Nobody knows

Good morning, Friends!

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. I’m not sure it really feels like Christmas. We’ve got some decorations up. We sang our first Christmas carols this morning. But mentally and physically, most of us are still finishing up our Thanksgiving turkey.

I know a lot of people have probably been buying Christmas presents. Some people start shopping for next Christmas right after the holiday, as soon as the sales get started. In our family we usually start our Christmas shopping some time back in July.

People who are traveling for Christmas have already made reservations. People who are going to holiday concerts have already bought their tickets. It’s not like there’s a lot of surprise for any of us. The great Christmas countdown has begun!

Except that, in another way, we’re never ready for it. We’re never ready for Jesus, who is the one, true and only reason for the entire season.

What about Jesus? Are we all getting ready for him? Are we ready for Jesus to be born, here, into our world?

Are we ready to acknowledge that it’s really his world? If he’s the king, are we ready and willing to do whatever he says?

Are we ready to be kingdom embracers and kingdom adopters, or are we really kingdom evaders and kingdom deniers?

Who is this all about, anyway? Who’s this in honor of? Just asking.

One of the things which stands out in the Bible story, is that a lot of people were hoping for the Messiah to come. But they didn’t really know when it was going to happen.

They’d been waiting for hundreds of years. But nobody knew when, and nobody knew how, nobody knew where.

They were praying. They were hoping. They were longing. But where were they looking? They hadn’t a clue.

Were they looking for Christ in the palaces of power? Were they looking for Christ in the national cathedral, or on the battlefield? They truly didn’t know.

Today’s reading for the first Sunday in Advent kind of echoes that problem. What are we expecting? When is Jesus coming? What time of day or night? What do we do, while we’re waiting?

But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor even the Son, but only the Father.

As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, right up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.

But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him.

Matthew 24:36-44

In a lot of congregations around the world today, this Sunday is when they read the story of John the Baptist.

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness saying, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. . .’”

That message, “Prepare ye the way”, is an important one. And most of us are busy preparing. We’re decorating. We’re planning parties and family celebrations. A few of us are even mailing out Christmas cards.

But are we really ready? Are we hoping and praying, not just for the holiday, but for the coming of Christ?

Jesus was born roughly two thousand years ago, give or take a little. So, he’s born already. We don’t have to literally prepare for Jesus’ birth. That was a one-time event. If Mary and Joseph were in charge of the Christmas season, they’d probably say, “Thank God we don’t have to go through all that again!”

But there’s another sense, in which every year, we feel called to prepare – for something. And we’re not quite sure what. And we’re not quite sure how. But we put an awful lot of time and energy into doing something, because we know deep in our hearts that it’s important.

What does it mean, to “prepare the way of the Lord”?

One way, I guess, would be simply to panic. Remember how Paul Revere rode through the middle of the night, yelling out, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”?

Maybe that’s how we prepare for Christmas – a bunch of panic-stricken, disorganized people, running around and making a lot of noise. Still pretty much in the dark about what’s going to happen. “Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming!”

Or maybe “being prepared” means stocking up. Fill up your freezers. Get out your snow shovel. Go and buy ice melt. Bring in the fire wood. Empty the shelves at all the stores! Prepare! Get ready!

I think by the time Christmas finally comes around, a lot of people are totally exhausted. We’ve created this non-stop, 24/7 kind of atmosphere. And Christmas really stops being fun, because we don’t take time to wait and pray. Maybe, as Christians, we need to have some kind of witness or testimony about that.

I know people who feel that Christmas means that they need to have the carpet in every room in the house cleaned. They go out and buy new furniture. They work themselves into the ground, trying to re-decorate in time for Christmas.

Other people go into Christmas party mode. Work parties, school parties, family parties, church parties, you name it!

I don’t feel judgmental about all this. Honestly, I don’t. I enjoy the whole atmosphere of celebration and preparation. I just wonder if, sometimes, we’re missing the point.
This morning’s Scripture is part of a longer section, in which the disciples asked Jesus, “Tell us, when will this be? And what will be the sign of your coming?”

And Jesus answered them, “Don’t let anyone lead you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Don’t be alarmed. The time is not yet. Nation will rise against nation, and there will be famines and pestilences and earthquakes. But this is just the pain of giving birth.” (Matthew 24:3-8)

And then Jesus shared the part heard this morning. “Keep awake; you don’t know on what day or hour your Lord is coming. . .”

In a way, that’s the opposite of how we think about Christmas. We think we know exactly when it’s going to happen – 28 days from now, to be precise, unless, of course, you belong to the Greek Orthodox church, in which case Christmas is on January 6th, which is 40 days from now. You see, we’re already in trouble!

Jesus said, “If the owner of the house had known what time of night the thief was coming, the owner would have stayed awake and wouldn’t have let his house be broken into. . .”

That’s one of those inside out, upside-down-and-backward sayings that Jesus liked to tease people with.

If we’re the homeowner, does that mean that God is the burglar? That phrase, “like a thief in the night” really comes from this scripture reading. Can you imagine God by-passing all of our burglar alarms, jimmying our windows, and tranquilizing our watch dogs, to get into our house while we’re not ready, to get at the treasure of our hearts.

That’s not a conventional Advent message. But it is biblical. And maybe it’s how we need to think about what God is trying to do in our world.

Maybe we need to think about how breaking-in could really be good news.

That’s not the kind of picture we usually have at Christmas. Christ is not the Grinch! But in another sense, have we made our lives so safe, is our world-view so secure, that the only way God could get to us, would be to break in, when we least expect it?

