Happy New Year! I noticed more than one faced was a bit surprised to see the Advent wreath up and me clothed in a blue shirt this morning. Yes, it seems like Christ the King Sunday usually follows Thanksgiving. But, here it is December, and we have four weeks of Advent to celebrate! For those of you visiting or relatively new to the Church, Advent is that intentional time in the Church calendar when we watch for God’s arrival. It is a time when we are pulled between looking back and looking forward. God’s people, of course, waited for Him to come and pitch His tent among them. This He did in the most unexpected of ways -- the Babe born in a manger. But, equally surprising, we look forward to His promised return. That Day, picking up on the passage from which our Gospel lesson is taken, when He returns to judge the sheep and the goats.
That Day is naturally the subject of much conjecture and discussion. A number of famous pastors have predicted the date of our Lord’s return. Heck, let’s be honest, a number of not famous people have tried unsuccessfully to predict the date of His return. I have suffered through some complex justifications for selected dates in a number of strange locales, the most recent being a handi-mart in rural Kentucky while taking Sarah to school this past August. Not surprisingly, that October date has come and gone. Truthfully, I have never understood the need to try and figure out the date. If one believes that Jesus is Lord and that all He taught was true, which most Christians do, our reading from Matthew’s Gospel seems to preclude anything but blind luck for getting the date of His return correct. That is not to say that Jesus does not have much to say about the Day. In our reading today, Jesus has a couple important lessons for us, lessons which should help us get others thinking a bit about Advent, even if they do not yet know what to think of Jesus.
People often want to know what the Day of our Lord will be like. Jesus uses the days of Noah to describe those days. Though we know with the benefit of Scripture that the Flood was God’s judgment of the earth, those who were about to be judged had no idea it was coming. Jesus describes them as going through every-day activities up until the point that Noah closed the doors of the ark. The people outside Noah’s family were eating, drinking, getting married, and generally engaged in daily life. Up until the Flood came, they had no idea they were doomed. So it will be, He says, for us at His Second Coming. Like those swept up in the Flood, we will be surprised by His return.
Right before His Second Coming, men and women will be engaged in normal activities. I know Tim LeHay has made a small fortune describing life at this time in the Left Behind series, but I think it is important for us to remember that he writes apocalyptic fiction. He paints a picture where people just disappear. Cars and trucks crash, planes fall out of the sky, everybody knows someone who has been called to heaven by Jesus, even if some are not sure where they have gone. The reason I am certain it is fictional is from a couple weeks ago. Jesus teaches us that we will know when He returns. In some way that defies our understanding of physics, everyone will realize that Jesus will return. We need not fear that He will come unobserved or that we will be Left Behind. When He comes again, the world will know it. There will be no mistaking or missing His appearance! As the angels said at the Ascension, He will return the same way He left, in glory and in power!
Prior to that point, though, everyone will be engaged in daily life and work. Farmers will be farming, children will be in school, office workers will be doing their work, volunteers will be volunteering, some will even be sleeping. Life will be pretty normal up until the moment He appears. We look for incredible signs in the heavens and portents and wars to predict His coming again; yet those fortunate to be alive at His return will be caught unawares, much as the man whose house was robbed. All we can do, all anyone can do, is keep watch, be alert, or be ready. We must live every day as if He could return any moment or as if we could be called home by death at any moment. Yes, there is an urgency to our faith. You and I and all who claim Him as Lord are tasked with sharing His offer of grace as if there might not be a “later” or “next time.” Death unceasingly stalks us, and His return could well be imminent. We are commissioned with sharing His love with our families, with our friends, with our co-workers, and even with strangers when given the opportunity. And we need to be about our work as if He could return any moment, because He could, and loved ones might find themselves on the wrong side of judgment that Day.
It is important to remember that judgment is not a bad thing for those who call Him Lord. Those who have accepted HIs offer of grace are judged worthy and taken to the place He has prepared for Him. It is a message of Good News. It is a message of Hope. And, boy, does the world ever need a message of hope. I will say, seldom is the Gospel ever more counter-cultural than what we have experienced these last three days. This Brown-Thursday/Black Friday nonsense has given us pastors tons of low hanging fruit for sermon illustrations, but it is fruit that I think we would all do well to examine, if we are to be heralds of His coming.
God often reminds us that when we create gods who cannot speak or cannot hear, they enslave us. He offers us perfect freedom; yet how often do we choose to be be enslaved? Like the ancient people of Israel during the Exodus, we would often rather be enslaved in certainty than risk the uncertainty of freedom. Is there any better reminder of the slavery which we have created for ourselves than what we have experienced the past couple days? I realize that when Black Friday was coined back in the 1960’s, it was an innocent term. For years, the Friday after Thanksgiving had been considered the official start of the retail Christmas season. That Friday came to be known as the day when retail stores began to make their profit for the year. It meant the stores were moving from the red (losing money) into the black (making money) for the year. To spur purchases, store had great sales. Innocent enough, right?
