This sermon was prepared for and preached with Church of the Apostles, Kansas City (my home parish) in mind. I offer both the audio link and text here for any who may be inclined to listen/hear. I hope you find it to be an encouragement and blessing — all critiques and feedback welcome.
The human ability to adjust to our surroundings is unparalleled, a byproduct of both God’s design in creation and the faculties developed and nurtured through centuries of survival. The human eye is able to adjust to a dark room within 20-30 minutes. The process, known as “dark adaptation,” occurs as the cones and the rods in our eyes adjust to the lack of light, allowing us to gain a sort of night vision. According to Rafael Caruso, an investigator in the National Eye Institute’s Ophthalmic Genetics & Visual Function Branch in Bethesda, Md., “The human retina can perform its light-detection function in an astounding range of light intensities, from bright sunlight to dim starlight.” Athletes often train in higher altitudes in order to shock their systems with less oxygen, therefore requiring their bodies to adjust to the intentionally imposed stress and forcing them to thrive; this is particularly true for the world’s greatest runners and cyclists.
Similarly, researchers and thought leaders say it typically takes 30-40 days to form a new habit. Our bodies are able to adapt to a new diet, the engaging of regular exercise, or a new sleep pattern. The first 10 days are rough because you are essentially shocking your system by introducing something new. The next 10 days are the normalizing process during which you are learning to walk like a newborn foal; you have your legs underneath you but you are still wobbly, as it were. The last 10 days see you flourishing in your new practice so that by the time you hit that 30-40 day mark, you have put in a significant amount of hours and minutes in adopting the new practice, your body and mind have adjusted to the new thing, and you have now successfully incorporated it into your daily routine,…the success, however, is dependent upon one key principle:
You cannot start-stop your diet or your exercise on a daily basis and still achieve the same weight-loss results. Trust me, I’ve tried. You cannot save money for a season, then spend it all, and then save, and keep it up and still hope to retire with a fat bank account. Again, trust me, I’ve tried. In the words of the imposter Mad-Eye Moody, aka Barty Crouch Jr, you have to practice constant vigilance…you have to constantly be watching, working, pursuing the goal.
Today we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church’s calendar, and we begin to prepare our hearts and minds for the birth of Messiah. However, and this is a very big however based on the lessons for today, we cannot adequately reflect upon the First Advent of Jesus without also bearing in mind and thinking about his second Advent, that day when he comes in glory to judge, to reign and rule, to usher in his kingdom fully and finally. The lessons for today are focused on that second advent and thus prompt the question, “What do the two advents have in common and what do they mean for our daily lives?” and beg an answer that is at once both reflective and applicable.
So, we start. The passage from Isaiah is both prophetic and apocalyptic. Here we see an outline of the end times. There will be a day, says Isaiah, when the whole world will come to the city on a hill (Jerusalem) and there they will learn from God. Remember, Isaiah is writing during the reign of the kings of Israel. There have been good kings and bad kings. Before that there was the period of the judges when Israel was push-me-pull-me with her God. One might, just might say, that in the realm of covenantal faithfulness, Israel had not been practicing constant vigilance with any regularity…
This will be a time of peace, a time when the wars shall cease, and the swords are beaten into ploughshares. So powerful is this prophetic image that even the musical Les Misérables references it in its closing song citing the day when, “We will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord, we will walk behind the ploughshares, we will put away the sword, the chains will be broken and all men shall have their reward.” This is not a temporary cease-fire between warring nations, nor is it the promise of man-made world peace. We also know that Isaiah isn’t describing the first advent of Christ because when Jesus finally does come on to the scene, he both enters and leaves amidst fighting, wars, hostility, and pain. This is the day depicted by John in his revelation when there will be no more tears or crying or sorrow or pain or death, the day when the whole world resides with God…and don’t miss that key fact. This is not Israel’s future with YHWH, but the future of the whole world, the opening of covenant to Jews and Gentiles alike.
The Psalm also depicts this. What you need to bear in mind about Psalm 122 is that it is one of the Psalms of Ascent. Israel made pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for the great festivals. During this pilgrimage, those traveling along the road would sing the Psalms of Ascent. These Psalms ascend in two senses. First, Jerusalem is the city upon a hill, and one must ascend the hill to reach the city. The second is that thematically, these Psalms gradually ascend until reaching final crescendo in Psalm 134 when Israel proclaims:
1 Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
who minister by night in the house of the Lord.
2 Lift up your hands in the sanctuary
and praise the Lord.
3 May the Lord bless you from Zion,
he who is the Maker of heaven and earth.
We can see the theme of ascent from the beginning because Psalm 122 begins with, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD?’” Where is the house of the LORD? Jerusalem! Why would one be glad to go there? Because her life had been shaped and oriented around worshipping God. Israel made these pilgrimages tri-annually because she believed that worshipping YHWH in this manner, on these occasions, was an intimate part of her relationship with him. Despite Israel’s lack of constant vigilance, this festal worship was a regular reminder, a regular call to return to God and to joyful receive his compassion and forgiveness. It was an opportunity to step back into the bright light after days, weeks, months, or years of living spiritually with dark adaptation vision.
