Sermon: Advent 1B (2017)
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
My first child took her own sweet time in being born. For weeks I had been going to my doctor’s appointments, and for weeks I had been told that all was ready, and that I would give birth any time now. My hospital bag was packed. I was well-versed on the signs of labor. I knew exactly where to go when labor began, and how everything at the hospital would progress. I was ready.
But my beloved eldest took her own sweet time. A week after her due date, and the day before my doctor was scheduled to go on vacation, my husband and I went to the hospital to induce labor. And even then, she took her time, and nothing felt or went the way I thought it would. My husband and I spent most of that day playing cribbage. They said that I was having contractions, but I couldn’t feel them. The doctor kept coming in to check on me, and every time she would do something to try to speed things up. But my Alex was born when she was ready to be born—over 12 hours after they began to induce.
Giving birth to my second child was completely different. A few weeks before my due date, my body showed absolutely no signs of being ready to go into labor. My doctor was concerned about my weight gain and swelling, and so sent me to the hospital for some tests to make sure that everything was fine for me and for the baby. It was, so he told me to go home—it would be awhile yet. That afternoon, I put Alex, the oldest, in front of the TV—something I rarely did—because I wasn’t feeling well. I thought I was coming down with something. At 5:00pm, I was supposed to start making dinner, and at 6:00pm I was supposed to pick up my husband at the commuter train station. When I picked him up, I told him that I wasn’t feeling well, that I hadn’t made dinner, and so I was sorry but we were going to pick up some Taco Bell on the way home. I barely ate. My husband kept asking me if I thought I was in labor, but I kept saying, “No—it isn’t time, and besides, I don’t think this is the way it’s supposed to feel.” He called his sister, who said I was in labor. I called my doctor, who also said I was in labor, and that I’d best not wait to go to the hospital.
My bag wasn’t packed. I didn’t know which hospital entrance to go into. We didn’t have adequate plans for who was going to take care of our oldest. I wasn’t prepared at all. By the time I got to the hospital, the labor was so advanced that I had missed the window for any pain medication.
I had been fooled once into believing that the time was near. It’s not that I thought it would never happen. It’s more that between my experience the first time and being told the second time that the time for labor was nowhere near, I was lulled into believing that I had plenty of time. I failed to prepare. I failed to keep watch. I missed the signs.
In a Scripture passage that we did not hear today, Romans 8:22, Paul says that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. That’s a lot of groaning, a lot of childbirth. The whole creation is groaning in preparation for the full coming of Christ—for the full realization of God’s Kingdom. The whole creation has been groaning for the past 2,000 years. Together as priest and congregation, we are entering our fourth Advent season together—and we have all been instructed to stay awake, to wait in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord each year. Depending on how long you have worshipped in Christian communities that observe the season of Advent, you have been instructed to stay awake, to wait in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord, over and over and over again.
Much of the time, we are people of faith. It’s not that we don’t believe that Jesus will never come again. It’s more that we’ve been instructed to keep awake, to be prepared, so often, that we’ve been lulled into believing that we have plenty of time. And so we fail to prepare. We fail to keep watch. We miss the signs.
It probably doesn’t help that Advent falls during the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations. Here, we have a deadline. By the evening of the 24th of December, our shopping needs to be done, and our wrapping, and our baking and our decorating and all of it. And that may feel as though we’re preparing. As though we’re keeping watch. But what we’re preparing for and watching for is worldly. Many of us may be asleep to what matters. We fail to watch and to wait for Christ. We fail to be awake to God at work in the world.
Which is a pretty good argument for Advent. I have come to love the liturgical year, with all of its seasons, because they all serve as reminders of the people that we are meant to be. Christmas reminds us that we are people of the incarnation—who know that God is with us. Epiphany reminds us that we are people of revelation—who have seen the wonders that God does and the wonder that God is. Lent reminds us that we are people of repentence. Easter reminds us that we are people of the resurrection. Ordinary time reminds us that we are normal people called to be faithful in and through the patterns of day-to-day life. And Advent—Advent reminds us that we are a people who watch, who wait for Christ, who stay awake to God at work in the world. Even when it seems as though we have been laboring at this for an awful long time. Even when the world would lull us into complacency, or distraction, or sleep.
As we begin this season of Advent, our gospel reminds us of three things. Well, it reminds us of more than three things; it’s a really rich gospel. But I’m going to pull out three things for us to chew on.
