First Sunday of Advent
Romans 13:(8-10) 11-14
Watch therefore, for you don’t know in what hour your Lord comes.
Jesus made it clear that even He would not know the time that all things will end. There is a scene in the book of Revelation that shows the Temple emptied of everyone and everything except God Himself. The Temple fills with smoke. From there, God commands the final act of His story as the bowls of judgment are poured out upon the world. At that moment, God gives all people a final chance to choose between joining in the heavenly worship of God and the earthly blaspheming of God. And when it is over, God Himself proclaims that it is done. Jesus could not command those angels with the bowls; only God knew the time when it would happen.
Jesus reminds us that if He doesn’t know, we can’t possibly know when the time will come. This is why it is vital for us to be ready always for the end times.
What does it mean to be ready? My husband was in the military for thirty years. He wasn’t often sent on temporary duty at the spur of the moment, but he always had to be ready just in case. He had several bags that were always packed, including one that had personal items like underwear and shaving kit. Those bags were kept close at hand because they could be told that they would be leaving in an hour. They didn’t have time to pack. They barely had time to kiss their families good-bye.
There were times when the call was expected. On those occasions they could go through the bag and make sure that the underwear was not holey and the can of shaving cream was full. However, sometimes the time was short, so they went with the pack as it was, even if it was not complete. It is the same when we talk about being ready for Christ. We tend to get complacent when things seem to be going well. We pray, but half-heartedly. We read the scriptures, but we shrug if we miss a day. We decide that we are just a little too tired to get up and go to church. It doesn’t matter, anyway, right? God doesn’t take attendance. But what if the time came during at a point of apathy. Would you be ready for Christ?
The world is preparing for Christmas. The stores are filled with aisles of gifts and decorations. Invitations for parties have been mailed. The shipping places are already busy with people taking packages to send to family and friends who are far away. There are even a few houses in our neighborhood that have turned on their Christmas lights. It seems hard to believe that we are less than a month from Christmas.
There is a season through which we must pass first, though. The church calendar is cyclical. We begin with Advent, go through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and then Pentecost. The last few weeks of each year, during the month of November, we look forward to the coming of Christ the King. It is a great way to see the whole story of God in a year, to celebrate the works of His hands, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. We see the life and ministry of Jesus develop until He is finally given the Kingdom forever first on the Cross, through the empty tomb and then on Christ the King Sunday. One of the disadvantages is that we go from Christ the King directly into Advent, thus moving from the promise fulfilled to the promise yet to come. It is hard to go back to the beginning once we’ve seen the end.
For the past few weeks we have focused on the end times, especially last week with Christ the King. We continue that focus for the beginning of Advent, a reminder that though the Christmas season is about more than presents and parties. We encourage each other to take time for God, to experience His coming with prayer and devotional time. It is likely that most people who are reading this already do those things, even outside the season. The Christmas season brings us together more often. We have extra services. We have fellowship gatherings. We have Christmas pageants and programs.
We also deal with the secular aspects of the holiday season. A confession: I like the secular aspects of Christmas. I like to shop for Christmas presents, even on Black Friday. I like to have the biggest, brightest Christmas tree. I like to bake cookies and make ornaments for my family. I enjoy the brightness, the joy and the love of the season. But even though I like these things, I am troubled by the pervasiveness of the worldly and greedy aspects of the holidays. It seems that too many people are not ready for the moment when God will ask if we ready to join the heavenly chorus of eternal praise, or if we are more interested in living in the ways of the world.
We begin the season of Advent in darkness. Today’s Gospel lesson is not very hopeful. Jesus told his disciples to keep watch for the time of His coming, and to do everything He has commanded: to love God with our whole heart and to love one another as ourselves. We won’t know the time, so He told them to prepare their hearts so that they will be strong against those who try to confuse them with false doctrine, false prophets who will come. As the day grows closer, Satan will become more desperate to deceive the children of God. His tactics will become harder to detect, easier to pass from one another. We don’t think we can fall for the deception, but we can see how easy it might be as we prepare for our Christmas celebrations.
I have seen several memes on the Internet that say something like, “Only in America do we wait in lines to trample others for sale items one day after giving thanks for what we have.” Black Friday is considered an official beginning to the shopping season. I remember in the days of my youth when the malls did not open until normal time on Black Friday. The night before was spent decorating for the Christmas season. The mall where my mother worked had an event the hour before opening at which time Santa Claus arrived with much fanfare. My sister and some other girls wore reindeer antlers and danced in front of the sleigh. It was adorable. Then the doors opened and the people went into the mall to take advantage of the sales.
I don’t even know why they are calling it Black Friday anymore. The Friday after Thanksgiving was originally called Black Friday because it was the day when retailers saw their yearly sales go from being “in the red” to being “in the black.” Christmas sales were their profits for the year. Now Black Friday starts well before Thanksgiving. Several stores have been advertising their sales for weeks and Santa is already set up in the malls. The ads have been online for weeks and people have been preparing to rush to the stores the minute they open so that they’ll be the first in line to get the best deals. You have to be there early or you might not get one of the limited quantities available. There are, of course, some extraordinary deals that will begin Friday. Sadly, some retailers insist on getting an early start on the chaos, so they open in the evening on Thanksgiving.
