who does what the democrat and republican both overlook- the guy on the side of the road. He may even reiterate the statement of how the rich will have it as easy as a camel and a needle’s eye.
He better come in power and glory next time or we will probably crucify him again.
We will be as surprised as the Scribes and Pharisees, We will discover that God is not a little “g” god who we can explain and understand and fit into our ideas- a kind of domestic god. No, God will continue to be God- the creator beyond description, the Savior filled with grace, the Spirit who is the source of all strength.
What then is Advent all about? One description would be it is a time of waiting; it is watching, preparation. No one knows, so stay awake, don’t let the darkness fool you; don’t let the uncertainty scare you. It isn’t about what we expect Advent to be. It’s about what God wants. So we are urged to spend time strengthening our awareness- our mindfulness of the ways of God. Meditation, prayer, spiritual disciplines, celebration. These are the hallmarks of Advent- and Christian- waiting. Watching does not mean sitting somewhere on a mountain top waiting for the sunrise. Christian waiting is a way of life that grows ever closer to the developing presence of God in our lives.
Advent, too is about powerlessness- giving up our way to the way of God in order to be empowered to do in our lives what God wants each of us to do. In the end nothing we do can hasten Jesus’ return; there is no way we can even begin to fathom when and how it’s going to happen. Even Jesus didn’t have the answer to that. How grandiose of us to think that we are smart enough to figure it out.
So let's stop wasting time on it. Get on with living- but not just living- Living. Abundant Living. Let's transform who we are - in a day in and day out manner - to the care and support of this God who promises us to be always with us. If we truly believe that God is a God of grace, then let's act like it. Let's turn who we are - in a day in and day out manner - to practicing grace. In the midst of living out grace in our actions we will realize that this is not about having all the answers, all the power, all the understanding. We are ultimately completely powerless over our own salvation. So let’s do something different. Let’s get closer to our God. Let’s develop the life with our Lord with all our heart, mind and soul. Let’s love our neighbors as ourselves.
In a book I was reading the other day I came across a pretty good description of what this can mean- and the book wasn’t about the church, Advent, or the Christian life. Let me adjust it a little for our purposes.
It is easy, (the book said,) to let up on a spiritual program of action and rest on our laurels. We are headed for trouble if we do. What we really have is a daily reprieve dependent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities. “How can I best serve God—God’s will (not mine) be done."
In the end, Advent is about grace. It is a gift- a remarkable gift - that is ours for absolutely nothing. The signs are so real and obvious- and so simple- in our daily lives that we miss them. We miss the moments of grace that show up when least expected. Maybe the surprise of Advent is not a Jack-in-the-box god who pops out of heaven- but a presence who has always been with us, as near as the center of our hearts and souls.
Author Fredrick Buechner described Advent thus:
Listen- hear it.The sound of hope-The sound of grace about to happen.It’s on the edge of the world,waitingTo become real!
Which may be why that other time- that First Advent- God the long unexpected showed up as a baby in a manger. The everyday cries and wonders of new birth- catching everyone off guard.