Look at us now, less than fifty years later. Those of us in retail sales may have been forced to be at work by five o’clock on “Brown Thursday,” what our ancestors called Thanksgiving--you know, that day when we as a nation celebrate God’s provision for us. The lucky ones in retail sales don’t have to be at work until very early on Friday morning. For what?
As I said earlier, this is very low fruit, but sometimes the low fruit needs to be picked. How many people went into this weekend expecting it to be like any Thanksgiving holiday in their past, or any other day in their life, never to see its end or, if they did, to be changed in ways they could not imagine? People were sitting at a pub in that second best land, Scotland, when a helicopter crashed into them. Imagine: you are sitting on a stool drinking a pint with your friends and, boom, it’s over. You’re dead through no real fault of your own. I think I read reports of a trampling and of a heart attack victim being ignored by the press of crowds. Think of the callousness required to trample another human being who has had the misfortune to fall or to ignore someone dying from a heart attack because you “just have to get that deal.” Loving our neighbors as ourselves? Hardly. There were shootings and tasings, if that is the right verb, over sales. The one that most amazed me were the fights over bath towels at Wal-Mart. Really? We need to fight over Wal-Mart bath towels? Truthfully, I could not tell you who makes luxurious bath towels, but I am pretty sure I would not need a life-line to figure out that it is not Wal-Mart. A train crashed killing a number of people. And one story which seems to have grabbed many of your attentions on Facebook is the death of Paul Walker in a car crash. One moment he is living life, getting ready to film Fast & Furious 7, and the next moment his life is over.
Chances are, in the upcoming week if it has not happened already, you and I will be asked what we think about such events. What is your answer? Are you simply content to murmur something impotent about tragedies? Or are you determined, as our Lord instructs, to be ready and to make sure others have the opportunity to be ready? Are you ready to give an account of the peace and joy and power and freedom that is within you? To you has been given incredible power. You have been gifted by the Holy Spirit to share His story of mercy and grace with all whom you encounter. If someone asks you, you have a ready-made opportunity to invite them into Advent. All these illustrations, and there are probably many more that caught your eye, serve as a stark reminder of the message of the world and the enslavement of the idols we create. Better still, they all call to mind the moment of surprise which our Lord describes in our Gospel lesson this day, that moment of surprise when we, mere mortals, come face to face with our Lord and make an accounting of our choices in life! For those who chose the Lord, their deaths, while worthy of mourning, are not tragic. They are already with the Lord and celebrating the very beginning of eternal life with Him. We who proclaim His death and Resurrection until His return know that we will see them again one day.
But what of those who rejected His offer of grace? What of those who wrongly thought they had until “later” to get right with God? Their fate is truly tragic. Salvation was offered and they chose not to embrace it. How many are like them in our lives? How many people do we know who tell us “some day” or “not today” or some other excuse? These stories, in the midst of Advent, when you and I are called to be intentionally urgent in our efforts, serve as illustrative points as to the idols of the world. People lost their lives over things passing away. Is there anything more futile? Is there anything more tragic? Is there any great pall over life?
You and I, though, are called to be heralds of hope in the darkness. As we just lit the candle of hope to begin to drive away the darkness of the world, you and I are called to put on the armor of light and go forth reminding those who ask us that salvation has come near and that Judgment will one day come upon us suddenly. Where people are enslaved, we are called to proclaim His perfect freedom! Where people are buying into a system which enslaves our neighbors, you and I are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and to serve them as He first served us! And where people are caught up in an idolatry that leaves no room for hope and no room for grace, you and I are called to remind the world that Emmanuel has come and will come again to dwell eternally with His people.
Brothers and sisters, we are entrusted with a heady responsibility. We live life in the shadows of the Manger and the Cross and the Empty Tomb. We are all entrusted with Good News for all the world to hear. God has come and dwelt among His people. He died to redeem us from our sins. And He has been raised from the dead to remind us of His power to keep His promises. All of this, though, we must share with urgency. For some of those whom we encounter and even some of us, there may not be a tomorrow. There may not be another chance. And so, impelled by love and by urgency of His surprising return, we are called to share His story of redemption. We are called, each and every one of us, to invite others to that Feast He has prepared for those who love Him. When loving others into His kingdom is our primary and urgent task, we begin to experience those others gifts of which He will remind us this season of Advent. Focusing ourselves on these wonderful opportunities allows us to experience that peace and joy He promises to all who follow Him, even as we serve as a beacon for others to find Him in our lives and in our words.