There was once a woman hosted the Thanksgiving celebration at her house every year; she worked for hours to make everything wonderful for her family. One year, however, a bunch of her family members ate dinner, wiped their mouths and rushed out the door to go to the mall so that they could be there in time for the sales. She said that she was hurt and disappointed that they were more interested in shopping than spending time together. “I won’t invite them again,” she said. A family is falling apart because of this need to be the first in line for the sale.
I suppose in some ways this is exactly what it means to be entering Advent in darkness. Even though the decorations are up and the lights are twinkling, the attitudes and expectations of the people are exactly why Jesus came in the first place. People are looking to the world instead of to God. People are more interested in fulfilling some quest for the perfect gift (although I imagine a lot of the shopping is not even for others) than in spending time in the company of family and friends.
Advent is a dichotomy. It is a time when we wait for something we know has already come, and yet we also wait for something that we know is still coming. It is a time of looking to the past while looking to the future. We hope for something we know exists by faith but which has not yet been completely fulfilled. We wait for the baby in the manger even though we just celebrated the coming of Christ as King.
It can be confusing to hear texts from the final days of Jesus’ life as we prepare for His birth. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about seeing Christ as He was, as He is and as He will be all at once. When we think of Christ only in terms of the past, the present or the future, we do not live fully in His presence. If we stay in the past, we live as if there is nothing left to be done. We do not bother to keep watch or to wake up from our slumber. If we stay in the present, then we think what we do matters for our salvation. When we look only to the future, we think we have time to get ready and we put off the things we should do for the sake of Christ.
In other words, this first Sunday in Advent we are reminded that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. As we live in this truth, we realize that our faith is not a past, present or future reality; it is all three. We die with Christ through our baptism. We live with Christ in this present reality, a reality that includes faith and grace and the hope of the promise to come. We look forward to the fulfillment of the promises: yesterday, today and tomorrow.
At the same time we are living in this world, and we have to find a way to our life with our faith. That means making choices that are God-pleasing, ready at a moment’s notice to receive Him. See, there will be a time when Christ comes again in glory, a time when we will see Christ the King come as victorious Lord of all. But Christ comes to us constantly in our daily living: in the request from a charity for food, in the paper ornaments on an Angel Tree at the mall with the wishes of children, a knock on the door from a neighbor who needs a friend to talk to. Christ comes to us in those busy crowds as we are fighting over the last hot toy or cheap television. He comes to us in that car that needs to merge on the highway and in the parking lot at the mall. Will we choose to be selfish or will we choose to be generous? Will we glorify God this Advent, or will we chase after our own needs and desires?
What if Jesus came tomorrow? What would He find on earth? Would He mind if He found you in line to buy the latest gaming system at the Black Friday sales? Quite honestly, I don’t think so. He would mind if you had abandoned a loved one to chase after a sale. It is about attitude, and Advent is about making our hearts right before God so that we’ll be ready to receive our King, both as a baby in the manger and as the Victorious One at the end of all the ages.
Jesus calls us to be ready so that we’ll embrace every opportunity to share Him with others. Christmas can be about presents and parties and decorations, but it is also about sharing Christ with our neighbor. Isaiah says, “Come, let’s go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” The many peoples to whom Isaiah refers are the Gentiles. The day will come when those who are not believers will seek the LORD and His Word. Even as the book of Revelation talks about the destruction of those who do not believe, God offers second, third and more chances.
At His call, they will go to hear God and to learn from His wisdom. Our relationship with God acts as a call to those who do not yet believe. They see our faith and wonder what it is that gives us that joy and peace that is visible in the way we live. Why are we a little happier waiting in the checkout lines? Why are we more willing to give bags of food at a time when our own purse strings are tightening? Why are we excited about going to a boring worship service with a bunch of hypocrites? What is it about Jesus that makes our life different?
Isaiah says, “O House of Jacob, come, and let’s walk in the light of Yahweh.” We are that house of Jacob now. We are the witnesses of God’s light and love and mercy. While individual prayer and devotional time is a good thing, and is encouraged for everyone to help make their hectic lives a little more peaceful, we are sent into the world to share that peace with others. They will not see the Christ in Christmas if we are too busy to share Him with the world.
The psalmist writes, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let’s go to Yahweh’s house!’” Those who hear the Gospel message and experience the love and mercy of God are glad when they discover that which has been with them all along. God is not asking us to reject the secular aspects of the Christmas season. He’s relying on each of us as Christians to shine His light.
Paul writes to the Christians in Rome that salvation is nearer at that moment than when they first became believers. That promise is continued into our day. We know this is true, and yet we wonder. So much time has passed since Paul wrote his letters. It might be closer, but it is so easy to become apathetic. We’ve heard for two thousand years that each day brings us closer to the day when Christ will come again. It is hard to wait anxiously for something that doesn’t seem to be coming. But we are called to wait patiently, to look forward to the birth of the King and remember that the King will come again. We live between the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Until that day, we are called to live in Christ, who is as present now as He was then and as He will be in that day.
We dwell in a world full of darkness, even when there appears to be light. But the True Light dwells among us, too, and we are sent out into the world to live in faith and shine that light to others. Remember that Christ is with you always, whatever the days of Advent hold for you. These weeks will be filled with opportunities and choices. How will you answer His call? Will you keep your faith separate from your quest for the perfect Christmas or will you be ready at a moment’s notice to be generous with His grace? Christ came. Christ is here. Christ will come again. Let us live today remembering the past, embracing the present and looking forward to the future as we dwell in His presence always.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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