Sunday sermon from the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2013
Text: Matthew 24:36-44
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA
If you have ever overslept your alarm clock, you will have had that whiplash moment of going from the pleasant bliss of having an extra fifteen minutes to the abject panic of realizing just how late you are for whatever you were supposed to be up for. As far as I can figure, that is the exact experience of having Thanksgiving so late in November that we now wake up from our proverbial tryptophan-induced slumber to the urgency and immediacy of Advent. Like, usually we have a week to sleep it off. But instead, bam, December. Bam, Christmas. You may be serving leftover turkey at the Christmas parade after-party but don’t let it bother you. This thing is happening, ready or not. Three and a half weeks until the big day, you can start X-ing off the calendar boxes, and even if you were late to the party we are all systems go. You’ll be forgiven for feeling just a bit disoriented.
But before we start too earnestly in our countdown, this reading from Matthew ought to at least give us pause. The customary texts for Advent will eventually take us down the well-worn paths of reading through the story of Mary and Joseph but they begin, curiously enough, with something of a flair for the apocalyptic – “But about that day and hour no one knows…” – Jesus’s words to his disciples cautioning them against making hotel reservations for the night of his second coming. One can easily flesh out the other side of this conversation, that the disciples must have imagined that Jesus would outline a specific course of historical events to follow his death and resurrection, a whole list of precise dates and times, or even that the first hearers of Matthew’s Gospel must have been pouring over the tea leaves looking for the hidden secret plans for the day of judgment. You just know the disciples were trying to work that out for themselves because Christians have been doing those calculations for two thousand years: if you want to know when Jesus is coming back, just ask the internet, or drive around until you find the right church billboard. Somebody will tell you. God knows we all love a soapbox. Or, instead, you can read the scripture: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In a rare moment of total humanity, even Jesus here doesn’t know the full plan.
And yet I suspect most of you are not, as we read this text, scratching out “second coming” from whenever it was pencilled into your datebook but rather wondering why we should talk at all about the scheduling of the apocalypse on the first Sunday of Advent? Are we not busy enough in this season getting ready for Jesus to show up the first time – why bother ourselves with the thought of him showing up the second time? And yet Advent is about something more than preparing ourselves for Christmas. It’s about something more than crossing off calendar days along the way to our real destination; Advent is something unto itself, and in Christian life what we celebrate here is not only the season of anticipation of Christmas morning but also the life of anticipation of God’s reentry into creation. In Advent, those two kinds of anticipation are irretrievably intertwined with one another. What we long for in the promise of Christmas morning, already fulfilled in that manger long ago, is not so different than the longing we have still for the unfulfilled promise of God for the redemption of all things. All of which is to say, as we wake up on Thanksgiving weekend and the first Sunday of Advent to the collective whiplash that announces that the Christmas season is also finally upon us, as we count down the hours towards that day of all days, be careful, because “about that day and hour no one really knows.”
The summer that Charlie was born, in the sort of demented state that new parents consistently find themselves, and as I was working then only on Sundays, one of the things Sarah and I discovered was the sheer satisfaction of walking with stroller from our student apartment to the local shopping mall at about 10:00 on a weekday morning and emerging with a Starbucks beverage. I can’t tell you the deep feeling of accomplishment we felt the first several times we successfully made that voyage, the payoff of which was not only a bit of fresh air and decent cup of something hot but also the feeling of fellowship that would wash over us when we found ourselves with baby and stroller surrounded in that mall by the dozens of other parents doing exactly the same thing, 10:00 being a late hour when you have a young kid, and so everyone was waiting with bated and sleep-deprived breath for those doors to open. And so began our routine: a regular stroller walk from our apartment to the mall, a regular date with the barista at the Starbucks, and some regular camaraderie in our dementia.
All of which is just rationale to explain to you what I was doing sitting on the couch in the middle of the mall aisle at about 10:30 on a Tuesday morning in the middle of August of 2011, the first time that year that I saw Christmas decorations. There I was, baby stroller in one hand, hot beverage in the other, having a bit of a moment out in the world of normal people, when out of the corner of my eye I began to notice something that I presume you would only see in a mall at 10:30 on a Tuesday, which is to say that I saw a couple of employees rolling a cart of Christmas decorations, elf costumes, tinsel, lights, right through the center of the mall. Right there down the aisle, brazenly, unapologetically, not as if they were unaware that it was the middle of August but rather as if they knew perfectly well what day it was, as if they knew perfectly well how absurd their timing was but simply didn’t care. As if they didn’t even care that we still had Back-to-School, Labor Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving to go before Christmas decorations would be widely tolerated! As if they weren’t even aware of the liturgical inappropriateness of hanging Ivy and Mistletoe while we were still only scratching the surface of Ordinary Time! I tell you I had to resist the urge to open up my own church planning calendar – of course in this story I carry it around with me – and go explain to them the error of their ways!
Needless to say that the decorations did not actually appear on public display anytime soon. Surely there were simply being relocated for one reason or another. Surely they were being relocated at 10:30 on a Tuesday because that seems like the sort of time when the mall could get some of its housekeeping done without having the judging eyes of the public upon them, or at least that whoever wanders the mall at that hour might well be focusing their attention on their babies and not so much on the window decorations. Which of course means that it’s not really a story about retail policies on Christmas decor. It’s just a story about my own miscalibrated sensitivity, like why do I really care when they truck out the Christmas stuff, like do I really believe that Halloween and Thanksgiving can’t survive on their own without my policing all the retailers for violations of the liturgical calendar? It seems to me that the story is really about how I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on the baby and enjoying a beverage and instead I’m once again jumping onto my portable soapbox. God knows we all love a soapbox.
