November 30, 2014, Advent 1 – Lo! He Comes!
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It’s the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the shopping season is now in full swing. And the world would like to sell you a bill of goods. The world would like to offer you the Hallmark Channel life, where everything is pretty and clean and everyone is well-groomed, where problems have an easy and predictable solution, with just a little shedding of tears to make you feel good. And while you’re at it, the world would like to throw in a little Pinterest, just in time for the holidays, a generous sprinkling of creative glitz and glamour. Then, of course, the world would like to satisfy all your appetites with the best of everything – because you deserve the best – the best foods, the best drinks, the finest entertainment, and the most comfortable surroundings.
Just turn on your TV or your computer, just walk through any store, and the world has exactly what you need. The world would like you to buy the whole package deal at an affordable price. Because the world would like you to believe that’s all you’re getting – you only go around once, like the beer commercial told you, so you’ve got to grab for all the gusto you can. So come on, take it all home, put your feet up, lie back, and relax.
But through the soothing, seductive tones of the world cuts a clear voice of warning: Watch! Keep awake! The Master is coming, and you don’t know when the appointed time will be. Be ready! Stay awake!
Mankind finds itself in a dicey situation like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, when she was getting drowsier and drowsier, and about to fall asleep, in the lovely poppy field that the Wicked Witch planted to trap her. If Dorothy hadn’t waked up and gotten out of there she’d have been lost there forever and never have gotten back to Kansas and home and the people she loved. And just like the Wicked Witch of the West, the world would very much like to lull us to sleep, filling our minds and bodies and hearts with its empty and artificial promises so that we are caught completely unprepared for the most important moment in our lives.
Today we begin the season of Advent once again, as we have done year after year after year. We light the Advent wreath, one candle at a time, the same as we have always done. We sing the same Advent hymns as we have always sung, “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Come, thou Long Expected Jesus” and “Lo, he comes, with clouds descending”. And the call of Advent to us is the same: Stay awake! Because he is coming! We need to be reminded, over and over again, of the truth that the false charms of the world would very much like us to forget: that life as we know it is not all there is, and that the appointed time of God’s return is coming when we least expect it. Today or tomorrow, next week or next year, but certainly and without fail, we will find ourselves face to face with our Master. And we need to be ready.
I’ve been talking a lot lately about the importance of the way we live day by day; that it matters what we do, it matters how we treat our brothers and sisters, it matters how we use the things of this world; it matters how we live. It matters how we live, not because we are saved by our own good works, but because the Creator loves his creation so much that he became a part of it, and he cares deeply about even the very least of his creatures, and he desires us, his children, to care about these as he does. And it matters how we live, because when the Father brings us home we will have to account for what we have made of the abundant life he has given us.
When that time comes, it will matter very little – or not at all – how great we look or how much we have in our 401K or how much our house looks like a picture out of Better Homes and Gardens. But it will matter very much that we gave our employee a day off when her child was sick, or that we gave the homeless man on the corner that last $5 we had in our pocket, or that we cared for our mother day after day when she had Alzheimer’s and didn’t even know us anymore. It will matter that we lived our lives wide awake to the need and suffering of the people around us. It will matter that we wept with those who wept when we would much rather have stayed comfortably far from them. It will matter that we rejoiced with those who were rejoicing when we were tempted to envy them their joy. It will matter that we gave thanks to God for the good in our lives. And it will matter that we brought our worst failures of judgment and our most stupid and disgraceful choices to him in repentance.
When I was a very young wife and new mother, Carroll’s Aunt Gladys came all the way from Texas to visit us in our little apartment in downtown St. Louis. And as ready as I tried to be for that visit, I felt like I was pretty much doomed to failure right from the start. Nothing was clean enough. She went around with a spray bottle of Lysol in one hand and a cleaning rag in the other, and she was sure that our cats were going to be the death of Emily. She may not have been quite as terrifying as I remember her, and I am sure that she probably meant to be helpful, but it was very traumatic for me.
I mention that experience because I think sometimes the error we fall into when we are trying to be ready for the return of the Master is that we feel we are preparing for the invasion of the Maiden Aunt, that scary person who is going to inspect everything we’ve ever done with a white glove and a beady eye. And we are tempted to think that when Jesus tells us “Keep awake!” he is warning us that we are going to really catch it if we haven’t lived up to his expectations.
But the truth – the real, honest truth – is that you are called to be alert, and to keep awake, to be on your toes and on your best behavior, because you are preparing for the most unthinkably joyous of events, the coming of the One who loves you more than his own life, the coming of the One whose presence will mean the end at last of all sorrow and pain and darkness. Think of the images God uses for his homecoming all through the Scriptures: the coming of the longed-for season of harvest and plenty, the eagerly awaited arrival of the bridegroom to the feast, the end at last of the pains of childbirth and the appearance of new life. Those are images of the most joyous kinds of human expectation. Jesus tells us Stay awake! But not like the fearful young wife scrubbing the floors and polishing the silver in dread of being inspected and found wanting – stay awake like the young bride attending carefully to every detail of her hair and makeup and gown, trembling in joyful expectation of her husband’s great pleasure and delight. John wrote this in his Revelation about the end of all things:
“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” It matters how we live and what we do, because every act of love, every good thing we do – even as small an act as giving a cup of cold water to one thirsty person – by the grace of God all those things are our fine linen, bright and pure, making us more beautiful in the eyes of our Beloved, who is surely coming.
The season of Advent reminds us of what we need to remember in every season: Stay awake! Don’t grow weary and give up hope! Because we are going to come face to face with Love himself, at a time not even the angels in heaven know. Jesus has told us that we will surely see him when he comes again, at the end of all things,
when the sun is darkened,
and the moon no longer gives its light,
- when the stars fall out of heaven,
- and every power in the heavens is shaken –
- and `the Son of Man comes in clouds’ with great power and glory.
But many of us – maybe every one of us – will see our Lord even sooner, at the close of our own earthly lives, whenever that time comes for us. Now is the time, today is the hour, for us to be alert, wide awake, living and working always in the joyful assurance of his coming, attending faithfully to the work the Father has given each of us to do, and never letting ourselves be lulled to sleep by the careless and easy forgetfulness that this world would like to sell to us.