1 Advent — 1 December 2013
Isaiah 2:1-5 | Ps 122 | Romans 13:11-14 | Matthew 24:36-44
“Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Last week a friend of mine posted this on his Facebook page: “For every Christmas light lit before Thanksgiving, one of Santa’s Elves kills a baby reindeer!”
I have some very weird friends!
Looking back over my sermon archive for this Sunday in past years, I discover that I often spent an inordinate amount of time moaning and whining about the fact that in modern society the Christmas celebration gets earlier and earlier. Bad enough that we should be celebrating Christmas already when the season of Advent has only just begun, but now “Christmas” has not only crowded out Thanksgiving – Black Friday now apparently begins before we have even put the turkey leftovers in the refrigerator on Thursday afternoon – but it is well on the way to displacing Hallowe’en!
Moan and whine. Moan and whine.
And yet, you know, when we think about what we are hearing on the radio or on retail stores’ background music, or seeing on television, there are lots of songs and decorations that have to do with the winter wonderland, and Frosty the snowman, and Santa Claus and his reindeer, and holly and mistletoe and chestnuts roasting on the open fire, and gift-giving, and family; and that’s all fine. Apart from the over-commercialization, this is all pretty much pleasant, delightful stuff. We really don’t need to have any problem with that. In fact, let’s not be Grinches about it!
But presumably we notice that there really isn’t very much about Jesus in all of this; and what there is tends to be sweet and sentimental. And whatever the truth is behind our traditional and largely mythological picture of the circumstances of the birth of Jesus, it certainly was not sweet and sentimental.
I hope that it will not come as surprising news to any of you that we do not have any idea at all about on what day of the year Jesus was born. Nothing in the Gospels or elsewhere in the New Testament gives us any clue. Furthermore, there’s no indication that the early generations of Christians really cared about this issue. In fact, some early Christian leaders and theologians argued that what day Jesus was born was an improper question: the pagans celebrated the alleged birthdays of their alleged gods, and it would be a mistake for Christians to imitate them. (In the years following the Protestant Reformation, many Christians of Puritan bent agreed with that, and some conservative Christians still do.) But as the years passed, that argument became harder to sell, and in the late third and early fourth centuries the pagans in the
(who were still the majority) were making a big happy festival deal over the
Birthday of the Invincible Sun, celebrated at the time of the winter
solstice. And so Christians began to
say, well, if they’re going to celebrate the birthday of the sun, we should
celebrate the birthday of Him who created the sun! And so the Church settled on December 25 to
celebrate the nativity of Christ. Sure,
But it’s still the case that much of what the world thinks of as the “Christmas celebration” is not really about the birth of Jesus Christ at all, it’s about celebrating the winter solstice. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, as long as we keep the agendas straight.
So today we begin the season of Advent, the celebration and anticipation of Christ’s Advent, or Coming. And by the “Coming” or “Advent” of Christ, we mean several things.
Most obviously and immediately, we think of Christ’s coming into the world in his birth at
two thousand years ago. That’s the
religious and liturgical side of “Christmas,” and we’re not there yet. This is a season of anticipation.
Another aspect of Advent is what we call Christ’s Second Coming, when this world is brought to its culmination and conclusion, and the whole creation is gathered together, perfected, resurrected, and brought fully within God’s Sovereignty for ever. This fulfillment of the Reign of God in peace and joy is what the Prophet Isaiah is looking forward to in the Old Testament lesson today. This is, at least in part, what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel today, in rather stern and awesome imagery. And Jesus warns us that the whole business of his Coming Again is quite beyond our knowing, and will come at an hour — not just at a day and time, but in a whole manner — we do not expect. Let me repeat: Jesus warns us that the whole business of his Coming Again is quite beyond our knowing, and will come at an hour — not just at a day and time, but in a whole manner — we do not expect, and indeed cannot even imagine. (But that’s another sermon for another time.)
But besides our Lord’s first, historical coming, and his second, eschatological coming (they taught us in seminary never to use the word “eschatological” in a sermon!) – besides these there are all the countless ways Jesus comes into our own lives now, encountering us again and again in our daily routines, presenting us with opportunities to grow closer to him to be conformed more fully to his image, and to serve the world in his Name. This is what
is getting at in today’s Epistle — “It’s time to wake up! Get ready!
Let’s get on with it!” For the
Lord comes in ways and at times we do not
expect— indeed, Jesus has a positive flair for the unlikely. He comes in a
beautiful sunrise, and also in a cold dank dreary rainy night. He comes in the
harmonies of a majestic symphony, and also in the harsh clangor of a rush-hour
traffic jam. He comes in the birth of a new baby, and also he comes in the long
slow painful death of a loved one. He comes when we’re not looking for him at
all; especially he comes through people. A little child, who deserves a swat
but needs a hug; the harried salesclerk made grouchy by the holiday rush; the
lonely old lady next door. You just never know where Jesus will be coming next.
So we are bid to be ready at all times, having laid aside the works of darkness
and having put on the armor of light, having indeed put on the Lord Jesus
The Lord is coming. He has come, he comes now, he will come. Not just because it’s Advent Season now, but because the Lord is always coming. Every day he has come, he comes now, he will come. We celebrate our Lord’s Coming—his Comings—at this time so that we may live his Advent at every time, at all times. Jesus is always coming, and we must be always ready.