Are You Ready for Advent? (Matthew 24:36-44)

Advent Starry Night #5 by Virginia Wieringa

Jesus said, “But about that [judgment] day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor 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, 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 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 do not expect him. (New International Version)

The best way of observing the first advent of Christ, his incarnation, is by preparing ourselves for his second advent, his return to the earth.

Just because there is sun today doesn’t mean everyday will be that way. The storm clouds are gathering; the Day of the Lord is at hand. Will you be ready?

Satan once called to him some demons of hell and said he wanted to send one of them to earth to aid women and men in the ruination of their souls. He asked which one would want to go.

One creature came forward and said, “I will go.” Satan said, “If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?” He said, “I will tell the children of men that there is no heaven.” Satan said, “They will not believe you, for there is a bit of heaven in every human heart. In the end everyone knows that right and good must have the victory. You may not go.” 

Then another came forward, darker and fouler than the first. Satan said, “If I send you, what will you tell the children of men?” He said, “I will tell them there is no hell.” Satan looked at him and said, “Oh, no; they will not believe you, for in every human heart there’s a thing called conscience, an inner voice which testifies to the truth that not only will good be triumphant, but that evil will be defeated. You may not go.” 

Then one last creature came forward, this one from the darkest place of all. Satan said to him, “And if I send you, what will you say to women and men to aid them in the destruction of their souls?” He said, “I will tell them there is no hurry.” Satan said, “Go!” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)

Most people’s crime in not some gross sin, but indifference, without much thought to a coming judgment. It seems we are all spiritual procrastinators. Why do today what we can put off till tomorrow? 

But the spiritually indifferent won’t know what hit them. 

So we need to be deeply concerned for the coming Day of the Lord, which may be very soon. 

The question for us is not, “When will Christ return?” Rather, the question is, “Are you ready for Christ’s return?” We must:

  • Keep watch, stay alert, and be ready, like a watchman on an ancient city wall scanning the horizon for an advancing army.
  • Remain vigilant and not forget that Jesus is coming again. 
  • Live every moment of our lives in light of the promise of Christ’s return. 
  • Be busy (not busybodies) because we don’t know the day of Christ’s second advent.

What does it mean to keep watch, be ready, and stay alert? 

In between these two advents of Christ, believers are to bear witness to a world going about their merry way unaware of the judgment that is about to overtake them. Like Noah, we actively build the ark of the church instead of living as if Jesus weren’t coming.

Noah was a preacher of righteousness in both word and deed, building an ark in a place and around a people who had never seen rain. What’s more, constructing the massive ark took a solid one-hundred years. This was no easy feat.

Like Noah, we must plug away and be faithful stewards, doing the tedious and patient work given to us. We aren’t supposed to be like the irresponsible teenager who, when given the responsibility of watching over the house while the parents are gone for the weekend, throws a big party and trashes the place. The parents will come home at a time that the teenager does not expect, and then there will certainly be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

When the Lord returns, we don’t know who will be taken and who will be left. Two different people might look the same on the outside, doing the same work, but each of those persons working side by side can really be very different on the inside. So, let us be patient as we await the coming of Christ and avoid losing sight of what is truly important.

One day a man named Denis Waitley was trying to catch a flight but running late. So he literally ran through the airport terminal and got to the gate the split second the flight attendant closed the door. Denis explained his situation, that he had a speaking engagement and needed to be on that flight, but the attendant didn’t budge. 

Denis stormed out of the boarding area and back to the ticket counter to register a complaint and reschedule his flight. His anger intensified as he waited for more than twenty minutes in a line that barely moved. Just before he got to the counter an announcement over the intercom changed his life. 

The plane he missed getting on, Flight 191 from Chicago to Los Angeles, crashed on takeoff and killed every person on board the plane. Denis Waitley never registered his complaint. In fact, he never returned his invalidated ticket.

He took the ticket home and pinned it on a bulletin board in his office to remind him whenever he got frustrated or upset that life is more than day to day impatience and worry and complaints. It’s about serving a lost world destined to slide away from God apart from the grace that can turn judgment into blessing.

It could be today. Every day we must live with the reality that Christ’s return is imminent. Until that happens, we are to be faithful servants of God by serving a world that is tremendous need of getting on the ark and being saved from the judgment that will come. 

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Luke 2:1-20 – The Sound of Salvation

Host of Angels by Mike Moyers

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So, they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (New International Version)

Out of all the sounds of the season, the best of all is the sound of salvation.

