[Jesus said to the disciples,] 36“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But 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. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
It’s the start of that magical time of year. That time of year when, coming down from the Thanksgiving turkey coma and Black Friday shopping buzz, when the world seems to spin a little faster. Our schedules have become filled up with Christmas parties, travel, getting Christmas cards in the mail, and holiday decorating (if you hadn’t started that already). The movies and music and colors and fervor of Christmas has started. But here, here in church, we aren’t in Christmas yet. We’re in Advent. Instead of launching headfirst into the excitement, we are called to wait, to try to eliminate distractions and to prepare for the baby that is coming. Instead of celebrating the coming of Jesus already, we are waiting for him to be born again.
Anyone who has been expecting a child knows what this feels like. There’s this tension happens while waiting. There are always preparations to be made. There are always things to get done – getting the nursery ready, baby proofing the house, organizing dressers and cupboards, getting the hospital bag ready – and everything that is getting done has one, singular reason. The baby will be coming. The one you’ve been waiting for is going to be born. And that last month is really when it comes to a peak. There is a lot to do, but once things are basically done, the last thing to do is to stay alert, to be ready to respond when those first contractions begin. And that’s where we’re at today.
All of our readings today drive home this point – keep awake, remember why you’re waiting, and be ready to respond. And our readings do a good job of lifting up this idea. If I had my way, though, I would have liked to rearrange them, put them in a different order. In fact, I think I would have put them in the exact opposite order that we read them. Let me explain:
Jesus, in Matthew, drives home why we need to be ready and awake. We don’t know when the child is coming. Well, in this context we know – we’re building up for Christmas – but this spiritual act of being present and awake is more than just an Advent thing. We profess that Christ is coming back and that when he does, he will usher in the Kingdom of God in its fullness, that we won’t be subjected to brief, momentary glimpses of God’s goodness and mercy, but that we will bask in it, like basking in the warm summer sun (which, I know, many of us are mourning the loss of). Those who are swept away, in this reading, are the ones who are not ready, they are not living as though it will really happen. They are not awake.
Then, in Romans (13:11-14), Paul continues this theme. Salvation is near – salvation, not just as eternal life, but as life abundantly and lived fully for God. Keep awake. Be ready. Live like we believe this is really true.
Then, continuing backwards through our readings, we find our Psalm (122). In this Psalm, we get a better glimpse of what we do while we wait, while we keep alert. We gather together, maybe in a formal way like right now and maybe in a less formal way, around tables, in restaurants or living rooms. We pray. We work for peace. We look to God and we look to our neighbors and we say to each, “I will seek to do you good.” I love that phrase because I think it essentially says what our work as Christians looks like in this world. We seek to do good to all in the name of Christ. That’s the basis of the work for peace, justice, and love that we do, both personally and congregationally.
Our text from Isaiah (2:1-5) further tells us what that looks like, but it makes sure we understand that God is really the one doing the work. What followers of Christ do, then, is taking part in God’s work. But we have to understand that the work that gets done is only possible through God. It can be really hard work. The word choice is clever, that all people will stream to God and God’s mountain. Have you ever noticed a stream, though? I’m guessing you’ve never seen one running uphill. We will often find that we, like a stream running downhill, will sometimes find ourselves distant, moving away from God. That’s the nature of humanity. We sin, we drift, we hurt others. But we also see God gathering people together, somehow making the stream of humanity run back uphill, back to God. That’s the nature of God. While our nature will drive us away from God, will lull us to sleep, and we will sometimes be left unalert and unaware, God’s nature will relentlessly gather people together, will wake us up from our sleeping, and remind us that salvation is near.
This salvation comes in the form of a baby on a stone feeding trough, in a shed, in a poor village in the Middle East. We wait for it, each and every year, as we wait for the Kingdom to come. And we are reminded that it does come. The baby does arrive. It comes without fanfare and fireworks, but with the pain of childbirth and the cries of a newborn infant. It doesn’t come through sword and spear, but through plow and pruning fork. This baby will grow up and will change the world. This baby will become a man and this man will go to the cross and rise again.
Babies have a way of changing the world, don’t that? Even before they arrive, your world has already changed. Your outlook, your priorities, your schedule, your house, your life changes. You keep alert. You pay attention. You work to make sure everything is in order. That’s what is happening when you wait, that’s what’s happening in Advent. It’s active. It’s alive. It’s awake.
I love the symbolism of these Advent candles. Each week, as we light more and more, they will give off more light. But in order to truly appreciate the light they give, we sometimes need to turn off the other lights, get rid of some of the distractions. In this time, when our schedules become even more cluttered than normal, I hope that you can take some time to get rid of the distractions, that you remember to stay alert, maybe turn a sword or two into plowshares, and that, in the midst of celebrating, you also can find time to reflect and give thanks. Salvation is near. The baby is coming. Soon, very soon, the king will be born. Amen.