(A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent based on Romans 13:11-14 & Matthew 24:36-44)
This is the time of year when lots of house cleaning goes on because we know that people are coming. Family members are coming for the family gatherings, co-workers and friends and neighbors are coming for the parties—we expect them and so we’re getting ready for them. Everything will be just so…because we expect company.
But what about September 13th around 5:30 in the evening when someone—say your mother-in-law—shows up at your house unexpectedly? Things won’t likely be in the same kind of order because (a) there is nothing special about September 13th (unless it happens to be your birthday) and (b) you didn’t expect guests.
So why don’t we keep our houses clean and in order all the time? There can be many reasons. Perhaps we are quite busy, for example. Or perhaps we are quite lazy. Or perhaps having the house in good shape for our own sake doesn’t seem as important as having it in shape for the sake of someone else’s approval.
Life might be a little easier, though, if we worked all along at keeping the place in order rather than having to work ourselves into a tizzy this afternoon because we know that somebody is coming over tonight. Still, though, how much incentive to keep things straight could we keep mustered up if we expected someone to come but they didn’t show up for days, for weeks—even for years?
Are you keeping your house—your life—ready for the Savior to come? Are you taking seriously the claim that Jesus has on your life? Are you praying at set times and all the time? Are you reading your Bible at are set times and allowing it to form you in the ways you think and feel and talk and act all the time? Are you developing an awareness of the presence of the Spirit of God in your life by listening to the Spirit at set times of contemplation as well as practicing listening to the Spirit as you go about your daily life? [Cf. Martha A. Dimmers, “Pastoral Implications: Matthew 24:36-44,” Lectionary Homiletics(October/November 2010), p. 72]
“It would help,” you might say, “if we knew exactly when Jesus was going to come back. I mean, if we knew exactly when he was coming we’d certainly get ready”—by which we mean, of course, that we’d get ready at the last minute and do whatever we want in the meantime. It’s kind of like saying “I wish I knew exactly when I was going to die so I’d be sure to get my life in order just in the nick of time.”
Well, with all due respect—good luck with that.
On the one hand, Paul said to the Christians in Rome, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:11-12b). While Paul, at least at that point in his life, seemed to expect a rather soon return of Jesus, all he really said was that it’s later than it’s ever been and given that fact it behooved the Roman Christians to wake up and get about the business of being real disciples of Jesus. Of course, some folks, whether meaning well or just meaning to sell lots of books and movies, are all too willing to be more precise than Paul or even than Jesus when it comes to predicting the return of the Lord. Let’s never forget that, on the other hand, Jesus Christ himself, the One whose return it is, after all, that we anticipate, said, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
You have to wonder about people who claim to know more than Jesus knows and about those who are gullible enough to listen to them.
Hear these facts that we need to keep in our minds and in our hearts and in our lives:
1. What was=the Savior did come to the manger of Bethlehem all those years ago and did live a life of perfect obedience to his Father and he did die on the cross for our sins and he did rise from the tomb on the third day.
2. What will be=the Savior will come again to bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God and when he comes there will be, by God’s perfect grace and love and justice, a sorting and a sifting of people.
3. What is=the Savior expects his followers to be living their lives in ways that exhibit faithfulness to him and a commitment to live our lives in ways that bear effective and accurate witness to him.
It is in the “what is” that we are living; that’s where our responsibility lies; that’s where our faithfulness is lived out. We certainly celebrate and live our lives in light of the great “what was” of Jesus’ first coming through his birth and we certainly anticipate and live our lives in light of the great “what will be” of Jesus’ second coming at some unknown point in the future. But we live and work and play—and either follow or don’t follow Jesus and either worship or don’t worship God and either love and serve or don’t love and serve people—in the great “what is,” in the here and now.
Besides, another aspect of “what is” is that Jesus still comes to us, usually in small and quiet ways, here and now. It is not enough—in fact, it may be an avoidance of the hard and real and meaningful living of the Christian life—if we just look back to the “big event” of the birth of Jesus and then look ahead to the “big event” of the return of Jesus. I’m reminded of the preacher who, on Easter Sunday morning, said “I’d like to wish ‘Merry Christmas’ to all of you that we won’t see again until then.”
Maybe we see modern-day symptoms of the spiritual ailment that sees good only in the big when folks seem to live from one event—one conference or revival or spiritual high (even one in a regular Sunday morning worship service)—to the next [Cf. what Eugene Peterson says about the “tourist mindset” in modern religion in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, 20th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 16]. Such things are good when God gives them to us—the first and second comings of Jesus Christ are certainly to be celebrated and anticipated, respectively, and a “big event” experience that is helpful is certainly to be celebrated—but again, Jesus still comes. He comes to us right now. He comes to us right here. He comes to us in the day-to-day experiences of life.
He comes to us at 9:32 on a random Thursday morning just as surely as he came in his humble birth and as he will come in his glorious return.
You just have to look for him.
Where do we look? We get at least one good answer—an answer from Jesus himself—in the very next chapter of Matthew, in words that are part of this same long discourse of Jesus [I was pointed in this direction by David L. Bartlett, “Matthew 24:36-44: Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p. 24]. In that next chapter Jesus talks about the judgment that will take place when he does come back and he tells the “righteous” that they can enter into eternal life because they saw Jesus hungry and fed him, they saw Jesus thirsty and gave him something to drink, they saw Jesus a stranger and welcomed him, they saw Jesus naked and clothed him, they saw Jesus sick and took care of him, and they saw Jesus in prison and visited him. The righteous wanted to know when they had seen him and when they had done such things for him. He replied, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). The opposite was true of the unrighteous and they are sent into eternal punishment.
Listen very carefully again to what Jesus said: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”
So how do we, as Paul told us to do, “Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12b) and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14)? How do we, as Jesus told us to do, “keep awake” (Matthew 24:42) and “be ready” (Matthew 24:44)? Well, we do the hard and necessary and non-exotic and ordinary and routine day to day living of the Christian life that looks for Jesus in prayer, in Scripture, in the Spirit…and in other people, particularly those in need.
Jesus has come.
Jesus will come.
Jesus comes right here and right now.
Look around you. Do you see him? And what will you do with him?