The Sound of Activity

The Roman census brought a crowd of people to small village of Bethlehem. Because most were related to one another, it was like one big family reunion. There was lots of noise, with people talking, laughing, and sleeping.

We are a busy society and a busy people. The Christmas season only seems to exacerbate our busy-ness. Jesus can get lost in all the noise. We can miss the point of it all because of our preoccupations with all those seemingly necessary things in our lives. And it can be hard to hear and to listen to God. The sound of activity eventually needs to give way to another sound….

The Sound of Silence

Bethlehem was so busy that no one paid attention to the most cataclysmic event ever to take place. But out in the fields, all was quiet. The shepherds were there, quietly watching over their sheep. In the silence, they were able to experience the sound of good news.

Like a good pot of tea, we must allow the Word of God to seep in us, allowing the heat to do its work so that we might listen well to the divine voice. If we come at the Word with a cold heart, it will likely not do us a lot of good – we need to be hot and receive the Word with humility and respond to the Word with wisdom. As we allow God to seep in us, we become acutely aware of a beautiful sound….

The Sound of Joy

The shepherds heard good news of great joy from the angels. And then they shared their joy and went to worship the newborn Christ. It was a great celebration. After all, how often do a multitude of angels show up with an unsolicited concert of joy!?

We can imagine the sound of the shepherds’ unbounded joy at hearing the good news that the promised Savior has come! They just had to go and see Jesus, and then told everyone about it. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

There’s nothing quite like hearing good news, then sharing good news. Sadly, however, the story does not end there because not everyone was happy about Jesus being born as the King….

The Sound of Crying

King Herod saw Jesus as a potential rival, and he callously had every baby boy in Bethlehem killed when he found out the news. (Matthew 2:1-18)

We must keep in mind that not everyone is joyous at Christmas. Past grief associated with the holiday season can make it difficult to participate in the celebration. So, we need to be aware of the lamenting folks around us and hear their sad crying so that we can be agents of comfort and grace.

And let us also not forget, another sound of crying is the baby Jesus. Yes, he really cried. Jesus is truly human with all the sounds and experiences that go with being human. (Hebrews 2:10-17)

Conclusion

The sounds of activity, silence, joy, and crying are all part of Christmas and the birth of Jesus. To truly experience a full-orbed Christian spirituality, we will pay attention to the range of sounds occurring around us at this time of year.

Eternal God, who breathed this world into being, and placed stars into the heavens: You are the God who entrusted Jesus to the care of ordinary people, becoming vulnerable so that we might know the power of Love – a mystery so deep it is impossible to grasp, and so beautiful it is impossible to ignore.

Circle us, Lord, with the light of your presence, bright within this dark world. Enable us to be overcomers of fear and temptation, and victors over sin and despair. Circle this world with the joy of your salvation. Where there is sickness and disease, bring healing. Where there is hunger and despair, bring hope. Where there is bondage, bring freedom. Lord of our salvation, circle this world with the light of your presence. Amen.

Micah 4:6-8 – Belonging

“In that day,” declares the Lord,

“I will gather the lame;
    I will assemble the exiles
    and those I have brought to grief.
I will make the lame my remnant,
    those driven away a strong nation.
The Lord will rule over them in Mount Zion
    from that day and forever.
As for you, watchtower of the flock,
    stronghold of Daughter Zion,
the former dominion will be restored to you;
    kingship will come to Daughter Jerusalem.” (New International Version)

One of the great tragedies of our world, as well as one of the worst feelings of humanity, is the sense that one does not belong.

Since people are hard-wired by God for community, belonging is essential, not optional. The image of the rugged individualist who gets things done on their own terms and marches to the beat of a different drum might be an appealing picture to many Westerners – but it falls woefully short of real lived human experience.

Since the fall of humanity, people have tended to group themselves into insiders and outsiders. In other words, discrimination is the enemy of true belonging. And, what’s more, there always seems to be people who are ready to create such division for their own purpose and profit. Indeed, it’s an age old tale, perhaps best told by Dr. Seuss in his classis book, Sneetches and Other Stories (1961).

In the story, Sneetches with stars on their bellies discriminate against and shun those without. A slick entrepreneur, Sylvester McMonkey McBean, offers the Sneetches without stars on their bellies the chance to get them with his Star-On machine, for three dollars, of course.

The application of stars upon thars is instantly and wildly popular. However, this abjectly upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches. They are in danger of losing their special status! So, McBean then tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars, of course, and the Sneetches who originally had stars happily pay the money to have them removed.