Right after today’s reading, Jesus shares a parable. He says, “There was a homeowner who went away for a while, who put servants in charge of everything. The wise servant gave the rest of the staff their food on time, and everyone was busy at work when the owner came home. The wicked servant decided that the homeowner wasn’t going to come that day, and got drunk and beat up the other servants and went out all night partying.”

The owner’s going to come home when the wicked servant doesn’t expect it,” Jesus said, “on a day and hour that wasn’t announced ahead of time. And the owner will cut that wicked servant right down to size. And the wicked servant will be thrown outside with all the hypocrites. And it won’t be fun.”

Again, that doesn’t sound very Christmasy. It’s not about snow and reindeer, and trees and presents.

The story Jesus told is more about attitude, and responsibility, and who we are.

We don’t own the world. We’re servants. God is the owner. We can celebrate Christmas. We can party! But let’s remember whose party it is. Let’s not leave Jesus out of it, at any point. Because Jesus is the reason for the season.

Every party, every card, every gift, every greeting, we need to remind each other that it’s all because of Jesus.

We give each other gifts, as a reminder that Jesus is God’s gift to the whole world. “We love, because God first loved us. . .” (1 John 4:19)

In another place, Jesus said, “When you give a feast, don’t invite your relatives and your rich neighbors. They’ll invite you back, and you’ll be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. That way, you will be blessed, and you will be repaid at the resurrection. . .” (Luke 14:12-14)

I think that’s partly why, at Christmas time, we emphasize helping the poor. Jesus Christ was born in a stable. He had no place to lay his head. Whatever we do to least of our brothers and sisters, it’s as though we did it, directly and personally, to Jesus himself.

That really needs to be our direction, at Christmas time. That’s part of what “preparing the way” really means. Presents and parties for ourselves are fine. But the poor people in our community, and the poor people of the rest of the world, also deserve a place at the table. That concern is at the very heart of Christmas.

The third story Jesus tells in this section, is a story about ten bridesmaids. Five of them were wise, and five of them were dumb. They all took Tiki torches to the wedding. The wise ones took extra oil with them, while the foolish ones didn’t bring any extra.

Turns out the bridegroom was delayed. The party didn’t start when they expected. So they all got tired, and laid down for a nap.

Then along about midnight, somebody shouted, “Wake up! It’s party time!” And they all got up and went out into the yard. But the foolish bridesmaids’ lamps had all gone out, and they didn’t have any extra oil. So they went out to buy some, and by the time they got back, the party had started, the gate was shut, and they couldn’t get in.

When I read this, I realized, at last we’ve heard the true meaning of Christmas! And it’s so simple! “Buy extra batteries!” It’s been right there in scripture, waiting for us all along.

“Have your lamps trimmed and ready!” I wonder if that includes outdoor Christmas lights? I wonder if Jesus wants us all to go over to the hardware store, and pick up a few more light bulbs, just in case?

Is that what the story’s about? Is that what “preparing the way” really means?

At the end of the scripture, Jesus repeats what he said. “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. . .”

I think that message of alertness and wakefulness is important.

Christmas tends to be a season when we go onto auto-pilot. We do the same, familiar things, year after year. We want to hear the Christmas story, and all the Christmas carols, the same way. We’d like the story to be fresh, but we don’t really want anything new.

Sometimes we need to break out of our familiar patterns. Or maybe we need to let God break in to our familiar, comfortable world.

We need to listen, to hear what God is really saying to us. We need to find ways to get past the conventional Christmas greetings and the everyday phrases we use, and really listen. We need to pay attention and look and listen.

We need to be alert and awake to the new and unexpected things that God is doing in the world.

Most of what we read and hear on the internet and TV is basically bad news these days. We need to listen and read between the lines and search for the great things which God is doing, which are really good news.

We need to be alert and awake for those moments of gift and grace which are God’s way of surprising us. If we think that Christmas only means fruitcake and new socks and predictable gifts, then folks, we’re going to miss the real surprise that God’s trying to give us.

I don’t think God is ever angry of upset with us about the gifts we give at Christmas. Every gift that’s given with love, is a good gift.

But think about one new gift we could give, to someone who doesn’t expect it, or deserve it, and who can’t possibly return it. That’s what grace is all about. Christmas means giving and receiving grace, giving and receiving unexpected kindness, giving and receiving something beautiful out of the blue.

And for that kind of unexpected gifting and gracing to take place, we’ve got to be awake and alert. We need to be on the lookout for opportunities, moment by moment.

This morning’s gospel also has to do with prayer. In the midst of all of the fun and the frantic activity that’s going on all around us, I think we’re called to be awake and alert and centered on what’s going on.

Turn off at least half the TV specials. Disregard at least 90% of the advertising. Tune out as many of the activities as we need to. And spend some time, with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. Spend some time with a world that’s aching, crying, for the coming of the Prince of Peace.

Spend some time in prayer for reconciliation and forgiveness. Spend time in prayer for your own deepest needs. Pray for the people you care about. Pray for your neighbors, and even pray for the people you don’t like.

Stay awake, and see if there are unconventional prayers you can pray. Try praying for new things, and new spiritual openings, and new doors to open.

Don’t keep taking the same old stuff out of the same old boxes, year after year. Hang up some new ornaments in your prayer life. Start praying some new songs. Try picturing Christ, or yourself, in new ways.

And, although I enjoy Christmas morning as much as anyone else in this room, I also want to say, don’t worry too much about the 25th of December. Jesus said, “Keep awake; you don’t know either the day or the hour when I’m coming. . .”

Christmas happens whenever it happens. Sometimes it surprises us. God has a way of breaking in on our safe and familiar preparations. The real Christmas – the Christmas of gifts and grace, the Christmas of opportunities and surprises, the Christmas of Christ’s own arrival in our lives, can come at any time.

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