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.
I first posted this Advent reflection on the site Day1.org, which is having a Advent/Christmas Blog tour.
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On Tuesday afternoon, I contracted a viral infection that systematically began evacuating the contents of my stomach, intestines, gall bladder, and liver as quickly as possible. Every half hour I scurried from my fetal position on the couch back to the restroom where I’m sure the neighbors and the folks in the next county could hear my wretched retching. After about four hours of agony, my fiancé finally convinced me to go to the Emergency Room. Severely dehydrated, I accomplished the weak-kneed feat of maneuvering down the stairwell and out to the car, all the while clutching a white, plastic wastebasket like a shipwreck survivor clinging to a life preserver.
With my fiancé supporting me, I stumbled into the ER at about eleven at night. The woman behind the counter took my information and fitted me with a bar-coded bracelet. Another woman took my vital signs and then told me to take a seat in the waiting area. I don’t know how long we waited. My sense of time was reduced to half-hourly dashes to the restroom followed by several, sweat-drenched minutes sitting on the tile floor heaving with exhaustion. Sometime after my fourth trip to the restroom, a nurse mercifully called me back. I sat in a wheelchair as an orderly navigated me to a bed in the hallway of the overcrowded emergency department.
The nurse poked an IV tube into the back of my right hand and fed into my bloodstream the same anti-nausea medicine they give to chemotherapy patients. Then she hooked up a bag of saline, and I watched through half-lidded eyes as the saline began dripping from its elevated place into the tube. My fiancé read the words on the machine to me: 500 milliliters per hour. The equipment was making the saline drip at a proscribed rate – the bag would be empty in two hours. With the anti-nausea medicine suppressing my urge, I now had a new way to measure the time.
One empty bag of saline later, I was showing marked improvement. A little color had returned to my cheeks, and I was thirstier than I had ever been. The nurse allowed me ice chips and promised a popsicle later on if I continued to feel better. I crunched down a Styrofoam cup’s worth of ice and then collapsed back on the bed in the hallway. While I sucked on the ice chips, the nurse hung another bag of saline, and sped up the distribution of the liquid into my body. Now I was receiving 1000 milliliters an hour, or one full bag.
A second empty bag of saline later, I received the promised popsicle, and my fiancé correctly guessed the punch line to the truly horrendous joke stamped on the popsicle stick (How does thread get to school? On a spool bus). After I finished the popsicle, the nurse propped me back in the wheelchair for a ride to the radiology department for a chest x-ray. The doctor wanted to make sure that my gastric pyrotechnics hadn’t torn my esophagus. The short trip wore me out, and I dozed off and on through my third bag of saline, also pushed into me at 1000 milliliters an hour.
By the end of bag three, I just wanted to go home and crawl into my own bed away from the bright fluorescence and constant beeps and blips of the ER. My doctor had other plans, however, and instructed the nurse to hang a fourth bag of saline. This time, she turned off the machine controlling the dispersal of the IV into my arm. The bag would finish not in one hour or two like the other bags, which were “pushed” into me, but at the undefined rate of gravity.
I knew that eventually the fourth bag of saline would empty. I knew that I would be allowed out of the ER for the blissful comfort of my own bed and sleep uninterrupted by illness or beeping monitors. I just didn’t know when. This is the same quandary that the season of Advent invites us to explore. We don’t know when Jesus will return, but we know that he will return. Now, we live in a culture dependent on the constant, steady, and unwavering march of time. We punch in time cards at work. The train leaves the station at 7:12 sharp. The firm expects so many billable hours. Time is money. So when Jesus himself says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,* but only the Father,” his words run smack into our conception of time. How could we not know when something will happen? How could we not know when to begin our preparation for the big day?
By not putting a date and time on his return, Jesus pushes us to celebrate the much more important fact that his return will happen. He understands human nature too well. By initiating the expectation of return without a time frame, he delivers us the perfect set of variables to make us practice constant vigilance. When I knew the saline bag would run out in one hour, I had no need to watch it. The 1000 milliliters ticked by one after another in predictable, rhythmic progression. But when the nurse turned off the machine during the fourth saline bag, I had to keep looking up at it to see how quickly gravity was doing its work.
I knew the bag would empty, but I wanted to be sure I knew exactly when those last drops would fall so that I could leave the hospital. In the same way, during the season of Advent, we practice our awareness of God’s presence in our lives so that we can more readily identify the signs of Christ’s reign breaking into the world. During the season of Advent, I invite you to turn off the machines that push the IV. Let gravity take over. Know that the “when” is less important than the “what.” Jesus is coming; indeed, Jesus is always here, as well. When we worry less about the when, we can begin to see the presence of God happening all around us. So turn off your clocks. Forget marking off days in your Advent calendar. And just live with the grace-filled knowledge that Christ is coming.
(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.