(Sermon for November 30, 2008 || Advent 1, Year B RCL || Mark 13:24-27; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9)
At the end of this sermon, I’m going to explain why the phrase “O come O come Emmanuel” is a funny phrase. But first, I want to talk about my parents’ crèche.
During the season of Advent when I was growing up, my family placed a beautiful Nativity scene on the shelf above the TV. The wooden stable had a bark and moss covered roof, above which we suspended angels on fishing line. Inside the stable, a bearded Joseph leaned heavily on a staff and a kneeling Mary pondered things in her heart, while a donkey and a cow looked on. Outside the stable, a pair of shepherds, a woman balancing a jug of water, and assorted townsfolk queued up like bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding photo. Each character was transfixed by something going on at the center of the stable, something that was obviously important if the painted expressions on their faces could be believed. The trouble was that nothing was going on at the center of the stable. An unassuming manger stood in between Mary and Joseph, who stared lovingly down into the empty box.
You see, we waited until Christmas Eve to place the baby Jesus in the manger. (Confidentially, we hid him on the shelf behind the stable until our plastic Mary came to full term.) So, for the entire month of December, our crèche was incomplete. As a child, I might have laughed at the incongruity of the scene if I had known any other Advent tradition. Jesus hadn’t come yet, but the fishing line angels were already fingering their harps, the shepherds were already choosing which lamb to present, and the cattle were already lowing (whatever lowing is).
Without Jesus in the manger, none of these activities made sense. But putting the babe away in that manger a month before Christmas removed the period of expectant waiting that Advent is all about. This is the tension we acknowledge during these next four weeks. By preparing to celebrate Jesus’ Incarnation, we are also preparing for his second coming. To be able to come again, he had to leave. But even as we prepare for his coming again, we remember that Christ abides with us even now in the present.
This incongruity is quite confusing. How can Jesus be coming again and abiding with us at the same time? This makes no sense. If I say I’m going to the kitchen to make a sandwich, I can’t watch football on the couch in the living room at the same time. (I can, of course, pause the football game with the wonderful invention of DVR, but that’s beside the point.)
I can either make a sandwich or watch football. We are used to our world working in this either/or way. We exist in time and space. At this moment in time and at this place in space, I exist in this pulpit talking to you. I can neither make sandwiches nor watch football right here right now. Indeed, many years ago I gave up praying for the ability to teleport and succumbed to the reality of our either/or world.
But we get so caught up in “how things are for us” that we forget God lives outside and above and throughout this reality. We are bound by our either/or perceptions. Our God lives an expansive both/and kind of existence. Both three persons and One God? Yes. Both fully human and fully divine? You bet. Both coming again and abiding with us still? No problem.
The problem comes when we, in all our haste and distraction and busy work, forget that Christ abides with us still. Acknowledging the promise of “coming again” is much easier for us because it takes place in some amorphous future. Now, we humans have developed an awful routine of sloughing the future off on those people who will be alive in the future. This routine has spawned the byproduct of ignoring the consequences of our actions for those unfortunate future people. If we can push those consequences off into an amorphous future, surely we can install Jesus’ second coming there, too.
But when Jesus warns his disciples to “keep alert” and to “keep awake,” he reminds them that the future has a persistent habit of becoming the present. On some day that only the Father knows the Son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory. At some hour the master of the house will come, says Jesus. Don’t let the vague obscurity of the future lull you to sleep or you will miss the promise fulfilled in the present.
The Apostle Paul is aware that there are numerous sleepy followers of Christ in Corinth, the city to which Paul addressed this morning’s lesson. He reminds the Corinthians of Jesus’ promise to come again when he mentions “wait[ing] for the revealing of our Lord Jesus” and being “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the same breath that he speaks about the future, Paul also focuses on how Jesus Christ abides with the Corinthians and impacts their lives in the present. Christ has given them the “grace of God.” They have been “enriched in him in speech and knowledge of every kind.” They are “not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Christ will “strengthen” them even as they wait for the day of his revealing.
With these words, Paul teaches us that the best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is to realize that Christ continues to grace and enrich and strengthen us even now. Forgetting that Christ is present in our lives feeds the delusion that the future happens only to people yet unborn. On the other hand, setting all our desire on Jesus’ coming again blinds us to the presence of Christ in our midst. Thus, we can’t afford to let our either/or world dictate to which alternative we will subscribe. Only by keeping awake to the presence of Christ in our lives today will we be able to keep alert for the coming of Christ tomorrow.
When we come to the altar in a few minutes, we will share that presence of Christ in our midst. We will be nourished in the breaking of the bread and strengthened to go out and enrich the lives of all we meet. We will be given the opportunity to let our haste and distraction and busy work fall away, and for one shimmering moment, we will remember that the grace of God weaves our lives together. And as the body and blood of Christ fills us, the master of our internal houses will wake us up and set us by the door to watch for his coming again.
Okay, I promised that I would explain why the phrase “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is a funny one. Well, “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” So, when we chant that hauntingly beautiful melody, we are saying: “O come someone who is already here.” No matter how nonsensical our either/or world says this line of reasoning is, we still pray for “God with us” to come to us. By asking us to believe that Christ will come again even as Christ abides here, God invites us to join God in a moment of sweeping both/and reality. During the season of Advent, we cultivate the hope for this expansive existence. At the same time, God jostles our faith to make sure both our presents and our futures are full of the love of God. Keep alert for the coming of Emmanuel. And keep awake for the joy of God with us.