First Sunday in Advent

Somehow as we pushed our very full tummies away from the dining table on Thursday and moved to the living room to watch TV or entered the kitchen to converse over washing the dinner dishes, we all stepped into a different space in time. Not forward into the future, nor backward to the days of old, not the twilight zone, nor that place between sleep and awake, but observing the madness of 5:30 am Friday morning, most people would probably label it a warped sense of time.

But the reality is our culture has given us an official time of waiting, a time to anxiously and joyfully count down the days until that magical moment when all the decorating and preparations are over, the kids are off of school and we can have a few precious days home with family and friends. A time of waiting to greet Santa Claus as he comes down that chimney. Waiting to rip into gayly wrapped presents to see if we got what we wanted from the toy makers this year. Waiting for the first snowfall to go skiing, boarding, shoveling, or sitting in sloshy traffic jams. Waiting.

Well, this season of waiting that we have entered has two beautiful words that are connected with it "hope and expectation." Just ask any kid that made out his list, checked it twice and was sorely disappointed on that magical morning. He truly expected to receive those things for which he hoped, and sometimes it could still happen. There's always the exchange counter on Monday morning to remedy the situation.

I suppose by some stretch of the imagination, this season of giving - and receiving - and twinkling lights, evergreen boughs, sumptuous food, and jolly Christmas songs evoke in us a good understanding of waiting. Perhaps the youngest members of our families who are still caught up in the sheer wonder of it all still don't have that knowledge of hope and expectation but they will soon catch on. To know that something will happen, to long for it, to wake up in the morning with that sudden excitement in your chest that says, maybe today, maybe today. There is a special tension in the air as you get closer, you can see it in people's faces, the transformation of familiar places. The air just sparkles with it. And then finally, it happens.

If you can isolate that intense feeling of waiting, then hang on to the emotion and let's move it over this morning to another concept, one that lies behind this consumer season, and that is - waiting for Jesus. Now I'm not talking about giving token gestures of manger scenes, children's pageants, Christmas caroling and candlelight services at midnight. I'm not talking about thinking about the birth of a special infant, the sweet story of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and wisemen. That is an event that has already happened. And reenacting it and celebrating it gets us close, but not quite. Advent is a season of the church that asks us to prepare for the second coming of Jesus, not just reminisces on his first.

The early church didn't focus on Jesus' birthday anyway. Epiphany was the highlighted celebration, January 6th, the day set aside in the year honoring Jesus' baptism, the day when the heavens opened up and the voice declared him God's son, the one on whom God's favor rested. On that day, a relatively unknown child - now man was known as the one through whom we could know God. Epiphany - to suddenly have a revelation of something of great magnitude, to suddenly understand God, to glimpse the heavenly purposes and know your place in it. WOW!

The awe surrounding such an event developed within the first few hundred years of the church a season of preparation - not of festivities and gift giving, but of prayer and fasting, penitence and self-denial. They did not focus on the physical house being beautiful and ready, but on the internal person, on the heart, the mind, and the spirit. They tried to clean out the cobwebs, the dirt, the sins and brighten and enlighten the person as a gift to their savior for when he would come again in glory.

These days of Advent which literally mean "coming" were days of refocusing lives on Jesus. And during these days of contemplation people became more and more aware of their fellow human beings and the desperate needs of many that were poor, hungry and sick, and they spent much time in addressing the needs of those less fortunate. A far cry from the gift giving frenzy we participate in today.

The early church also took Isaiah's prophecy of the coming of Jesus to heart and worked longingly for peace. Until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion, the followers of Jesus found their lives filled with fear and persecution, not to mention the violence experienced in the everyday wars among nations that Rome engaged in. The vision that Isaiah painted was the future that the Israelites had waited for and now the Christians too longed for it. They would wake every morning with hope and expectation, maybe today, maybe today he will return. Swords will be beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks and nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war any more. "Let us walk in the light of the Lord."

Jesus had told them what it would be like waiting. Nobody knows what day it will happen. Not the angels, not even Jesus himself. And, so they would just have to remain prepared every day, every moment. To transform their everyday lives into lives of hope and expectation of the day when Christ would be all in all. He reminded them of the days prior to the flood. No one had a clue what was coming. Everyone except Noah went about business as usual and then suddenly, it happened. As sudden as a lightening bolt across the sky, it was time. The community in which Matthew lived was one that anticipated the return of Jesus any day, any moment. It was imminent. And they lived that hope. But it has been thousands of years by our human reckoning. What should we make of that? Does that alter the way we go about our lives? If it has been so long, surely it will be soon? Or do we even continue to think it might happen?

But Matthew's gospel has an interesting tension that we must reckon with. Although this gospel passage talks about the coming of Jesus in a future time, the name Emmanuel literally means God with Us. Now, we may reconcile that by thinking about the human form of Jesus was when God was with us, but in chapter 28 of this very same gospel, Jesus' parting remark to his disciples, "Remember, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

Maybe our way of thinking about presence needs some reconsideration. What does it mean for Jesus to be with us? Are we as humans only capable of thinking in physical terms? Or is there another dimension to our sense of what it means to be alive? to be in heaven? To be with someone? Is there another way of experiencing time? We experience life in a linear fashion. This happens, then another thing happens, then another, but are we only seeing the end results of a whole lot of events put in motion at the same time perhaps at the beginning of existence? We don't know how to experience God except in the life of Jesus.

So, as we anticipate the second coming of Jesus….the Advent… we really have any concept of what it is we are waiting for? What will it mean for us? It has been described in cosmic terms, that the entire universe will be shaken. I've heard it described like the clouds being rolled back and the brightest sun shining. All will be revealed, everything will be exposed and there will be no doubt about who or what is God and who or what we are.

Are you looking forward to that moment? The early Christians longed for that day, when all the world would be changed. But are you ready?

I am anticipating having a college student live with me for a month. She will be arriving on Monday. When I made that decision to have her stay, I went home that day and looked all around my house and was ashamed. I was quite capable of living in the disarray and clutter of my home, but would it be hospitable for this guest from another country?

If you have seen the movie Terminal with Tom Hanks, you will also experience one person's concept of American inhospitality in the wake of our fear of terrorism. In a light hearted way it was enlightening and embarrassing to say the least. So, how will we receive Jesus when he comes again. . . or is he here right now, waiting to be received into your heart? Is your spiritual home ready to receive this guest of royalty and life?

This is the time of Advent. To prepare your heart in hospitality for the coming of the greatest guest of all. Jesus Christ - the light of the world.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan