Last year, I kicked off the first Sunday of Advent with a quote from Julie Polter who described this season before Christmas as “the ending that is the beginning ...when we ponder the second coming of Jesus before we celebrate the first.”
I feel like we’ve spent the last few weeks pondering this beginning and ending as we looked through the lens of hope. And not just any hope, but hope that was born in the Bethlehem stable. A kind of Hope that not even death could defeat.
By definition, hope is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen...a wish, an ambition, or goal. Hope is experienced in many different ways. Fiona hopes she gets into the college of her dreams. Sean hopes to get a Nintendo Switch for Christmas. And Colleen hopes I won’tuse her as a sermon illustration. I don’t even want to know what my wife is hoping I will do today, because I was hoping to take a nap later on.
Which leads us to today’s scripture. Whenever we hope, we can assume that there will be a period of waiting. But what exactly are we waiting for? And how will we fill that time? These are questions to ponder as we look at Matthew 24:36-44.
Nothing like starting off the Christmas season with a story about the end of the world, and the end of humankind. But if we look at it honestly, we might see Jesus’ words are no different than a Hallmark Christmas movie, where something good always happens no matter how bad the situation might seem.
Recently we’ve talked about how prophetic and apocalyptic text are warnings for us. They are the flashing red lights and sirens that get our attention, designed to keep us on our toes. Matthew uses this technique to awaken us from our slumber.
He tells us that one day Jesus might appear like a thief in the night. We don’t know when that day or hour will come. We can’t mark it on our calendar or prepare for it beforehand. We just have to stay awake. For those who like to nap, this is a bit disconcerting.
So why does Jesus bring it up? Does he want us to be feel unsettled and anxious? Personally, I think that the fact Jesus isn’t telling us when that day will come, is actually very telling. Just as we overlook advent to get to Christmas, it’s easy to jump ahead and make faith only about the end goal- getting into heaven. We become so enamored with talking about spending eternity in the Kingdom of God that they forget Jesus said the kingdom of God has come.
Advent is not a time to simply wait for Christ to be born, or the resurrection to happen. Instead it’s a time to “Stay awake.” To be present and live intentionally, to see and do what Jesus does as if Jesus meant what he said. It’s a time, not just to ponder the first and second coming of Christ, but to be fully engaged with the Christ within us all until that day comes.
I love to tell the story of a Buddhist monk who is being chased by a very hungry tiger. Running as fast as he can the monk realizes he’s running straight towards a cliff. As the tiger gets closer and closer, the monk searches for an escape. He sees a long vine dangling from a tree over the cliff. The monk jumps and grabs hold of the vine and begins to shimmy down just before the tiger can pounce.
But as fate would have it, the vine wasn’t as long as the monk had hoped. And when he looked down there were sharp, jagged rocks about 1,500 feet below. Letting go of the rope would be certain death. As would climbing back up.
So the monk looked for another escape plan. And that’s when he saw a small ledge on the side of the cliff. On that small ledge was a patch of soft, dewy grass. Growing from a crag in the rocks was a small strawberry bush. And on that bush rested a fresh red, ripe strawberry.
The monk reached out and plucked the strawberry off its branch, and brought it up to his nose and inhaled its goodness. It was the best thing he had ever smelled. He savored that moment before he took a bite and enjoyed its sweetness.
There was something about that strawberry that made heart sang with joy. In that moment he was fully alive. Had he only focused on what was to come, the sharp jagged rocks below, or on his past where the tiger waited, he never would have seen the gift God had placed in his path to savor. Jesus says, “stay alert.”
“When we are too focused on heaven as the only place of beauty and goodness,” writes Jazzy Bostock, “we run the risk of not only ignoring the beauty and goodness of the world but also our responsibility to it.”
A life of faith need not be focused on the world to come but on how to remain faithful in this one – the one God gave as our mandate to love and care for. It’s here in this world, in this place and in this time that we find that red ripe strawberry to savor.
If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my blog, you know that I spent each day of November getting to know someone new. Afterward I quickly wrote about the experience. What you may not know is I didn’t take notes, or record the conversations. Instead I listened to what they had to say. In doing so, I learned something new about myself: I could remembered their story, their quotes, and the small facts about who they were and where they were from, simply because we shared a moment. Their story became a part of my own story.
Moreover, I discovered this simple act allowed a young man named Matt to cry with a total stranger. It helped Dan to confess something before going home to make amends to his wife. It gave Bill, an elderly vet who I continue to run into, a friend to talk to in the park. And it helped Gerry and Victoria to take sting out of a bad situation.
We may not know the day or hour, but we do know that at any given second Jesus will appear around the corner, suddenly like a hungry person, or a neighbor in need of help, or a friend who is sick, or someone we love who is in a broken or toxic relationship. People around us are suffering in many different ways. They are worrying about climate change, gun violence, and fearing what is to come out of this political mess we’re in.
Jesus doesn’t tell us when the day is coming, because today there is work to be done. When we focus only on the world to come, we lose sight of the task God has called us to do right now.
“Jesus is offering us an invitation into the world we are already in – an invitation to this world, to this time and place” (Bostock). As messy as this place might seem, it’s precisely in this space we find our hope, our strength, our grace, our salvation.
Here’s the best part about it all. We don’t need to be perfect, just present. We don’t need to hide from our messiness to participate in this season. John Pavlovitz calls us to,“bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. This is where we notice beauty, move with compassion, and have grace revealed.” Jesus calls us to ready ourselves to leave this world by truly living in it, by soaking up every grace-filled moment and savoring its sweetness. To actively wait for both the birth and rebirth of Christ that is happening all around us, right now.
If you’re only sitting around waiting for God’s kingdom to come, then you’re missing what God’s Kingdom is all about - a kingdom where Heaven and Earth are one. In the race to get to Christmas morning, the season of Advent can come and go without notice. So I invite you to take the time to be in a spirit of wakefulness and watchfulness. And to make yourself God’s Christmas gift for those around you.
Jesus is coming at an unexpected hour – it might be in this moment or it might be on Christmas Eve, we don’t know. But what we do know is what we can do while we wait. And that’s to make heaven happen for someone today. It might be in the most outstanding act of charity or the simplest act of compassion. It may be in our our daily busyness or in our quiet moments.
As we kick off advent, we do so with gratitude that Jesus makes us sit and ponder what is to come. In doing so, Jesus is giving us the time we need to simply be in the moment where life is happening in real time. He is giving us this day to see Christ in our midst, in the stories of strangers and friends alike…and he’s giving us the time to love them as if we were loving Jesus himself.
Not knowing when the day or hour will come is a gift for us. It’s the time we need to look around and see those red ripe strawberries that are growing wildly all around us, to pick them and to savor every bite of goodness, as we wait the goodness and the greatness that is to come.
Let us pray.
Loving and generous God, you have given us so many great reasons to be alive in the moment. As we move forward in our day, take our burdens into your heart and redeem them; take our fears and transform them, and make this step we are taking to be in line with the steps of Christ who walks before us, behind us, and beside us until the day your full glory is revealed. For it is in his name we pray. Amen.
Bostock, Jazzy. No One Knows. episcopalchurch.org. (Accessed Nov. 27, 2019).
Pavlovitz, John. Low: An Honest Advent Devotional. (Chalice Press: 2019) Kindle edition.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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