October 16, 2017

Sermon: Advent I — The Days Before

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Sermon: Advent I
The Days Before

You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In twenty-four frames

• Jason Isbell

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For 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. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 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 also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

• Matthew 24:36-44

• • •

Today is the first Sunday in the Advent season, and most of us probably think of it as the season in which we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child at Christmas. It is that of course, but it is also much more.

The word “advent” means a coming, and so what Advent focuses upon is the coming of Christ into the world and into our lives. He did that at Christmas, but that is not the only way Jesus comes to us.

Theologians remind us that there are three basic ways Jesus comes to his people.

  • First, he came to us in the Incarnation, when he took on flesh and was born in this world to be our Savior and Lord. We usually call this his first coming.
  • Second, Jesus will come to us at the culmination of the ages, when the dead will be raised and God will make a new heaven and earth. We confess this when we say the Apostles’ Creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” This is usually called his second coming.
  • Third, Jesus comes to us now through the Word and Sacraments. When we proclaim the gospel, Jesus moves into people’s lives. He creates faith and nourishes us in God’s promises. When we receive the Sacraments, Jesus comes to us. He comes to us with cleansing and regeneration in Baptism and he comes to us in Communion to continue his work of salvation and renewal in our lives.

When we as a church celebrate Advent, the scriptures we hear, the hymns we sing, and the emphasis of the liturgy may be on any or all of these “comings” of Jesus.

In today’s Gospel reading most people think this is about Jesus’ second coming at the end of the world. But as I preached a few weeks ago, I think these passages near the end of the Gospels more likely refer to the cataclysmic events that Jesus saw coming in the destruction of Jerusalem that would occur in the year 70AD. We can hardly imagine what a devastating and significant event this was for the people of Israel. It was such a transformative event for the nation, that they did not return to their land until 1948. It was the “end of an age” for the Jewish people.

The imagery in this text is from the OT book of Daniel, where the prophet saw a vision of the Son of Man coming on the clouds. The vision in Daniel 7 speaks of a divine judgment that would come on a pagan kingdom and it describes how this Son of Man would be vindicated before God and would receive an everlasting kingdom. It does not portray the Son of Man coming down through the clouds to earth, but it pictures him up in the clouds going before God to be vindicated and exalted.

In the context of that imagery from Daniel, Jesus talked here about how things were going to get difficult for the Jewish people. And he wanted his disciples to be ready for the coming distress. So he told them to be ready for the troubles that were about to commence lest they be caught unawares. The onslaught would fall quickly, in a surprising manner, like the flood came in Noah’s day, and like when a thief breaks in in the middle of the night and startles those who are in the house.

He was warning them that many in Israel were going to suffer when the Roman armies would break in upon them, and that many Israelites would choose a course of action – a broad road – resulting in destruction. However, on the other hand, Jesus had gathered around himself as the Son of man a community of righteous followers who would make it through, though they would endure much suffering for his sake. This community would eventually be vindicated for having chosen the alternative way of life following him and taking up his cross.

I think we forget that Jesus’ first coming was first of all for the people of Israel and that his ministry grew out of the story of Israel in the OT. He came to be their Messiah, to announce that the kingdom they had long awaited was dawning, and that their hope lay in following his teaching and joining him in the cross-shaped way. John’s Gospel tells us, sadly, that by and large, “He came to his own, and his own received him not.” However, there were some who did receive him, who became counted as children of God.

Many people simply missed Jesus the first time around, and it’s important to remember one reason for that is that the manner of his first advent was so unexpected, so different than what the people anticipated, that they couldn’t grasp it.

In todays’ gospel, Jesus warns his disciples that the judgment that was about to come on Israel would come in an unexpected fashion also.

It seems that, whenever Jesus comes to us, he does so in a surprising fashion

Think about it. He came as a baby in a manger. He came to a young, as yet unmarried couple. He came to live in a backwater town. He came to minister without a penny to his name. He came and hung around with sinners and not with the righteous people. He came and allowed himself to be arrested, tried, and crucified. He came and became the first person raised from the dead. Jesus’ first coming was full of surprises.

When we think about how Jesus comes to us today, perhaps it is the same. It just may be that today, through this message, through Communion, that Jesus will come to you unexpectedly. He may speak to you about an issue in your life, or something about which you are afraid. He may rain comfort upon your troubled spirit, or he may convict you of some error in your life that you need to put right. He may call you to minister to someone who needs help and love right now.  You might just hear him say, “Fear not!” and realize that everything is going to be all right. When you come to church, it’s best to expect the unexpected when you meet Jesus here. We’re not just here to go through the same services again and again, we’re here to meet with Jesus. And it’s hard telling what that might mean.

There has, of course, also been a lot of speculation about what it will be like when Jesus returns in his second coming. Many prophecy teachers think they know, but I doubt if they have a clue. I happen to think Jesus’ second coming will be just as surprising as his first. It will likely catch us all off guard and we’ll be puzzled and confused and we’ll have to figure it out just like the people of Israel did in the days of Jesus’ life.

So when you think of Advent and the discipline of making yourself ready for the coming of Jesus, remember that. He’s likely to circumvent our best laid plans and come in a manner that takes our breath away and causes us to scratch our heads.

