Thank you, Father Madsen, for inviting me to be with you and to preach. I love being with this active and conscientious and hopeful congregation. I’ve taken a preaching class since I preached here a couple years ago and I learned that the secret to a good sermon is to have a good beginning, a good ending and to have those two as close together as possible! So we will try to do that.
A Sunday school teacher asked the children just before she dismissed them to go to church, “And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?” Little Jorge replied, “Because people are sleeping.”
Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent and Jesus exhorts us NOT to be sleeping! He tells us to Wake up and Be Ready! The Lord is Coming. “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep!” “Let us walk in the light!” says Isaiah. “Let us go to the house of the Lord” says the Psalmist.
But we won’t know the day. We won’t know the hour. We might be left behind. We must be vigilant! Keep watch. Live honorably. Put on the armor of light.
So we are supposed to be awake, but, let’s be honest: it’s exhausting to be on watch every day all day, especially during the busy season of shopping, cooking, parties, and all the holiday activities. How is this passage from Matthew good news?
It’s good news because it’s an insight into how God is. You never know when or how God is going to show up in your life so you must be ready all the time. It’s not a readiness for the season of shopping. It’s a nurtured tenderness in our hearts, a willingness to listen to that still, small voice, and to risk following it with words and deeds. To be ready for Christ, we must beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We must make peace in our families, congregations, workplaces, schools in order to have peace in our world. Let peace begin with me.
Remember God is sneaky. God doesn’t show up with a booming voice from heaven and flashing neon lights. God comes into our lives in ways we least expect it. Maybe this Advent, God will come to you from a coworker you’ve had a disagreement with. Or from an estranged family member. Or from a complete stranger on the bus. Your job is to be ready to listen. God give us ears to hear and eyes to see you at work in our lives.
There is an amazing athlete named Juliet Starrett. She is a two-time extreme whitewater canoe champion. She is also a lawyer and a survivor of cancer. A few years ago Juliet was canoeing through the Zambezi River in Eastern Africa. It was on that trip that her canoe was disturbed by a hippopotamus. Not so much disturbed as exploded. The way that Juliet tells it, she was paddling along one second and the next she was ten feet in the air above the water. She says that she looked down and saw the chomping jaws of the hippo turning her performance canoe into splinters. While in the air, Juliet says that she spotted the nearest shore and began swimming – while in the air! She was swimming in mid-air!
That kind of thinking while in the midst of a disorienting and dangerous tragedy, that cool appraisal of the situation and the prioritization of survival, that kind of thinking demonstrates what is sometimes called the “ready-state.”
That’s the kind of state that Jesus wants us to be in. Every day. He wants us to know that salvation is near. He wants us to know it so much that we beat our spears into plowshares! He wants us to put on that armor of light and to walk in the light of the Lord!
How are you in a ready-state for recognizing God in your life? It takes work. It takes active engagement with the life that is swirling all around you all the time.
I’ve recently been enthralled by this concept of life and death as the ancient Israelites experience it. They did not perceive life and death as two linear states, one after the other, death after life. Rather, life is a state of being and death is a state of being in our present reality now. Consider these passages from Proverbs and listen to how life and death are described.
“Death and Life are in the power of the Tongue.” Proverbs tells us. (18:21)
“In the path of righteousness there is life, in walking its path there is no death.” (12:28)
“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, so that one may avoid the snares of death.” (13:14).
So you see, when the Israelites wrote about dying and living, they meant those concepts as active states. They’re both present realities in our lives all the time. Life and Death are two states of being. It’s not that you’re alive now and then you’ll be dead. It’s that you are making choices now that lead you into a state of greater life or into a state of heavier death.
You can be physically wasting away, your body can be dying and yet you can be very, very alive. I think of Joy, who died recently, and how her body may have been shutting down on her, but she was enlivened by her work with refugees and families in need. She knew what it meant to live.
Conversely, you can be alive and breathing and physically here but be dying in all sorts of ways. You can be operating your life on auto-pilot, not really aware of the people around you and their stories, their hurts and pains, their joys. You can be focused on the lies of the world that tell you the most important things are things! You can be immune to the beauty that surrounds us every day in God’s beautiful sunsets and sunrises. You can be glued to the television, or the Internet, drinking in every comment made by every political pundit. Those are all ways of Death.
Life and Death are ongoing, present modes of being. They are not static, fixed categories.
Jesus said “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” He’s talking about entering into something that is available to you right now. He wants us to learn how to enter into the fullness of life right now. The question is not: Is there life after death? It’s: Is there life before death?
So in today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling us, “You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” You can’t be in a state of death and be vigilant and ready for the Son of Man. You can’t be ho-hum, just existing, on auto-pilot, and expect to witness the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
And so I want to challenge you: How are you awake to the Life that is all around you? How are you in a ready-state for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom?
Let us pray: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that we may rise to life every moment of every day through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
First Sunday of Advent