sermon: new beginning: watch (advent 1)
We begin the season of Advent today, which will continue for the next three Sundays, leading us up to Christmas Eve.
In general term advent simply means “arrival” or “appearance.”
We use it to describe the coming a person, a thing or an event.
But in the church, it is the coming of something — or someone — great, awesome and life-changing.
Advent marks several new beginnings, the first of which is the new calendar year for the church. Today is our New Year’s Day, so to speak.
Also, given our proximity to Christmas, the four weeks of Advent also signal the coming of the Newborn King: God coming as a man — a baby — on Christmas Eve.
But listen: While we understand this Advent as the coming of the Son of Man to dwell among us, there is yet another Advent.
So what is still to come?
Today’s New Testament Reading, Matthew 24.36-44, talks all about the Second Coming of Christ; that is, when Christ returns to the earth and begins the day of Judgment.
This reading is an apocalyptic piece, like the Book of Revelation. It is a divine insight for what’s to come.
Is it strange to be talking about Jesus’s Second Coming during Advent when we haven’t even begun talking about the First Coming — Christmas?
I don’t think so.
Because we are a people who need to be ready — whether it be for the Birth of Jesus or for Jesus’s return.
Why? In many ways, each signals the same thing: A shock to our system.
What do I mean by that?
Well, it seems that we’ve gone about our daily lives this year as we always have. It’s just what we do.
It seems like summer just ended. We pulled the last from the gardens, we shuttered the camps, we mowed the yard one last time.
That didn’t seem so long ago, did it?
And Autumn came. We raked the leaves into great piles, we threw out the mums, and we celebrated Thanksgiving just a couple of days ago.
And then, like the first snowstorm of the season that disrupts Autumn, Advent comes and disrupts our Ordinary Sundays.
Advent presents a contrast — we break from discussing the teaching of Christ, the lessons in how to live, of promises and Providence, the prophecies…
And we’re thrust into this period of awaiting — of great anticipation: The story of the birth of Jesus. And how the world will be changed overnight.
It’s a sharp contrast. Almost a shock to all that has become normal to us.
It breaks us from our comfortable routines that, if allowed to become routine, create complacency.
Advent challenges this complacent system, and in so doing, Advent challenges us and our own complacencies.
So the question today is: Are we ready?
I’m hopeful this sermon series called New Beginning — that we’re starting today and which will continue through Epiphany Sunday — will be one way we can prepare our hearts for the most amazing gift.
The gift of Jesus Christ.
And despite its place at the end of the regular calendar year, the birth of Jesus marks the most significant new beginning for the church, the world, and all of God’s children.
Through Advent, we will Watch, Turn, See and Dream, and on Christmas Eve, we will witness Peace. Christmas Day, we will understand Word. And on Epiphany Sunday — New Year’s Day — we will understand what is Revealed.
So today, we’ll look at what it means to be ready — to Watch.
Advent begins with the call of Jesus to his disciples to stay on watch for the fulfillment of all things.
But remember as we walk through the text today: With New Beginnings come new possibilities of hope and a fresh start.
We may be talking about the end times, but we can focus on what’s beyond it — a new beginning!
Eating, Drinking, Marrying...
When we look at Matthew 24.36-44, there’s something very interesting going on here.
It includes eight verses that are the part of a very long speech given by Jesus.
And it is his last speech in this Gospel.
Jesus is talking about the last day — Judgment day.
This is when Christ comes again with no warning and the only one who knows when that day is God, and only God.
What Jesus is telling us is to be ready, and he gives various examples — historical and hypothetical — that alert us to this call.
In Verse 38, Jesus compares the Second Coming to the great flood:
“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.”
Jesus is speaking these words about the Second Coming in the beginning of the first century. This was his audience.
But Matthew writes these words about the Second Coming at the end of the First Century.
The audience had changed significantly, given the rise of the Christian church after Jesus’s death on the cross.
Yet, here we are today — in 2016 — reading these nearly 2000-year-old words.
The Second Coming still hasn’t happened yet, but like the apostles of Jesus’s day, we are still in a period of advent, of awaiting.
Even today, and who knows for how long, we are being told to be vigilant — to be on Watch.
Jesus tells us that before the flood, ordinary people were doing ordinary things: eating, drinking, marrying, being given in marriage.
I was thinking about all of this at the dinner table on Thanksgiving, surrounded by my family.
We had a huge stuffed turkey. There was wine on the table and in the glasses. And we were talking about my niece’s wedding that was coming this spring.
Eating, drinking, marrying…
Maybe we don’t take any of these actions for granted, especially on Thanksgiving, when we really do take the time to consider the sources of all these gifts and how thankful we truly are.
But as we gave thanks, as we toasted to another year of abundance, and as we discussed the plans for the wedding, were we at all thinking about Advent? About what has come or what’s to come?
Besides a special blessing at the dinner table and having each person present name the things that they were thankful for this year, were there any actions that connected these ordinary events to something Extraordinary?
I’ll tell you, sitting there in the midst of a feast, merlot and my niece’s upcoming wedding day, Advent hit me. Those words of Jesus’s shocked me.
And I was forced to connect them to something even greater. A gift given on Christmas Eve. A gift promised when Jesus returns.
