(A sermon based on Matthew 24:36-44 for the First Sunday in Advent)
We have arrived at the first Sunday of our new year—the first Sunday of Advent! Advent is about the arrival or coming of Jesus and, as such, it has at least three components. First, we anticipate the celebration of the coming of Jesus our world two millennia ago. Second, we anticipate his coming in power in the fullness of time. Third, we anticipate his coming to us right here and now in whatever new and unexpected ways he chooses to come.
Let’s get a few important things said right up front.
First, Advent is not about prediction; it is about preparation. People who predict when Jesus will return are false prophets and people who listen to them are fools. Date-setters are looking for a following and followers of date-setters are looking for a way out of this world; both are, at best, misguided.
Second, Advent is not about paranoia; it is about anticipation. We are not to look for reasons to feel persecuted; we are to look for what God is doing in whatever is going on in the world and in our lives.
Third, Advent is not about passivity; it is about activity. We are not to sit around and wait for something to happen; we are to believe that God is working and we are to be about sharing in what God is doing.
Fourth, Advent is not about hype; it is about hope. It is not about trying to get worked up over what might or might not happen; it is about looking forward to what God intends to make happen.
Fifth, Advent is not about fear; it is about faith. We are to look forward not with anxiety but with trust in God.
You see, we don’t know when, but we do know that. We don’t know when Jesus will come again, but we do know that he will come again. We don’t know how, but we do know that. We don’t know how Jesus will come again, but we do know that he will come again.
Really, though, those statements refer only to the coming of Jesus in power one day. We don’t know neither when he will return nor how, but we do know that. But there is another sense in which we do know when he will return and we do know how he will return. We know it just as surely as we know that he came all those years ago in the event that we celebrate at Christmas.
We know that Jesus comes to us right here and now. We know that he comes to us in the course of our living our everyday, normal lives. Jesus said that when he comes again, people would be living their normal lives and some would be take and some would be left. As we live our lives, some of us are aware of the coming of Jesus to us and some of us are not.
How can we increase our awareness? Well, we can keep our spirits more open. How do we do that? We do that through prayer, through slow and careful Bible reading, through contemplation of the life of Jesus, through reading dependable writers, through worship, and through service.
We can also watch for Christ’s coming in ways that will surprise us. The people in Jesus’ day—especially the “experts”—did not anticipate a Savior who came like he did, who did what he did, who talked like he talked, and who died like he died. We need to watch that our expectations don’t blind us to the ways that Christ comes.
For example, if all we do is watch for how he will come one day in such glory and with such great power that his coming will be obvious to all, then we might miss how he comes to us right here and now in humble circumstances. In fact, if we are not careful, we will not only miss such comings but we will intentionally ignore them.
Perhaps you will join me in praying this prayer that we will practice the presence of Christ in everything:
We thank you for the way that you surround us all the time; you are
in the air we breathe,
in the grace we encounter,
in the Spirit we sense,
in the love we know, and
in the people we meet.
Help us to grow in our awareness of your presence; cause
our mind, and our
to be more and more open to you in all the ways that you make yourself known to us.
Perhaps we most easily forget the way that Christ makes his presence known in other people. It is as Carlo Carretto wrote:
When her husband is near, and does not let her want for anything she expects, hopes for, and enjoys, a wife says she loves her husband, says it easily and normally. But when the husband is far away, when the waiting is prolonged for months and years, when doubt grows that he will ever return again, oh, then the true test of love begins!
What light, what splendors, in the possibilities this wife has to resist, while she fixes her eyes on the anonymous crowd and tries to pick out him, only him!
What power of real, living, strong testimony emanates from the faithful vigilance, the unquenchable hope, which this woman lives behind the bitter doorway of waiting!
Oh, how each one of us would like to be the bridegroom who returns disguised as a poor stranger, whom she does not recognize, but to whom she repeats, again and again, her certainty of his return and the sweetness of his love!
Well, every evening, when the darkness wraps itself round my prayer, he, God, there, disguised as a poor man watching me.
When I endure, in the darkness of faith, the prolonged wait for the God who comes, he has already come to me and is embracing me silently, with the same embrace with which I, in faith, embrace him. (Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes)
This section of Matthew is filled with words of Jesus about being ready by watching for him to come again. But it ends with words about who will be blessed when he does come.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)
By all means, let us watch for him to come again.
But by all means, let us watch for how he comes to us right here and now …