Waiting for Advent

Matthew 24:36-44
New Hope Fellowship
First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2019
Brent Beasley

This morning is the first Sunday in the season of Advent. The word “advent” means “arrival” or “coming,” and we normally associate it with the coming of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

But Advent also refers to what we sometimes call “the Second Coming of Christ,” and that’s the arrival that is reflected in our scripture this morning.

So when we talk about Advent, we are talking about being ready for the coming of Christ into the world—whether that is in the Baby Jesus or in the Second Coming or anytime in between.

One of my favorite descriptions of the proper “advent attitude” is from Frederick Buechner as he describes that hushed sense of anticipation at the beginning of a play or concert:
The houselights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton . . . you can feel your heart beat . . . The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.
[Whistling In The Dark, p. 2]

Keep awake, Jesus says, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Jesus gives two examples here in our passage of what he’s talking about.

One example is Noah, who is contrasted with everyone else in his surrounding society. In Noah’s day, Jesus says, before the flood came, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Referring to people eating and drinking does not mean they were gluttons and drunkards. It simply means they were going about their normal routines, blissfully unaware of the impending doom.

And people were marrying and giving in marriage; that is, people presumed that there would be a future; they assumed life was going to go on in the future pretty much as it had been in their own experience.

Then the skies darkened and it started to rain. Noah gathered his family into the arc. The flood waters surged, and all but Noah’s family were swept away in a great flood. Noah was ready. Everyone else was not.

It’s hard to miss the point. Jesus is saying, Do not continue living as if your life is just automatically going to go on as it always has, as if God makes no demands on your life, as if something shockingly new or different can’t happen. Do not put off until another day living a Christ-like existence, because it is much closer to midnight than you think. Keep awake, for you do not know what day your Lord is coming.

Keep awake.

The second example Jesus gave is the householder who lacks vigilance in protecting his house. Because he fails to keep watch, the thief is able to break in the plunder his house.

What Noah’s neighbors and this householder have in common is that they were not anticipating anything new happening. They assumed that life was going on as normal. They weren’t aware of any impending crisis, so they were lulled into a false sense of security.

They failed to watch. They failed to keep awake.

We are commanded to be ready. To live as people who know that Jesus could be coming at any moment.

It is hard to imagine the end that all of us, all of this old world, is pointed toward. And Christians who do get excited about the end time, the “rapture,” and all that,
sometimes they seem, well, sort of nutty and
sometimes they don’t appear to care too much about
what happens to God’s children in the here and the
now.

And then there are others of us, and we just don’t think much of it at all, unless we have to. So, instead, like Noah’s neighbors, maybe
we eat and we drink and we diet.
We marry or unmarry or
have kids or don’t.
We work and
we buy and
we build and then
we put in alarm systems to protect all of that and
us from the thief in the night.
And we try to sleep.
[Thanks for this insight to Rev. Martha J. Sterne, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Maryville, TN]

Jesus is talking to all of us who are just going about our business—families, jobs, accumulating stuff—and otherwise oblivious to the bigger picture of what God is doing.

What Jesus is saying to us who don’t normally think about the end of everything is this: Be ready. Watch. Keep awake. Live as people who know that Jesus could be coming at any moment. Be alert.

What does that mean—to live in a constant state of alert? I take that to mean an openness to God everyday—an openness to God who confronts us with
daily calls and
daily opportunities and
daily blessings.

There is an old fable about a far-off land ruled by a tyrant who had an ironclad grip over all parts of his kingdom, except for one frustrating area. He was unable to destroy the people’s belief in God. He summoned his counselors and put the question to them: Where can I hide God so that the people will end up forgetting him?

One counselor suggested that God be hidden on the dark side of the moon. This was debated for some time but voted down because it was believed that one day the wise ones would discover a means of space travel and God would be found again.

Another advisor came up with idea of burying God beneath the depths on the ocean floor. This was voted down for basically the same reason – it was felt that knowledge would lead to the discovery of God even in the deeps.

Finally, the oldest and wisest of the counselors had a flash of insight. I know, he said, why don’t we hide God where no one will ever think of finding him? He explained: If we hide God in the ordinary events of people’s everyday lives they’ll never find him.

And so it was done – and they say that people are still looking for God even today.
[Richard J. Fairchild, Gratitude: A Necessary Attitude.]

To be alert like Jesus is talking about means living with an openness to God who confronts us every day in the ordinary events of everyday life with
calls and
surprises and
opportunities and
blessings.

