Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2016 || Advent 1A || Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14
At the end of this sermon, remind me to tell you why “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” is a funny thing to say. I’ll get to that in a few minutes, but first I want to tell you about my parents’ Nativity scene.
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 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 season of Advent, our Nativity scene 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? That doesn’t make a lick of sense. If I say I’m going to make an apple pie in the kitchen, I can’t watch a movie in the living room at the same time.
I can either make a pie or watch a movie. We are used to our world working in this either/or way. But we get so caught up in “how things are for us” that we forget God lives outside and above and throughout this reality. While 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 vague and nebulous future. Now, we humans have developed an awful routine of sloughing the future off on those people who will be alive when it happens. This routine has spawned the byproduct of ignoring the consequences of our actions for those unfortunate future people. If we can push consequences off into a nebulous future, surely we can install Jesus’ second coming there, too.
But when Jesus warns his disciples 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 again. At an uncertain hour, the thief will break into the house, so be ready, 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 acknowledges this in-between-ness, in which we exist, this place of future hope meeting present reality. He says to the church in Rome: “The night is far gone, the day is near.” The darkness is past, but the sun has yet to rise. We live in the expectant grayness of predawn possibility where both night and day coexist. Both/and.
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 our choosing one alternative over the other. We must choose both in order to enter an Advent frame of mind and heart. We stay awake to the presence of Christ in our lives today so we will be able to keep our eyes open for the coming of Christ tomorrow.
When we come to the altar in a few minutes, we will practice sharing the presence of Christ in our midst. The Body and Blood of Christ will nourish us, reminding us that Christ is here. We are with Christ in this place. Then we will go out to love and serve, strengthened to enrich the lives of all we meet, energized to bear witness to Christ’s presence breaking through in new ways. And if that’s not reminder enough, then at the baptism in a few minutes, we will remember that we are marked as Christ’s own forever – from before time and into eternity. This is the truth in the past, present, and future. This truth will help us relinquish our haste and distraction and busy work, and for one shimmering moment, we will wake from our slumber and see the coming kingdom of God in the face of an infant being welcomed into the kingdom.
Okay, I promised that I would explain why the phrase “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is a funny one. “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. That’s our Advent way of life. By asking us to believe Christ will come again even as Christ abides here, God invites us to join God in a moment of sweeping both/and reality. This Advent, I invite you to join me in living our lives in God’s both/and world and discovering the grace-filled expansion of our hearts and minds such living brings.