First: Christ will come again. The Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. God will tear open the heavens and reunite heaven and earth. God will stir up God’s might, and come to save us, to restore us. God will kindle a flame in each one of our souls. God will transform us into better versions of ourselves. Yes, it’s been a long time. 2,000 years. But let’s think about this for a moment.
The Old Testament spent much of its time predicting the first coming—the birth of the Messiah. And generations upon generations upon generations waited. Moses never saw the Promised Land. The Psalmists never knew Jesus. Neither did the prophet Isaiah. They went into exile. They returned to a temple that had been destroyed. They were ruled by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans. All of those people, waiting. Or not. At times the wait seemed too long, and they built golden calfs or worshipped Baal or depended too much on the law to save them. But Jesus was born—the Messiah came. And so many people missed it. They had been waiting so long, they missed it.
And now, we wait for the second coming—the return of Jesus and the true fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. And generations upon generations upon generations have waited. And truthfully, folks, I don’t know why. I wish I did—I wish I understood the mind of God and what God is up to and how time works for God, exactly. But I don’t. What I do know is that God has proven God’s faithfulness even during long waits. God’s covenant is good and sure. Christ will come again, and we will know the fullness of God’s reign.
Second: we don’t know when, and we’re not meant to know when. And it’s not that people haven’t tried. Here’s the list that I found of predictions of apocalyptic events that were supposed to take place in the past. It’s 19 pages long! 19 pages! Jesus does not mean us to know when he will return. Rather, he is urging us to live as if his return were just around the corner.
Third: In this in-between time, God has put us in charge. Wait . . . What? Let’s make sure of that. Jesus says, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands that doorkeeper to be on the watch.” He puts his slaves in charge. God puts us in charge. God has given us each work to do on God’s behalf, and put us in charge.
Sort of. To unpack this a bit, let’s talk about the movie Ben Hur. How many of you have seen Ben Hur? OK. So you remember that the movie contains and is famous for its epic chariot race, yes? For those of you haven’t seen the movie, Ben Hur has this epic chariot race. For the filming, an enormous set was constructed and then teams of stunt men were trained to drive four-horse chariots. One of those trained was Charlton Heston, and he was worried. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. So he went to the director and voiced his concerns, and the director said to him, “Charlton, you just stay in the chariot and I’ll guarantee you win the race.”
This might be pretty close to what God would say to us. In this life, God asks us to stay in the chariot, to stay in the race, and that takes some real wakefulness. That requires that we stay alert and balanced and do some work. But God has assured the win. God has defeated sin and death, and is defeating sin and death, and will defeat sin and death. Remember point #1? Jesus will come again, and will make everything right. But God calls us to participate in that by staying in the chariot, by participating in the race, by taking care of the house and keeping watch.
So the waiting is not a passive waiting. It’s not a sit-and-stare-at-the-wall type waiting. It’s a get-busy-and-get-to-work-doing-God’s-will type waiting. It’s a waiting in which we participate in the tearing open of the heavens, in the uniting of heaven and earth. We can’t do it alone. But man, Jesus is really clear here. We are supposed to be keeping the house in order. We are supposed to stay in the chariot, stay in the race. We are supposed to be the Body of Christ here on earth. We are called to be the Jesus movement.
In the reflection on today’s readings published by the Living Church, I found this wonderful, baffling sentence: “Waiting for God is his arrival.” Waiting for God IS his arrival.
I suppose that this is where my whole labor analogy at the beginning of this sermon breaks down. Waiting for a child to be born is not the child being born. But waiting for God IS his arrival.
When we light a candle on the Advent wreath, Christ arrives, because we have witnessed to our hope that Christ will come again, and in doing so, we have made Christ visible and present.
When we are faithful in our worship, Christ arrives, because in our worship, we make Christ visible and present.
When we feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, tend the sick, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, comfort the despairing, Christ arrives, because we make Christ visible and present.
When we are waiting in expectation, not passively, but actively, doing the work that God has given us to do in anticipation of His return, Christ arrives.
Perhaps not in his fullness, but he arrives nonetheless.
Waiting for God is his arrival.
So my friends, let’s get busy waiting! I know it’s been a long time. I know we say this every December. I know how easy it is to be lulled into complacency, to be distracted. And I don’t know when the waiting will end. But man alive, we are a people who wait. Not passively, but actively, in expectation and in faith. As though every moment were a vigil. Jesus will not disappoint. God will not disappoint. And waiting for God is his arrival.