Active Waiting

November 28, 2010

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44, given while serving as seminarian.

First Sunday of Advent – Year A (RCL) – Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I had a great day with my family in Houston, and because one Thanksgiving meal is never enough, I had a second one with friends in Galveston on Thursday evening. As you can imagine, by nightfall my pillow was calling my name.

And as I went to sleep on Thursday night, powerful winds were rattling the windows, foretelling a dramatic change ahead. Throughout the night I could hear the howling winds as they continued to shake the windows and the eighty degree temperatures of Thanksgiving Day in Texas were replaced by chilly morning air and a cold soaking rain. A change of season was at hand.

Unlike Atlanta, where the vibrant orange and red leaves have been ushering in the seasonal change for several weeks, in southeast Texas there aren’t many visual signs of a change in season. The trees stay green most of the year, and if leaves are going to fall, they seem to do so overnight.

The visible change of seasons I’ve experienced since moving to Atlanta last January remind me of my college days in Ohio. I had forgotten just how much I love to see the visual diversity of God’s creation.

Like the variations in the seasons of nature, with icy snow, blooming flowers, scorching sun and falling leaves, the liturgical calendar also has different moods and theological emphases. These are revealed not only in the colors used at the altar and in the vestments, but also in the scriptural readings, the hymns we sing, and our prayer routine.

But while the duration and intensity of our natural seasons may vary from region to region, the seasons of the Church year are uniform. No matter where you are, if you worship in a liturgically based church, today marks the beginning of a new Church year – we are all wearing the colors of Advent today.

Repeating the yearly cycle of the Church calendar allows the layers of our spiritual soil to become richer and richer as we feed them year after year,
– reliving the preparation of Advent,
– celebrating God’s incarnation in the birth of Jesus at Christmas,
– the revelation of Epiphany,
– a time of reflection and repentance in Lent,
– the triumphant entry in Jerusalem, followed by the Passion and Death of Jesus during Holy Week,
– culminating with the extraordinary resurrection of Easter Day,
– and finally, the gift of the Holy Spirit in the celebration of Pentecost.

These dramatic seasons are followed by several months of what is called “Ordinary time” when we learn, through the weekly lessons, how to live more fully into the life and teachings of Jesus. Then the cycle starts over again…

And so here we are! We’ve finally made it back to Advent! A time to prepare for the coming of Jesus in the form of a baby!

Yet today’s gospel lesson says nothing of the coming of the Baby Jesus… it actually feels like we’re still in Pentecost… Jesus is a grown man talking to the disciples. We hear about Noah… and even more confusing, what’s this part about “one will be taken and one will be left”? And haven’t we already heard something about the thief in the night… wasn’t that part of a parable we heard a few weeks ago? What’s going on here??? I thought the season had changed?

Well, to continue the comparison to our natural seasons, you might consider the first Sunday of Advent to be kind of like “Indian Summer.” We get a final taste of the previous season before launching into preparation for the incarnation of Christ.

It’s a time to look back at where we’ve been, remember what we’ve learned, and consider how we might apply those new insights to the new church year… As we move into this time of anticipation – one of the central themes for the season of Advent.

In light of this transition into Advent, let’s take a minute to look at today’s gospel reading from Matthew…

In reference to the coming of the Son of Man in glory, Jesus says to his disciples… “only God knows when that will be, not the angels, not even the Son, but God alone knows.” Jesus’ likens it to the time of Noah… that no one knew that a great flood was coming… they were going about their daily lives until the flood swept them away.

And further on in the gospel reading… two will be working in the field or two women will be grinding meal together, and one will be taken and one will be left. And then the primary point of the message uses the thief in the night imagery, saying “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”… “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

So how do we handle this mystery – the unknowing? Do we stay right where we are and wait, staying awake each night making sure we are ready in the event a thief tries to break in? Are we paralyzed by the fear of the unknown? It’s not an altogether impossible way to react, but it’s not much of a way to live. Not only that, it’s contrary to what we’ve heard over the past several months in our lessons… and it’s even contrary to the characters in the gospel story itself.