Since McBean only cares about profit, he allows the recently starred Sneetches through this machine, as well. Ultimately, the entire affair escalates, with all the Sneetches running from one machine to the next…

“…until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew

whether this one was that one… or that one was this one…

or which one was what one… or what one was who.”

The Sneetches end up penniless. McBean leaves a rich man. The Sneetches learn from the experience that neither plain-belly nor star-belly Sneetches are superior. They finally become friends. Dr. Suess intended his story to be a satire of discrimination between races and cultures.

The kingdom of God is an egalitarian realm. There are no walls and barriers dividing people into opposing groups. And there isn’t such a thing as marginal, excluded, insignificant, forbidden, or discounted people.

Micah’s prophecy tells not of the privileged and powerful coming together for renewal but the lame. God’s care in maintaining a remnant and gathering them for restoration will be made up of the wounded, the ones who have no ability to bring themselves to the center.

The upside-down kingdom of God makes the last first, and the first, last. The Lord’s rule and reign champions the disabled and the misfits – those without an ability to come. They may be forgotten by others but never by God.

Like Santa coming to the island of misfit toys, rescuing and airlifting forgotten toys so that they can become treasured gifts for boys and girls – so God creates belonging where there seems none to be had. And leading the effort is a tossed aside reindeer named Rudolph, using his unique “deformity” to cut through the tough winter storm.

Perhaps you feel a bit, or maybe a lot, like the square peg trying to fit into a round hole. It could be that you wonder whether there is a place for you. You have experienced life as something of an oddity, as if the normal world around you is not aware of your very personhood.

The good news is that a prominent place is given to the humble, for those attempting to make a difference in the world that gives them no place to belong. God sees. God hears. God knows. God cares.

The Lord sends a Savior, a Deliverer, who will himself be a peculiar individual on this earth. It will seem as if he is from another place… which he is. But, then again, aren’t we all? Each of us was crafted with divine care and attention.

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
    you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
    Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
    when I was being put together in a secret place,
    when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my embryo,
    and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
    before any one of them had yet happened. (Psalm 139:13-16, CEB)

The Lord has good plans for you and me. It might seem as if there are times God is placing a heavy hand upon us, even punishing. Yet, restoration is in the future. In this season of the year, we celebrate that Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

May Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one, things earthly and heavenly, fill you with joy and peace. Amen.

Luke 1:46b-55 – Mary’s Magnificat

Mary’s Magnificat by Br. Mickey McGrath

Mary responded,

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
    How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
    and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy,
    and he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
    to all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
    He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
    and exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
    and remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and his children forever.” (New Living Translation)

Mary’s great song of praise grasps the reality of being pregnant with the Messiah. Mary affirmed that the all-powerful God “has done great things for me.” Indeed, the Lord shows mercy to everyone who worships and adores such mighty acts.

It strikes me that Mary, instead of being full of worry and afraid of the future, and as an unmarried teen with child, is full of the Spirit and faith. Mary neither complained nor fretted for the nine months of her pregnancy; she praised God and was clear-headed about the grace shown to her.

Mary’s canticle gives us insight into the mystery of the incarnation: God chooses the weak, those of low esteem, and the powerless.

Mary was rather ordinary. She had no wealth. She possessed nothing which would cause anyone to pick her out of a crowd. Yet, she is the one chosen by God. And her wonderful response to grace demonstrated that there is so much more to any person than what we can see with our eyes and perceive through our earthly glasses of high positions and strength of personalities.

The mother of Jesus had the wisdom to discern that her situation typified the Lord’s egalitarian work of leveling the field. Mary’s pregnancy normalized the needs of all people. Her son, the Deliverer, would carry this understanding into his own life and ministry – declaring good news to the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for captives, telling those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.

God is full of grace, mercy, and power to the powerless and the needy. The Lord has our backs. Perhaps if we all, both individually and corporately, continually used our words to identify and declare the great things God has done we would realize the consistent blessing of the Lord. 

As we near the night of our Lord’s birth, take some time to reflect on the ways God has been good to you in this Advent season, and like Mary, offer praise for each act of mercy. Mary exhibited no helplessness but had her heart calibrated to detect the grace of God when it was present.

Great and mighty God, I will praise you with all my heart.  You care for me and always show mercy to those who worship you.  Fulfill all your good promises in me, and in all your people, for the sake of your Son, the Lord Jesus.  Amen.