Monday, November 29, 2010

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, Year A, "Redefining Christmas: Reawaken"

Sermon 11/28/10
Matthew 24:36-44, Romans 13:11-14


Redefining Christmas: Reawaken


            It doesn’t take long to learn about me that I am *not* a morning person. My family have always been night owls, through and through. So you might be surprised to learn that I was up quite early the day after Thanksgiving. No, I wasn’t off to the Black Friday sales, even though I told you I used to love doing just that. No, I was getting snow tires on my car, and the folks there had recommended coming early if I didn’t want to wait for hours. Apparently auto repair is also a popular day-after-Thanksgiving activity. I decided to bring my laptop with me to the tire place, so I could at least get some work done on my sermon while I was there. I noticed with comfort that I wasn’t the only person who appeared to be half-asleep and yawning in the little waiting room. And I couldn’t help but notice the repeating theme in our texts for today as I sat there: Keep awake, keep awake, keep awake. In our short reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans we hear, “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” In our gospel text from Matthew, we hear Jesus saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: 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 have let his house be broken into. Therefore you must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Keep awake. Keep awake. Keep awake.
            A couple of experiences come to my mind. When I was a senior in high-school, my pastor encouraged and my church supported me in attending an event called Exploration, a conference for United Methodist young people considering ordained ministry. Just before I was meant to leave for Dallas, I developed kidney stones, and had to have surgery. I was only a couple days into my recovery when I made the trip – it was too late to cancel my attendance without losing all the money my church had graciously put forward for my trip. So I went, and I was heavily medicated. I can tell you that on the one hand, it was the most relaxed I’ve ever felt on an airplane, but on the other hand, I slept through most of the event. I remember trying with all my might not to fall asleep, only to realize that I’d already nodded off. Fortunately I got to go to the event again two years later, and actually be awake for it, but my first time around, I didn’t exactly get a lot of meaningful content out of my time.
            Another time, when I was serving in Oneida – I was just telling someone about this – I had been camping in Ithaca with some of my seminary friends for a little reunion of sorts. I had gotten zero sleep our last night of camping. I just couldn’t fall asleep. And then I had a two hour drive back to Oneida. You all know I don’t mind long drives – I’ve driven 15 hours in a day by myself before, no problem. But I was just exhausted. And suddenly, I realized that my eyes had been closed – I was falling asleep at the wheel. I immediately pulled over and took a nap in my car – I haven’t been that scared in a while, realizing what could have happened. Since then, I never push myself to drive if I feel too tired – I always make sure I pull over and rest if I’m reaching my limit. Keep awake! Keep awake, or else you will miss all the important content and meaning. Keep awake, or else your life could literally be in jeopardy.
As I mentioned last week, today is a new year for us – the beginning of a new church year. A fresh start on our calendar, as we begin the journey of Advent. And yet, our gospel lesson doesn’t exactly fill us with the fresh hope of a new year, with all its promise and potential. And it doesn’t feel very Christmas-y, does it, or even very Advent-y? In fact, the scriptures that are like this, that seem to be about the ‘end times’ tend to fill people with a sense of dread and anxiety about the future. Is that what we’re supposed to feel at the beginning of Advent? But instead, we have a text that seems to fit with our gospel lesson two weeks ago, the one about the earthquakes and famines. Instead of a text from the beginning of Matthew, where the stories about Jesus’ birth are, we find ourselves again close to the very end of the gospel, in fact just before Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, his trial, and his crucifixion.. For the full two chapters before where we pick up today, Jesus has been talking in heavy, serious tones. He starts by denouncing the scribes and Pharisees, saying “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees,” calling them hypocrites and blind guides. Then he laments over Jerusalem, wondering why people will not hear his words, why they will not accept the comfort he wants to bring. And then Jesus begins speaking privately to his disciples. He tells them that many people will try to lead them astray, that nation will rise up against nation. He tells them they will face persecution, torture, and death. He warns against great suffering, and false messiahs.
And after all this, we come to the passage for today, which continues in the same tone. Jesus begins by saying that no one knows the day or the hour when the things he speaks of will unfold – not even he knows – only God. He paints a picture that compares the arrival of the Son of Man to the days of Noah, where people were eating and drinking and living life right up until the floods came. This is what the coming of the Son of Man will be like – two in a field, one taken and one left. Jesus says that if a homeowner knew when in the night a thief was coming, the owner would stay awake and not let the home be broken into. So, “keep awake therefore,” Jesus warns, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming . . . you . . . must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Why do such passages cause us anxiety? Worry? Fear? I think, first, there’s the unknown that confronts us. We don’t know what will happen, ever, really, and this passage makes it clear that we’re not going to know what happens. And we’re not going to be in control of what happens. I think for most of us, not being in control is at least unsettling. I know I struggle with that! But more than that, I think we react with anxiety to the ‘unexpected’ quality of what Jesus describes. He talks about needing to keep awake, reminding us of how caught off-guard people were by the flood in Noah’s time. He says that they were just going about their lives, eating and drinking, and were totally unaware of what was about to unfold. When it comes to thinking about endings, the end always seems to come too soon. We often remark that we wish we had more time, in so many of life’s situations. More time for what? In part, I think that we wish we had more time to do what we know we should have been doing all along. We always think we’ll have more time to get around to doing what is truly most important to us, what we’re truly meant to be doing, time that we’ve spent doing nothing, time that we’ve wasted or misused. But Jesus’ words fill us with a sense that there is no time to waste, because anytime could be our end time. So we’re stressed and fearful because if we’re honest with ourselves, we know we put off for some other time not only a lot of what God asks us to do right now, but a lot of what we ourselves wish we were doing.
We live in a strange place as Christians – somewhere between wanting God to come into our lives and wanting God to stay far away, at least far enough away to leave us alone. This idea of keeping always awake – well, that seems exhausting to me at first read. But I don’t think that Jesus means we have to live in a state of constant vigilance, propping open our figurative drooping eyes. Instead, I think that Jesus’ words are a call for us to not sleep through life. Remember the examples from my own life that I shared with you? I slept through a conference and missed all the content. I was there, but I might as well have stayed home. I hear in Jesus’ words a warning against being technically present in our own lives, but missing all the content, because we’re not really awake.
Wake up people! Jesus is coming. Amen. 
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