Noah spent a lot of time following God’s instructions… building an ark, gathering his family, gathering plants and animals, and all the time, waiting.

The men in the field and women grinding meal were busy doing their daily work, not preoccupied with what was coming “at an unexpected hour.”

This can also be applied to the birth of a child. The birth of a child used to be a completely unpredictable and “unexpected hour” kind of event. Today’s technology and the busy-ness of our schedules make this a much less mysterious happening, even if the mystery of life itself remains.

But even with the more predictable timeframe of arrival of a child, there is work that must be done, a period of preparation amidst the waiting. Some of those things are tangible, in making a place in the home for the new arrival, a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear.

Other aspects are of an internal nature, becoming mentally and emotionally prepared for this new wonder being brought into the world. In both the external and internal preparation, we have to be deliberate about it. So, too, is the kind of work we do, the work of preparation, during Advent.

So, anticipation and preparation occupy our Advent season.

In his daily devotional book Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen talks about “Active Waiting.” His reflection says in part

“Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for.”

Let me repeat that last part… “It’s a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for.”

So, what are we waiting for during Advent? What are we preparing for?

The coming of God into the world in human form. The incarnation – the taking on a flesh. So “to make already present what we are waiting for” is to make Jesus manifest, that is, visible, in our lives every day.

The gospel’s “punch-line” isn’t about the people being swept away or taken-up, it’s about “Keeping Awake” – paying attention.

The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour… God is coming when we least expect it, and right before our eyes…
• In the homeless person that needs a coat or a meal,
• a neighbor who’s lost their job or fallen on hard times,
• a friend grieving the loss of a loved one,
• the spiritually lost hoping there is a shepherd willing to look for them,
• or maybe it’s the person who has been wounded by the Church, who courageously walks through our doors one Sunday morning…
These are just a few examples of God’s incarnation.

After I moved to Atlanta, I had an opportunity and pleasure to meet Bill Bolling, the founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. I recently heard an interview where he shared his personal discoveries at a time when he was actively trying to discern what God’s purpose was for his life. Bill discovered that he had a particular gift. He found that no matter how dirty or smelly or disenfranchised a person was, that he “could look at a 50 year old man and see a 7 year old and see all their aspirations and all the things that they love.”

I believe that this is what it means to see Jesus in the eyes of others. And by helping that individual, loving and caring for that person, we are also “being Jesus” to that person.

Bill went on to say that “We’re all called to do what we can with what we have, in the time that we have, we can all do it.”

Those words reminded me of another time when my family was gathered at the dinner table, and my mom, talking to her five nearly grown children said, “I’ll save you all a lot of money in therapy… It’s all my fault. Just know that I did the best I could with what I had…”

This takes us back to the Noah story, because God chose Noah for his righteousness – but this is not to be confused with perfection. Righteousness is about doing the best we can with what we have, and relying on God to be part of the decisions we make and actions we take.

We don’t all have the same gifts, but we all have something to give.

The season of Advent is a time to consider what it is we can do to bring Jesus to life… giving birth to Jesus in our lives, every day. If you don’t think you can do it alone, that’s okay, the good news is that you don’t have to, because with Christ we can do all things.

Christ Church Episcopal, like Noah, is a community of ark-builders, whether it’s:
• the service provided by the Thrift Shop,
• the medical ministry in Haiti,
• the initial creation and on-going support of Rainbow Village,
• participation in the Norcross Cooperative Ministries,
• or in trying to address the needs of a woman who finds herself in an unfamiliar-place, homeless and at our doorstep.

But let us not rest on what has been done… Keep Awake… for the Son of Man is coming, and will continue to come, at an unexpected hour… right before our eyes.

Prepare your hearts this Advent season, and make room for the newly incarnate God, and bring Jesus into our midst.

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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