Keep Alert!

After months of what our calendar calls Ordinary Time, we’re ready for Advent, a season of celebrating the birth of Jesus and honoring the baby lying the manger, of hanging up our red and green decorations and singing carols. The neighborhood yards are full of lights, trees, snowmen, Santa Clauses and reindeer. From our third story apartment, we can see the drive-through lighted display at Water World flashing away. Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some stores offered Black Friday deals in October this year.
We want to get on with the joyful party. Like little kids gleefully circling what they want in mail order catalogs, we’re ready to shop for the presents and decorate the tree.
So why does the Lectionary for the first Sunday of Advent remind us that Jesus said to be ready for his return? It seems jarring. After waiting this long, we are as used to waiting as the Jews were used to waiting for the Messiah. Hundreds of years. It might happen this year, but it’s hard to believe.
Christians sets aside four weeks at the beginning of the church year for the season called Advent – which means “The Coming.” This being the first Sunday of Advent might lead us to expect to hear about shepherds and wise men. Instead, the lectionary quotes Jesus about the end times. Christ talked in this passage from Matthew about three scenarios: the story of Noah, when all but the people God saved were suddenly drowned in an epic flood; Christ’s own return; and how you would stay awake at night if you knew a thief was coming to break into your house.
The point is that we are supposed to get ready for Christmas by preparing our hearts for a larger idea, the next Coming, the return of Christ. Jesus isn’t just being remembered for being born to a virgin  and laid in a feeding trough full of hay. He didn’t come just once, then die like any normal human. He suffered and died in our place, then he rose from the dead! Without Easter, Christmas would have no meaning.  And He’s coming again. Only God knows exactly when that will happen.
We like to think we have life figured out most of the time, that we’re in control. We like life to be predictable. Imagine you’ve decided to give a Christmas party and, while you’re doing the last-minute preparations, your guests start showing up an hour early. Even if your house looked great, even if the food was all set out, you might still need to change your clothes, and you’d certainly be embarrassed to be caught off guard.
Speaking of being caught off guard, here's a story from a devotional called Today in the Word.
“During the Revolutionary War, a loyalist spy appeared at the headquarters of Hessian commander Colonel Johann Rall, carrying an urgent message. General George Washington and his Continental army had secretly crossed the Delaware River that morning and were advancing on Trenton, New Jersey where the Hessians were encamped. The spy was denied an audience with the commander and instead wrote his message on a piece of paper. A porter took the note to the Hessian colonel, but because Rall was involved in a poker game he stuffed the unread note into his pocket. When the guards at the Hessian camp began firing their muskets in a futile attempt to stop Washington's army, Rall was still playing cards.” He was literally caught “off guard.” “Without time to organize, the Hessian army was captured. The battle occurred the day after Christmas, 1776, giving the colonists a late present--their first major victory of the war.”
Matthew wrote his gospel in about the year 85. The Christian community, based on Jesus’ words, had thought that “the kingdom of God was at hand.” The Romans would be evicted from Jerusalem, the world would come to know Jesus, and everything would be great!
But then other Jews, the people some of them had always worshiped with, started to call the Christians heretics and blasphemers and kicked them out of the synagogues. Roman officials persecuted and tortured them. Some of them died. They didn’t expect that to happen before the Apocalypse, which means the Revelation, the time of Christ’s glorious return. The new Christians began to doubt Paul and the other leaders, to question their faith in what they’d been told. Their hearts weren’t right. Some of their lives were a mess. They were deeply discouraged.
So Matthew made sure to include these words of Jesus to reassure them that their suffering had meaning, that there was a purpose in what was going on. Keep alert and watch for the evidence of Jesus’ return. Hold on to hope. Don’t waste time trying to figure out when it will happen. Trust God and wait with patience, hope, and faith.
The people in Noah’s time didn’t really believe that God would send a flood because they took God for granted, didn’t integrate what they knew about God into their daily lives. They wanted to be independent, to treat following God as optional. I’m guessing at least some of them decided to cry out to God as the waters covered their heads. Some people change their ways when they see the light, others only when they feel the heat.
If you knew found out today that Jesus was coming tomorrow, knew that the Guest with a capital “G” was arriving earlier than you might have anticipated to the banquet, would you feel caught off guard like when your party guests arrived early? How would you know you were ready? Would you start cramming in Bible lessons like a student facing final exams? Would you try to make amends with everyone you’ve had a quarrel with during your life? While Bible study is a great practice and treating others with grace and asking for their forgiveness is important, those aren’t the kinds of readiness we’re talking about.
Keeping alert is about maintaining our personal relationships with God, our faith that God is with us, leading and guiding us through the Holy Spirit. Our lives are best when we incorporate what we know about God into how we live, our prayers, our works and our faith going hand in hand. It’s about using this day and every day to remind ourselves that God loves us and will forgive any sins we think we’re keeping to ourselves, imagining that we could keep them secret from God. It’s about trusting God with every tiny detail of our lives, even when we’re feeling embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed. It’s trusting God to forgive and love us no matter what we’ve done. It’s our gratitude for this grace that keeps us wanting to do God’s will. We can chose to live with and for God.
Paul talked about darkness and light as an analogy for Christ’s Second Coming in today’s second lesson, how the night is nearly over and the day is near. As we experience the days growing shorter and the nights stretching out as we approach Christmas, the increased darkness can feel depressing. In our culture, at least, sunlight is something we associate with feeling happy, while darkness can feel frightening, especially if one doesn’t feel completely safe.
Paul also associated darkness with sin, as in the works of darkness. We are to wake up, take off the nightclothes of ignorance and sin, then put on the armor of light. To live honorably in the day is to get up, keep alert, keep our hope, and keep the faith while avoiding behavior that could be distracting or harmful.
Keeping alert is also about loving and forgiving our neighbors as we love and forgive ourselves. It’s about participating, volunteering, say, to be on a committee at St. Andrew before you’re asked, doing something God has gifted you to do. We need more people to actively help, not just pledge and show up on Sunday. Many hands make the work manageable. Your time and talents make it possible for us to work as a team and make a positive difference that will permeate this community with the love of God.
It's a bit like a piano that resonates as God plays it, with each of us being one string. A piano has be tuned regularly to make the harmonious music it’s designed to produce under the master’s hand. When we allow God to tune us with grace and Holy Spirit power, we can work together to make music for God and for those around us to hear that in turn makes everyone’s lives brighter and more joyful than they would be otherwise. That’s being ready. That’s keeping alert.
lt’s about believing that we will be with God no matter when Jesus comes, knowing in the depths of our souls that we cannot be left behind. That gives us courage and strength to be part of the bigger picture, to work for God’s kingdom even as we wait for Jesus’ return, saying, “Come, Lord Jesus.” And all God’s people said, Amen.

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