Well, you might say, how then should we approach Advent, this season of preparation? If Jesus is just going to surprise us all anyway, what’s the use of getting ready for his coming?

My friend Michael Spencer once wrote an amazing article called, “There’s Always a Day Before.” In it he said,

We all live the days before. We are living them now.

There was a day before 9-11.

There was a day before your child told you she was pregnant.

There was a day before your wife said she’d had enough.

There was a day before your employer said “lay offs.”

We are living our days before. We are living them now.

Some of us are doing, for the last time, what we think we will be doing twenty years from now.

Some of us are on the verge of a much shorter life, or a very different life, or a life turned upside down.

Some of us are preaching our last sermon, making love for the last time, saying “I love you” to our children for the last time in our own home. Some of us are spending our last day without the knowledge of eternal judgment and the reality of God. We are promising tomorrow will be different and tomorrow is not going to give us the chance, because God has a different tomorrow entirely on our schedule. We just don’t know it today.

Who am I on this day before I am compelled to be someone else? What am I living for? How am I living out the deepest expression of who I am and what I believe?

My life is an accumulation of days lived out of what I believe is true every day.

What Michael is saying is that, when it comes right down to it, all we have is today. The day before. None of us knows what the next day will bring. We hope for the next day. We prepare for the next day. We look forward to the next day. But, in reality, we do not know if the next day will come or, if it does, what it will be like.

In Advent, we mark the days before. It is therefore, our task — our Advent task — to be ready for whatever tomorrow may bring by living today with faith, hope, and love. By making this day count. By trusting Jesus today. By embracing our loved ones today. By loving and serving our neighbors today. By living out what we know to be true and right and loving and just today.

As Jesus said in today’s Gospel passage: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

There is always a day before — and who knows what is coming? Advent calls us to wake up and live today.

• • •

Tracey Thorn’s lovely song, Joy, captures facing the unknown with the resolve that comes from embracing the spirit of the season.

Comments

  1. We must be alright. There must be joy. Again, amazingly, again He comes to us.

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Thanks to Jack Chick and Hal Linsday, I cannot see or hear the excerpt from Matthew at the top without remembering Grinning Apocalyptism and God as Cosmic Destroyer and RAPTURE! DON’T BE LEFT BEHIND!

    • Burro [Mule] says:

      Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

      It wasn’t until my late 50s when it dawned on me that in the political situation of our Lord’s original hearers, those who were “taken” would envy those who were “left behind”, by the Roman occupiers.

      I’m still waiting for the post-millennial apocalyptic epic, “Not Goin’ Anywhere”.

      • I’ve been thinking a lot about words and language lately. The whole idea of “the end of the world” meaning the end of the world “as we know it”, aka, exile or sudden clamity or post-911 or whatever. Trump. MAGA.

        To that end, and maybe the Greek explains it more clearly, but why do we put deep time into our reading of John 1? The beginning and the end, the alpha and omega…why do we immediately read that as timeless, eternal? Instead of reading it as the beginning and end “of our faith”, etc?

        Why do we immediately go hyper-literal when reading these things? Tradition? Something in the Greek? Influences from Plato or whatever?

        • Like Rutger Hauer’s replicant, I don’t want all those moments to be lost in time like tears in the rain. I look for the eternal in my religion, for that which will last and never be diminished. Perhaps I’m misguided.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eISTFyLbXhY

          • “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

            He does. He’s not just love; he’s also life, and he lives, now, yesterday, tomorrow. He’s love that lives, from the beginning, here and now, beyond all death. That’s what I’m banking on. If that makes me a fool, if I’m wrong, so be it. I can live, and die, with that.

            Alleluia! He is risen!
            He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

  3. I’m 75 years old and this is the best advent sermon I have ever heard/read. Thank you, Chaplain Mike and Michael Spencer, for your words, which have moved me out of the “Bah, humbug” phase that often overtakes me on Black Fridays and into the true spirit of the season.

    Even so, come, LordJesus.

  4. Last line of the song: “We must be alright if we could make up Chistmas night”.

    Make it up? If we made it up, how would that make anything alright? Might as well sing “I have confidence in confidence alone”.

    “But God, being rich in mercy…”. Now there’s cause for Joy!!

    • I thought someone might catch that and question it. Thorn (or the songwriter) may well be skeptical about the actual events of Xmas, I don’t know. But I’m going to give a generous interpretation and say that hear her singing in this song about the various ways we celebrate Xmas. These are things we’ve made up, and she finds that they bring her hope. I don’t have a problem with endorsing that.

  5. Thank you for such a deeply meaningful Advent Botschaft! Totally agree; you’ve articulated what I haven’t been able to put into words for myself. I’ll be reading this again and again throughout the season!

  6. Great sermon/post. I really like how you weaved elements of Michael Spencer’s brilliant “There’s Always a Day Before” essay into the Advent idea. My more recent interpretation of “second coming” texts is in regards to my own dying/passing: I’ll die when I least expect it, and he’ll come to me when I do. This “Day Before”/Advent idea melds nicely with that.

  7. Interesting inclusion of the Jason Isbell song. I kinda lost track of him after he left Drive-By Truckers. Looks like I’ll have to check out his solo stuff.

    Some interesting “God stuff” here:
    http://www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org/how-to-stay-sober-jason-isbell-and-process-theology.html