Jesus says “watch” for this.
So Jesus draws on this ancient text — Noah’s ark — to bring that point home to us.
But he wants to bring a modern example as well. And in Verse 43, he makes the comparison:
“…if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not let his house be broken into.
Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
First we get a historical event, and now a modern example.
He’s telling those in his speech, and he’s telling us here today: Jesus is the thief. We have to be on watch, ready, prepared.
It’s important to understand that, in both of these accounts, life was just going on as normal — whether it was the people of Noah’s day, the people in Jesus’s day, or the people here today.
Advent, then, is a reminder to us here today that we need to be disrupted from our ordinary lives to realize there is something so big, so special, so perfect and so life-changing that we have to be prepared.
When we decorate this sanctuary, or we trim our homes — we are preparing for something wonderful.
When we bake Christmas breads and cookies or give gifts to one another — we are preparing for something wonderful.
And when we come here on Christmas Eve to again tell the story and sing of the Night Divine, we are preparing for something wonderful!
We tell this story of the Birth of our Savior not only because of the fulfillment of the prophecy.
We tell this story of God manifest in a baby not only because of what he will grow to become.
We tell this story of the advent of the Suffering Servant not only because of what he will teach us.
And we tell this story of the birth of Jesus Christ not solely because of what his eventual death on the cross will come to signify for all of humankind.
It’s all of those things … and so much more!
We talk of the birth of our savior because he breaks in two that which is ordinary.
He disrupts the entire world from its normative behaviors.
He shocks all of us into breaking from complacency.
Because there is more! This is where the story begins!
There is more.
And we could ask how on earth can there possibly be more than God trading his throne for a manger in the outskirts of Bethlehem?…
…in a time of great persecution to live among the nobodies, then completely upend all of society, all of religion, all the hierarchies and power structures in the name of love…
…and live sinless only to be crushed by those sinners he came to set free from sin, yet in doing so, still sets us free just for the asking and promises us a life eternal.
What more could there possibly be?!
A kingdom that will have no end.
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
We awaited the coming of the Messiah, and the Messiah was born.
We remember this in this period of Advent leading up to Christmas and Epiphany Sunday.
Yet we are called to continue in Advent, awaiting the Second Advent.
This isn’t anything to fear; it’s something to embrace — to look forward to.
More than we could ever imagine — beyond even our wildest dreams.
This is something we surely don’t want to miss. And I pray we never do, none of us.
And that includes those who don’t yet know Christ or have accepted him into their hearts and confessed their sins.
That’s what we’re here for.
Advent is a call to Watch
How would we miss it? Could we?
Well, no. One way or another, we will notice.
Matthew 25:31–46: "But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Friends, we want to be among the sheep, not the goats. Don’t miss this.
So it is in this that Advent is a call to Watch. A reminder.
To watch for what is God’s purpose of Judgment and salvation for us.
Jesus is telling us to not be oblivious.
And that’s so hard in a time of such great distraction.
Life outside of the Christmas season is incredibly distracting.
Life inside of the Christmas season can be the king of all distraction.
Think about it. Shopping, trees, decorations, travel plans, parities and gatherings.
Even the church, which is supposed to be the one place that reminds us to Watch, can be a place of great distraction — planning worship services, Christmas meals, ministry to those in need during the holidays, getting ready for special music, and making sure everyone feels the love and togetherness that Christmas should bring!
But we can deep-end so very easily. We can go overboard.
In fact, we can fill up this house with such production that we leave virtually little or no room for the Holy Spirit to move us!
I’ve long said that the enemy’s shrewdness is shown in the amount of preoccupations and distractions we have in this world and none so evident as during the Christmas season, when we’re all running around like crazy trying to get things done.
That’s what Advent tells us.
God reaches down and with loving hands and says, “Don’t miss this!”
Jesus calls to us “Watch!”
Because, yes, there is so much that was promised and delivered on Christmas Eve.
But there is still so much more to come, amen?
I don’t think there is anyone here who doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
Hear the good news: It’s not too late. We can slow down. Breathe. Simplify.
We can say No.
If we don’t, we risk losing the Advent message, and instead, finding ourselves on Christmas morning, after the presents are unwrapped, falling into a soft chair and saying with a tinge of remorse, “Where did it all go?”
It’s time now to stop and let the Holy Spirit disrupt you.
But you need to listen, and friends, you cannot listen if you’re immersed in all the distraction that we’ve created.
I want you to stop and pray.
Spend some time in the Word each day.
Stop and ask “How is what I’m doing connected to Advent? How does this help me to prepare for what Jesus has for me?”
It’s not easy. We have to make such costly investments.
Our time, yes, but, too, we have to confront those ordinary things — those things that we are complacent slaves to — and allow them to be upended.
That’s a hard, hard mirror to look into. But I promise, you’ll be so much more happier for doing it.
Be brave. Ask for courage.
Connect everything to Advent.
Then go and do. Celebrate. Share. Love.
Don’t be afraid. Open space in your hearts for the Holy Spirit to work in your life.
Don’t let the distractions rule.
Instead, let the promise of what’s to come — of the Advent — be your hope and your guidance.
This is the brilliance of Advent.
This is how we take the ordinary and replace it with the Extraordinary.
As only God can do.