And I have hardly been alone in my reservations. It is a very popular soapbox. It is nothing short of required in the more fashionable corners of Christianity to declaim all manner of Christmas celebration until Thanksgiving has run its course, or rather until Advent has properly appeared, one or the other, so that in solid Presbyterian fashion we might anticipate the birth of the Savior of the World decently and in good order. You can put up the decorations on the street lamps, but don’t accidentally turn them on. You can stock up on Christmas music, but don’t accidentally play any of it. If you find a deal on a nice red and green tie or sweater, that’s fine, but make sure it’s in the back of the closet until that right day and hour, or at the very least, don’t wear it to church. We’ve got it so that church is the last place in God’s creation that Christmas is allowed to show up. We don’t want to pollute the sanctity of it, like somehow it will be deprived of its magic power if we accidentally let it out of the box at the wrong moment. And I know I sound sarcastic but the truth is that I’m incredibly sympathetic to all of this, in no small degree out of a deep love of Thanksgiving and a deep sense that Thanksgiving somehow needed my protection – but really, if what we celebrate at Christmas is the in-breaking of God into creation, than how silly of us to run around arguing over when we allow it to show up?
Surely that’s the full force of this morning’s scripture, wherein the disciples’ need to quantify and schedule Jesus’s arrival is matched entirely by our own determination that Christmas should come like clockwork. But Jesus offers them instead a different kind of perspective. About that day and hour no one knows, only the Father, because God alone is the Lord of time itself. Because God is not bound by our seasons and our patterns and the habits of our calendar. Because God works in God’s own time, and not at all in accordance with our expectations. That’s where this text goes, of course: Jesus draws the comparison between his coming and the events of Noah and the flood: 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. But this comparison is less an outline of some great cataclysm that waits for us with the in-breaking of God but rather a reminder that God transgressing the boundaries of creation to be among us is and should be a remarkable surprise. In some ways the story of Advent is the story of Jesus arriving in accordance with scripture and in accordance with prophecy but in other even more important ways it is also the story of surprise, the story of a Messiah appearing for an unlikely people, born of an unlikely family, wrapped in unlikely clothes and laid in an unlikely manger. It is the story of God’s grace encountering us in unexpected ways. So who are we to try and contain it to three and a half weeks on the calendar?
Astute readers of the bulletin and astute observers of the hymnal may note that our closing hymn today is not really an Advent hymn. It is, properly and scandalously, a Christmas hymn. Now, you may be playing Christmas music at home already. For all I know, you may have been playing Christmas music well since Columbus Day. And maybe it doesn’t seem scandalous to you at all to sing a Christmas hymn on the first Sunday of Advent. That’s just fine. But maybe it does feel a bit off-kilter. Maybe you know just how many beautiful Advent hymns there are in our hymnal and what a shame it would be if we didn’t get to sing all of them. Maybe it feels too soon, like just because there are lights and tinsel up doesn’t oblige us as a theological community to skip over the season of waiting. Or maybe you’ve got that feeling in the pit of your stomach, and I have been with you in that pit for many years, that feeling that Advent somehow needs our protection, that Christmas has overgrown its boundaries like some unruly weed and part of our charge as a Christian community is to try and contain it within its appropriate time and place, to try and save Advent, to try and save Christmas, to try and keep them in their place for their own good. But if what we are really talking about here is the surprising entrance of God’s grace into an unlikely world, then Christmas is really the last thing in need of saving.
Instead, it just needs watching. That’s the last turn in this text. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Keep awake. It sounds like Jesus is just egging the disciples into a life of constant anxiety. But consider the larger context. After his resurrection and ascension, they will be left alone to carry on the task of encountering that surprising grace of God, and without the Messiah among them, it won’t be easy. As we all know, the world can be a dark and dangerous place, a lonely place, especially for those lost in the conviction that God’s grace has left them to their own devices. If we have become convinced that God will only come in God’s own time then it is easy enough to feel abandoned, betrayed, left behind by a God who stubbornly refuses our beck and call. But instead, Jesus suggest, we could be watchful. We could encounter the world not with the assumption that God shows up on cue but rather with the expectation that God’s grace still has surprises in store. We could remind each other that even in the deepest and loneliest hours of the night, that God is with us, that God is not yet done with the redemption of all things. We could enter Advent convinced that God’s light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it. We could be watchful people, not just a people who watch television Christmas specials and community parades but a watchful people, seeking out the surprising grace of God, born in a manger, born to walk among us, still walking among us.
So this Advent, I would invite you to watch out for Christmas. To watch out for the grace of God in surprising ways and unexpected moments. And frankly, if all it takes to open our eyes to this surprising thing is singing a Christmas hymn on the first Sunday of Advent, then, for God’s sake, for your sake, for all our sakes, sing it loud. Turn the organ up. Open all the stops. We sang with such with plaintiff expectation O Come O Come Emmanuel but we’ve also got to sing with reckless watchful abandon Come, ye Angels; Come, ye Shepherds; Come all creation and worship this Newborn King! I say the world is a dark and dangerous place and frankly if listening to Joy to the World in August reminds you of the faithfully surprising grace of God then turn that music up. Let’s not spend so much time worrying that Christmas might come too early that we forget to rejoice in it coming at all. Because really, are we in the business of reminding Jesus what exactly is the schedule of His arrival? Are we in the business of becoming the righteous grouch simply because the decorations have gone up too early and given joy in some unauthorized way? Are we really supposed to stand on a soapbox in the middle of a shopping mall and opine over Christmas having loosed its chains?
Or shall we instead just keep a watchful eye on that baby?