I love how Tom Long describes this way of looking at our lives:
When tomorrow is just more of today and all labors of love seem poured into a bottomless pit of human suffering, indifference, and cynicism, then it is hard to march out the front door to be a disciple.

In the face of the crushing needs of the world, the only way to preserve hope, the only way to maintain a willing sense of discipleship, is to trust that at any moment we may be surprised by the sudden presence of God…. [W]e may never know when we may encounter the living God waiting for us around the next bend. Indeed, each unexpected meeting, each moment of holy surprise, is but an anticipation of the great climax of all human history and longing.
[Matthew, p. 276]

Wake up. Don’t miss it. Be alert.

God’s coming is always in the form of promise, and it is almost always a surprise. Jesus said, About the day or hour of his coming, no one knows. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour, so be ready.

We don’t know when. And we don’t know exactly what form Jesus’ coming will take. All we know is that God is in fact
coming in a moment of holy surprise,
maybe waiting for us around the next bend.

Advent expectation is about both the certainty and the surprise of God’s coming. Certainty and surprise.

When I was in elementary school, I desperately wanted a parrot or a parakeet or some kind of talking bird. I think it all started with the TV show Baretta.

One year, when my mom had wrapped all the Christmas presents and they were piled up around the tree, there was one large box, probably four or five feet tall, with my name on it. I was fascinated and tantalized by what it might be. I knew it was something great. When you are little, the bigger the box, the better the present. It is only when you get to be an adult when it becomes the smaller the box, the better the present.

One day a couple of weeks before Christmas day, when the whole family was all gathered around the living room and I was doing my usual speculating about my big present, I went over to it, picked it up, and kind of slapped it on the sides with the palms of my hands.

It made this distinctive metal ringing sound. I said, I bet it’s a bird cage. And when I said it, everyone got quiet. And I could tell, despite their denials, that that was exactly what it was. I had guessed it.

And you know what, it kind of ruined it. I mean, I was glad to be getting a bird cage for what would turn out to be a parakeet, but it kind of ruined it once I knew. It was actually much more fun anticipating it when I knew I had a big present but couldn’t guess what it was.

The best Christmases I have known were the ones I really believed I was going to get something great, but I did not know exactly what it would be. That perspective, what John Claypool once called “certain uncertainty,” is what makes Christmas exciting, and that certain uncertainty can be our approach, not just to Christmas, but to all of life.
[“The Power of Expectation,” December 11, 1977, Northminster Baptist Church, Jackson, Mississippi]

Who knows what God has yet to give us and make of us if we can learn to open up to the future in hope and expectation with that kind of certain uncertainty?

One year at Broadway we started holding a vespers service on Wednesday nights in the chapel, and it became a meaningful time for a lot of us. We closed the vespers service each week with a hymn that has a familiar tune but maybe the words were new to a lot of us. Those words express
such a profound hope,
the kind of expectant hope that sounds like
optimism but is so much more than that,
the kind of certain uncertainty we’re talking about here, that the words became very important to me.

I haven’t sung those words in 3 or 4 years now, and rereading them yesterday thinking about this sermon, they still speak to me. Every time we would sing that hymn I would think, These are words to cling to.

The hymn is called, “Through the Love of God our Saviour.”
Through the love of God our Saviour,
All will be well,
Free and changeless is His favour;
All, all is well.
Precious is the blood that healed us,
Perfect is the grace that sealed us,
Strong the hand stretched forth to shield us,
All must be well.

Though we pass through tribulation.
All will be well,
Ours is such a full salvation;
All, all is well.
Happy, still in God confiding,
Fruitful, if in Christ abiding,
Holy, through the Spirit’s guiding,
All must be well.

We expect a bright to-morrow;
All will be well,
Faith can sing through days of sorrow,
All, all is well.
On our Father’s love relying,
Christ our every need supplying,
Whether living now, or dying,
All must be well.

We don’t know when. And we don’t know exactly what form Jesus’ coming will take. All we know is that God is in fact
coming in a moment of holy surprise,
maybe waiting for us around the next bend.

Jamie went shopping in Canton on Friday, and she came home with some Christmas decorations for our house. One of the things she got is a framed sign. It’s just a simple wood frame. And it says eight simple words in simple block lettering:
A THRILL
OF HOPE
A WEARY
WORLD
REJOICES

I don’t know when. I don’t know exactly what. But I couldn’t be more certain.

A thrill of hope.

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