We come to Romans and Matthew and we get into this sticky matter of time. Who knows what time it is when the Son of Man will come again? Only the Father! Not even the Son knows the time of his parousia. Don’t worry, Jesus is still seated at the right hand of the Father, reigning and ruling over all things. When we read that the Son of Man doesn’t know the time this is a nod to Jesus’ incarnation and the fact that he was both fully God and fully man. It is in the humility of his humanity, just as the Collect suggests when it says, “now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility,” it is in this humility that the Son of Man does not know the time.
Jesus talks about other events that happened when no one was expecting them…Noah and the flood, two women working and two men working, and one is taken and the other is not. The point of these stories is not a retroactive marketing ploy to boost sales of Left Behind. Most commentators agree here that the point of these vignettes was to highlight the sudden and unexpected nature of Christ’s return rather than the manner of how it happened.
The real meat of these two passages, though, is when they begin highlighting the types of behaviors and actions we should be engaging in and/or abstaining from while we await his coming in glory. We are to give up smoking, drinking, chewing, and dating girls that do…seriously, drunkeness, licentiousness, sexual immorality. What if we added lying, stealing, cheating, dishonesty, judgmental thoughts, portraying a holier than thou persona on social media, hostility in relationships and friendships based on unmet expectations and hurts, pride of position, lack of humility …oh dear, I hope that list wasn’t too specific and uncomfortable 😉
Jesus describes the master of the house who keeps watch when he knows the hour of the thief coming to rob his house. If you knew that the burglar was coming to your house at 1:07am then of course you’d be ready. But what do you do when you don’t know the time or hour, the day or month, the minute or year? How does one adjust one’s life to include constant vigilance when considering an earth shattering even over which you have no control and for which you can only prepare but can never know the exact time?
But now we have finally come to the crux…what are we to do with these lessons about the second Advent when we are in fact gathered to celebrate the first coming of Messiah?
Jesus’ first advent was like a thief coming in the night. After Isaiah’s prophetic-apocalyptic vision of jubilee, Israel was exiled and conquered over and over again. She went 430 years without hearing a word from YHWH and then a little boy was born to parents with royal blood but no real position in the world. In Herod’s and Caesar’s backyards, men who believed themselves to be the sons of god, Jesus is born in the town of Bethlehem and his coming was only known to his poor, unwed mother, his father, the wise men, the shepherds, and of course the paranoid, bloodthirsty, and murderous Herod. He came quietly; the religious leaders expected a military and political leader to come and vanquish Rome, usher in the theocracy, and instead they/we received a humble king who rode into town on a donkey rather than a chariot and warhorse.
This season, we will sing songs about preparing our hearts to make room for Christ. This is not a sweet, poetic it of theological pander…there is actual work to be done here. Constant vigilance! To be vigilant is to be on the watch, to be alert and aware, to be ready and prepared. We cannot be lazy, distracted, slow, or negligent in our care and concern.
So, friends, I would like to take this opportunity to propose that we treat this Advent season as a mini-Lent. In Lent we take on disciplines and practices, while also giving up unnecessary stuff, in order to prepare for Easter Joy. Let us do the same thing during these four weeks as we prepare for Christmas joy. And, don’t worry, I have given you a list of 4 pairs: a discipline alongside something for you to give up. You have 25 days until Christmas to embrace and introduce a new habit to your life.
- Take on the discipline of reading the Daily Office and give up worrying about the future. The good news is that God is god and you are not. The bad news is that this will likely hurt your ego. Worrying about the future does nothing other than rob us of joy and energy in the present. The Daily Office will help you trust God by spending your time focusing on him instead of worrying about things outside of your control. This means people, places, things, events, acts of God, traffic patterns, money…
- Take on the discipline of abstinence and give up impulsivity. I am not talking about “that” kind of abstinence. Figure out the activities from which you ought to abstain: social media, gossip, speaking critically of others, lying, drinking, overeating, an obsession of self. Instead take on slower habits: reflection, thoughtfulness, prudence. Little good actually comes from impulsivity. Exercise restraint of pen and tongue—that is, don’t like your lips write a check you aren’t willing to cash—and think before you act. The goal is to become slow to anger and quick to love rather than quick to anger and slow to forget…
- Take on the discipline of daily confession and give up judging others. We cannot adequately prepare our hearts, minds, imaginations, and lifestyles if we have been unwilling to look into the darkest corners of our hearts. We typically judge others when we have unconfessed sin in our own lives. Set aside time every day to reflect and confess your sins to your Heavenly Father, not because he is a despot or task master, but because you truly desire absolution and remission of sin. Focus on yourself here and thereby stop focusing on the sins and shortcomings of others…
- Take on the discipline of sacrifice and give up self-serving endeavors. Let’s be honest and admit that the next month feels like Christmas instead of Advent, a focus on me instead of he. We will be pressed for time, money, and energy. This is the moment to shift our focus to others and give more than we have before. Find people to serve in discrete ways. More than anything, think on others instead of yourself. If you think about what you can achieve or get out of something it’s not the right thing.
We are not awaiting the thief to come in the night. While the second coming might be compared to a thief coming in the night, please remember that we are actually talking about the return of the King, the coming of the One who has a rightful claim to the throne and who will judge all things and put the world to rights. Jesus is coming, both King of kings and Lord of lords, and our call is to prepare our hearts for his return, even as we reflectively prepare to celebrate his birth once more. May we be found faithful and vigilant.